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Greed, Desire, and Anomie


Greed, Desire and Anomie – 9/01/02
Thomas Paine Unitarian Universalist Fellowship – Jonathan Black

We are in difficult times these days. I think that with the uneasy stock market, daily news of people being indicted and arrested, trials starting, the question of greed is and has been on our minds for a while. Certainly its been on my mind and that was really the origin of this service; it is based on reflections which I’ve had over the last several months about the question of greed and desire and some related subjects.

I think I’ll start with something we all understand:

Gluttony – one of the seven deadly or cardinal sins. It was first placed in that list by St. Gregory the Great in the 6th Century; but most of what we think and know about the seven deadly sins comes from the extended commentaries of Thomas Aquinas in 13th. Century. Aquinas pointed out that each of these seven deadly sins, of which gluttony is the 5th[1], are wrong, each in itself, but more importantly, what makes them really wrong is that they lead to more mortal, moral offenses. They are, as we would say today, “gateway drugs.”

Gluttony is fairly simply defined as consuming, originally eating but later drinking or other forms of consumption, to excess, not just to excess, but to wretched excess.

But it’s such an attractive sin, because, compared to sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll,

  • can be indulged in far more often – 2, 3, 4, 5 times a day.
  • is social rather than private – yes, there are secret gluttons, but it’s normally an exhibition, indulged in public.
  • kills slowly rather than quickly –you can have a long career as a glutton!
    And gluttony has much more foreplay: shopping, advertising, restaurant reviews, cooking channel, demonstrations, cookbooks, barbeques, tailgating, etc.

We are a society besotted with alimentary, that is culinary, gluttony: For the first time in human history, politics, not war or natural disaster, is the proximate cause of hunger; here in America the poor are over weight and we have come to say, in approbation, “one can never be too rich or too thin!” It used to be a sign of wealth that a man could afford a fat wife. Now a sign of wealth is that a man can afford a thin wife. Or perhaps a woman can afford a thin husband! Even many of our young are overweight.

Now I don’t want to make light of eating disorders. One of the things which has come with this gluttony and our contemporary attitudes about food has been a wide range of eating disorders: anorexia, bulimia, binging and purging. I know about this fairly personally, because Toni and I have a very sweet daughter in law who has been suffering and struggling with anorexia now for nearly a decade. It’s a dreadful disease.

Simply put, if we think about gluttony, as Neil Postman would say,
“We got what we wanted but lost what we had.”

We got freedom from want, from starvation, but, in our gluttony, we’ve lost much of the simple pleasures of food and its eating.

Gluttony is a form of greed and seems linked fairly directly with the greed shown by some in business and government which leads, as Aquinas suggested it might, to individual and institutional moral corruption.

So what is going on which is wrong today is not just greed itself but what greed leads to and that’s a moral corruption of lying and stealing and cheating.

But having made that observation, one needs to ask, as Gordon Gecko famously was in the movie “Wall Street”, is greed good? Of course, Gordon answered that greed is good!

I don’t think that greed is good but desire, which is the root of greed, is good!

It’s desire gets us up and gets us going each day. It is desire, rather than love, which makes the world go round. If there were no desire, there’d be no impetus to do anything at all!

What do we desire?

It’s worth going back and looking at what the highest values of the Founding Fathers’ were. And I’ll remind you that their highest aim for all of us, the reason for the formation of this country and of this nation, was to ensure the gifts of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all of us.
Well, let’s talk about each of these a bit:

It seems to me that we have forgotten the basic contract which our parents entered into on behalf of each of us:
We are born, we grow up, we bask in the brief sunny mid day of our lives and then we decline and die.

As a culture, the American culture, we have rejected death and replaced the goal of a good life, well lived, which has been a traditional goal of human cultures, with not just a quest for eternal life but for eternal youth. Of all the values in American society today, youth and its healthy appearance appears to be the highest.

And there are many, many hallmarks which support this view.

Take health insurance for instance, which isn’t health insurance at all, it’s illness insurance. In insurance against illness, we spend billions and billions of dollars trying to insure against something which will happen to 100% of us. Now you can’t do that!. The basic premise of insurance is to spread risk. You cannot spread risk when everybody will experience the risk. Automobile accident insurance works because few of us have accidents. Fire insurance works because few of us have houses which burn down. But we will all be ill, sooner or later.

