There has been much negative talk recently about the top 1% on the economic ladder. I do not hesitate to add my voice to the chorus of complaint against those “greedy bastards.” How can someone not be satisfied with 4 billion in the bank account?
Before I get too carried away, however, with my righteous condemnations, I would like to ask myself how complicit I am in the creation of this climate of Greed. In my experience, when I find myself highly critical of a person or a group, I often find the very thing I despise lurking in the shadowy corners of my life. Admittedly, I am typing this essay on the latest generation of IPad, and I am an avid consumer of the latest news coming out of Apple’s orchard. I will probably ditch this baby when the next gadget hits the market. Does this make me greedy? I’m not sure right now, but maybe with the help of some old friends, I can write myself closer to understanding.
Let’s start with Plato. In the first book of the Republic, Plato sets up a fascinating debate between Socrates and a hard-nosed realist named Thrasymachus. Socrates had been going on about what it means to be Good and Just, and finally Thrasymachus loses patience with philosophical ideals and points to the real world. He comes very close to saying that nice guys finish last. He fleshes this out by saying that good and just people are rule followers who don’t think for themselves and that they are weak and ineffective in their own lives. For the most part, he concludes, good people are miserably unhappy, anticipating Thoreau by 2000 years.
Actually, I think Socrates would agree that many “good” people are fearful and mindless rule followers. But he is looking for a deeper, richer meaning. Thrasymachus has characterized the unjust person as voracious in his desire for unlimited power and goods, and as a master at obtaining these things. Greed is a good thing, he says. Greed is the quality of winners.
Socrates, however, sees Greed as the height of foolishness. It is not so much immoral in the modern sense, as much as it embodies a fool’s vision of life. A moment’s thought tells us that greed yields constant dissatisfaction. I read in the paper this morning where an economist says that people want money for their peace of mind. But the inability to say “I have enough” renders contentment impossible. Greed makes the very thing that money could provide ineffective. We might say it is an existential oxymoron.
But for Socrates, the absence of the word “enough” from our vocabulary is literally an ugly thing. It lacks class. Living, for him, is an art, and as in any art, there are masters and hacks. Greed is the hallmark of the hack.
Here, as in many places, Plato creates a powerful analogy between the art of living and the art of music. He has Socrates point to the art of tuning a stringed instrument.
If all the strings are loose and I tighten them a bit, they sound better. A fool might think that if a little tightening is good, tighter and tighter will be better. Of course, this is silly, but there is a marvelous point here. The idea is that in the arts there is a point of rightness. The strings are tightened to just the right place where the instrument is brought into harmony. This requires a good and sensitive ear. Too tight, too loud, too much of anything tarnishes the beauty of music, and it tarnishes the beauty of life.
Mary Oliver speaks of being enthralled by the morning song of a migrating Thrush which had moved on by nightfall. That is ok, she says. While not enough makes for a poor life, “too much is, well, too much. Imagine Verdi or Mahler every day, all day. It would exhaust anyone.”
In Buddhism, the Noble Eightfold Path lists Right Thought, Right Aspiration, Right Speech, etc. The word “right” is interesting here. A Western mind might hear the application of a rule, but the Japanese kanji tells a different story. It is made up of two characters, “stop” and “one:” that is, “stop here.” This is the same meaning Plato is pointing to in the Republic: there is a place of beauty where the tensions of life are in balance. Aristotle echoes this idea when he says that Virtue stands in the middle between excess and defect.
It seems to me that unbridled capitalism is based on the rejection of the idea of “enough.” I used to ask my students what they would think if the Dean offered me a big raise, and I told him thanks but I have enough. They found that action inconceivable. Yet, what is enough? Surely it is different for everyone, but isn’t there a limit?
These reflections have not brought me to an answer, but they have made clear to me the importance of asking myself what is enough money, food, or possessions for me to live a vital, beautiful, and vigorous life. Perhaps simply bringing consciousness to my consumption may avert some of the ugly unbalanced effects of greed. Lao Tsu says this beautifully:
As it acts in the world, the Tao
is like the bending of a bow.
The top is bent downward,
the bottom is bent up.
It adjusts excess and deficiency
so that there is perfect balance.
It takes from what is too much
and gives to what isn’t enough.
Those who try to control,
who use force to protect their power,
go against the direction of the Tao.
They take from those who don’t have enough,
and give to those who have too much.