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Avarice versus Greed
Bosch's The Seven Deadly Sins
L'Avare --The Miser
Video Clip of L'Avare
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Avarice and greed are often used as interchangeable synonyms, with greed having the higher frequency of use and avarice appearing only rarely. However, if you look at the finer distinctions in their connotations and their etymology, you will find that they describe completely different mindsets.
Now, you won't find this distinction explained in most dictionaries, and you can forget about getting the Catholic Church to recognize the difference between the two. In fact, maybe I am the only one who makes this distinction. So bear with me while I explain.
To me, avarice is a word that means "miserliness". If you are avaricious, you behave a little like Harpagon in Moliere's L'Avare. You just can't bear to be parted from your money. Avaricious people refuse to consume, even when they could and possibly should. They are like anorexics who have a refrigerator full of food, but refuse to eat.
Greed, on the other hand, is a close sister to gluttony. People who are greedy try to get money because they are addicted to spending money. Sometimes they even try to get it unfairly.
By my defintion, avarice is a very strong desire to hold on to what is already yours, even to the point of living in a state resembling poverty when you have plenty of money saved away. Greed refers to the extremely strong desire to acquire more, even to the point of taking it unlawfully from others.
In the current financial crisis, those who have savings, if they insist on holding onto what they have and maintaining its value, might be labeled avaricious by those who oppose this policy. We have been encouraged to spend money for the sake of the economy. People who have money but don't spend it are setting themselves up for an accusation of avarice.
On the other side of the same coin, those who haven't got any money, because they spent it all, and are now asking for government sponsored handouts, are open to an accusation of greed.
Now I know that many people believe that moderation in all things is the best path. One should be neither an anorexic nor a glutton for optimal health. But if you had to choose, which is your vice? Avarice or Greed?
And here's an even more interesting question. Which is best for the country as a whole? Avarice or Greed? While you are pondering that, ask yourself this: which vice is best for Planet Earth? Avarice or Greed?
The Entire Text of the play by Moliere
Avarice -- a grievous but not a mortal sin
- CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Avarice
The inordinate love for riches
Where I got the definition of Avarice
Where, you may ask, did I come up with this completely idiosyncratic definition of avarice? Well, when I first started writing this hub, I thought my definition was the standard one. That's what I understood avarice to mean. The difference between avarice and greed was obvious to me. Then I started looking it up and found that none of the dictionaries supported my view of the matter. Finally, in despair I tried my old Petit Larousse. Here's what it said:
AVARICE [avaris] n.f. (lat. avaritia). Attachement excessif aux richesses.
"Excessive attachment to wealth." Not desire to get more wealth, but the unwillingness to part with what you've got. See, I didn't make that up. I just had the wrong language.
Anyway, I think avarice sounds so much better than miserliness. So bear with me. Etymologically, at least, I'm right.
Motivations for Avarice and Greed
People's choice of avarice or greed is never made in a vacuum. It may depend on the history of their lives or the society they live in. It may also depend on their most basic inclinations, talents and pleasures.
Some people enjoy productive work, not because they expect to be paid for it, but because they feel a compulsion to engage in it. They may be gardeners or painters or people who are very much into animal husbandry. They could be writers or pilots, singers, composers or craftsmen.They could be scientists or seamstresses. They could be auto mechanics or baseball players, horsemen or fishermen. Whatever their area of interest in life, what they chiefly need and want is time. Time to do their own thing. For these people, money equals time. The less they spend, the more time they can milk out of every dollar so that they won't be forced to do something they don't like to do.
Now occasionally one of these people actually gets a job where he or she is paid to do what they like. However, often conflicts with the employer crop up concerning how the work is to be done. Employers who try to motivate this type of employee only by means of a salary find that they don't get the results they want. Because of this, many employers prefer workers who are motivated primarily by greed.
To someone with a vocation, true pleasure comes from the work, and working for anything but pleasure is experienced as pain. Because of this, such people try to live frugally, and their vice of choice is avarice.
On the other hand, there are people who don't have a favorite line of work and for whom work is chiefly a way to get money. For them, the joy in money is the ability to spend it. No sooner is it spent than they need more money. It's a never ending cycle, and some people call it the business cycle.
For a very long time now, our economy has been fueled by greed, and avarice has been frowned upon.
If you haven't guessed till now, I'll confess: my vice of choice is avarice.
Coexistence and Cooperation between Avarice and Greed
Both avarice and greed can be effective motivators. In a free economy people motivated primarily by greed can exist side by side with people motivated primarily by avarice and everybody can be happy. Some people will simply do whatever pays the most, and their choice of occupation will be determined by supply and demand. Some people will insist on doing everything their own way, and they will be willing to live more frugally, when doing things their own way is not in high demand.
Yes, occasionally some of these self-motivated people will hit the jackpot and find that what they like to do is suddenly in demand, and then they can be well compensated. Occasionally, when things are not going so well, even the people who are willing to do anything for a buck will find that their earnings aren't so high. The ratio of people motivated by avarice to people motivated by greed will fluctuate, and these fluctuations will create ripples in the marketplace
In an economy that is not entirely free, the market can be skewed in the direction of either avarice or greed by means of government intervention. In the United States, the following measures have been put into effect to give greed the upper hand over avarice:
Government Sponsored Measures to Promote Greed and Discourage Avarice
- Corporations were granted limited liability so that large business entities could control large amounts of capital without being responsible for damage caused to others. This encouraged investment and discouraged savings.
- Money was not allowed to be indexed against anything of permanent value, like gold or silver.
- Wages were given a minimum below which they were not allowed to drop.
- Employers therefore had to pass the extra outlay onto consumers, because they couldn't act like Harpagon and try to pay their employees less.
- Because consumer prices went higher, other employees, who earned above the minimum wage to begin with, began to bargain for higher wages to compensate themselves for what they lost in purchasing power.
- Every time an employer had to pay any employee more, this was again passed to the consumer, and again the consumer, who was an employee himself, asked for more money. This created an endless cycle of inflation.
- Lenders were prohibited from charging a high enough interest rate for money so as to keep up with this inflation.
- People depositing money in the bank lost value, so it seemed that the only way to maintain value was to invest in something else.
- People invested in stocks, real estate, and other specualtive ventures in the hopes of not losing their savings.
- Taxes, at the local, state and Federal levels kept going up, but as long as people kept trying to make more money, there was some hope for them to make up the difference.
- People worked longer and longer hours in order to earn money that was worth less and less.
- Because people who were motivated by the love of their work could not be bought, they were not promoted, and less and less was produced by the companies who employed all these wage-earners who were working only for money.
What would the alternative have looked like? What would a country that promoted avarice be like? More people would be independent. They could be, because no matter how poor they were when they were born, they could save money from their earnings to buy themselves freedom from wage slavery. Fewer houses would be built, because people would not have access to easy credit, but more older houses would be refurbished. Fewer trees would be cut down. Fewer forests would be denuded.
There would be less business, but what business there was would be sound. People would buy things only after serious deliberation. They would make quality products that lasted a long time, and these products would be costly, but they would be worth it. If you couldn't afford to buy something made by someone else, you could always make it yourself. There would be less mass production, and people would make less money, but the money would be worth more and its value would be stable. People could afford to build up a nest egg for retirement.
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What makes a Person Prefer Greed or Avarice
Are greedy people and avaricious people born that way? Can they change? Can they be motivated to alter their behavior? You bet. We are not all equally set in our ways. We have conflicting motivations, and we can be induced to take a different road when presented with a different set of circumstances. Many people who are motivated by greed today have chosen this path, because, given the government interventions that I listed before, avarice didn't pay and greed did.
Anytime someone proposes a measure to "stimulate the economy", what is really involved is setting things up so that not spending money doesn't pay. More and more people are induced to adopt the lifestyle of greed and to give up avarice.
What is the lifestyle of greed? It means working for a living all the time and trying to spend as much money as possible. For some people this is easy, because they can't imagine not having a job. In fact, if they don't have a job, they can't find enough things to do. They get bored. They need someone to fill their days with activity and fill their bank account with money they can spend till the next paycheck. These people are happier when they are in debt. They feel strangely out of sorts if they're not. For them debt is not a terrible burden, but rather a way to find meaning and purpose in life.
Others really suffer when they are forced to live in an economy that promotes greed, because their avarice is so ingrained that they can't change to help themselves. They can see that things will work better for them if they just go with the flow, but they can't.
Unfortunately, people are trapped by the majority in whatever system seems to please the most people. We can't all be happy all the time, and this is the era of greed. It's all just a matter of preference, right?
Well, not completely. There is one other important factor that needs to be considered: depletable resources.
The Economy and the Environment
Like all other animals, man has a habitat. We live in the real world on a planet of finite proportions. This planet is full of valuable resources, many of which are renewable if properly managed, but some of which are depletable and, once consumed, will not be replenished.
What are some of the depletable resources? Coal, petroleum, natural gas. Gold and silver. Can you think of anything else? How about land?
Any economy is based on two things: (1) natural resources and (2) human effort and ingenuity. An economy that promotes avarice will conserve natural resources and encourage human effort and human creativity. An economy that promotes greed is going to grind on until it consumes all the depletable resources, and then it will have to stop.
So the bottom line is: greed is not sustainable as a primary motivation for an entire society. Avarice is.
Or, to be less dramatic, one might say this: avarice is an important ingredient in any functional economy.
The Solution: A Balance Created by the Marketplace
I don't actually believe that all people can be divided into two categories, nor do I believe that avarice is always best and that greed is never good. I intentionally used the names of two vices, rather than the name of a virtue and the name of vice. I could have said it was thrift versus greed, for instance, but that would have made it seem that one motivation is always good and the other is always bad. I don't believe that. It takes all kinds to make a world, and greed wouldn't exist if it didn't serve a useful purpose.
If it weren't for greed, we couldn't get anybody to do any work that is not creative. We would have all chiefs and no indians. It's good that some people are willing to do what other people ask them to do in return for money. It's also good that there are other people who will not do anything for money, unless they think it is right. It takes both kinds to make an economy run.
So the fact of the matter is that we're not dealing with two vices here: both greed and avarice are virtues. In a free economy, they would balance out naturally, and things would not get out of hand.
Money would maintain its value and some work would always get done, but we would not all feel we had to work all the time until we used up all our resources.
It's not us versus them. It's us versus us. If we could just stop for a minute and realize that, we could bring everything into balance.
Which vice is best
Which vice is best for planet Earth?
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