And we are really so pleased to be ill! There was a recent newspaper article in which someone had sat down and tried to calculate, based on all the syndromes, illnesses and disorders and the statistics of the societies which support them, adding up all the sufferers of each illness or syndrome. Some of these are real, I won’t begrudge that, but when you add them up and divide by the American population, you find that each of us, here, have at least 20 disorders! Twenty! 2- 0! It seems like a remarkable number for a culture that focuses on eternal youth

And we treat these disorders with pills. You have only to turn on television, or open the newspaper and see that there is a pill to cure everything, from falling hair to yellow toenails and everything in between. This, to take a slight aside, is the real source of our drug culture. It’s not the prevalence of heroin, or cocaine or marijuana. It’s the prevalence of the idea that you can fix things with a pill. Now you can fix some things, there’s no question. Diabetics clearly need insulin. And there’s good chemotherapy for cancer – many in this fellowship have benefited from that. But there are so many things which happen to us in everyday life which cannot be fixed with a pill.

We have for instance, perhaps as many as 6 million of our children on chronic medication for the simple “illness” of “hyper activity.” That seems somehow wrong.

Then there’s recreational plastic surgery: face lifts, tummy tucks, beast and buttock enlargement, rearrangement, liposuction. We seem to be treating a non-existent disorder here!

And let’s not forget the BoTox parties, where you can now go, and, in a social setting, get your wrinkles taken away. And your muscles paralyzed.

What this all adds up to is that most of the health care we spend our money on is not health care at all.

And the biggest expense of all: 40%, 40 cents of every one of every dollar of “health care,” is spent on dying in hospital.

Bette Midler, in her signature song, “The Rose,” has a wonderful line which keeps coming back to me: “The soul afraid of dying, never learns to live.”

The Journal of the American Medical Association proposed that one of the great victories of 20th cen. medicine has been to convert sudden death into slow death.

We got what we wanted but lost what we had.
We got the illusion of eternal youth but have forgotten about the good death.

We were built on liberty. We are fostered in liberty. In 1776, a bunch of revolutionaries had the brilliant idea that it was possible to govern and to be governed without king as head of state and head of church

We did not step away from that radical rejection. The hundred year period from the beginning of the Civil War to the ’60s saw the end of American slavery and the beginning, if not completion, of the restoration of rights to both non-whites and women.

But then came the ‘60s, when the mantra was “Trust no one over 30.” You may remember that, some of you were over 30 then. There was a drive for absolute freedom without responsibility or standards or respect for tradition. Moral relativism was the flavor of the day. One of the favorite phrases of the young, and I was young in the ‘60s, was “If it feels good, do it.” It seemed to me that it became the highest standard of conduct.

The result was freedom with irresponsibility and a decay of social institutions.
Winston Churchill remarked, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph, is for good men to do nothing.”

One of the consequences of the ‘60s was personal withdrawal from society. There’s a wonderful recent book called Bowling Alone[2] which chronicles the decline of social activities in this country; in particular, the title comes from the observation, that while there used to be bowling teams and bowling leagues, now people go bowling in pairs or alone. Declining civic involvement has become general: we see it in ever falling rates of voting in elections.

We got what we wanted, freedom, liberty; but lost what we had.
We got personal freedom but lost our social order.

To pursue happiness is to have dreams, to have desires and to be able, at least in part, to realize them.

Emile Durkheim was a French intellectual, born in 1858, died in 1917. He is often thought of as the father of modern, scientific sociology. He is best known for his efforts to introduce the scientific method into sociology, which is the study of human society, its development and institutions and its problems, such as poverty, crime and injustice. He wrote several important works, perhaps the best known of which is his monumental study of the causes and consequences of suicide.

And he is known for coining the word “anomie”.

Anomie is the condition when social norms or standards are confused, unclear or absent; when individual and group desires become unrestrained, unreasonable and unobtainable, leading to depression and despair: in the individual, to suicide; in marriages, to divorce; in societies, to social breakdown, suffering and revolution.

When there are no limits on ones’ dreams and aspirations, one cannot sense progress towards them.

Durkheim said: “To pursue a goal which by definition is unobtainable is to condemn oneself to perpetual unhappiness.” Durkheim observed that anomie is furthered by industrialization, by growing social and economic diversity, by loss of shared goals and increased alienation and individual isolation.

You older folks, remember your youth:
There was a time when people used to:

  • read the same books (and talk about them)
  • see the same movies (and talk about them)
  • and when television came, watch the same TV shows (and talk about them).

I remember vividly in my youth when television came to my neighborhood: we never had a television set but all the other kids watched “Gunsmoke.” That seemed to be the only show they watched, and they would talk about that one show and I, of course, was left out because I hadn’t watched it. But I do remember the social cohesion which they had.

We worshipped together in local communities, we ate similar meals on festive occasions and we shared in common ceremonies. There was a definable “American Culture.”

In the pre 1960s, we used to speak of the “melting pot.”
In the post 1960s, we speak now of the “patchwork quilt.”
We have replaced the idea of community with that of demographic group, and the groups are sliced and diced ever finer and smaller.

The English Book of Common Prayer teaches us: “We have done those things we ought not to have done, we have left those things we ought to do, undone. There is no health in us.”


  • Many of the young have no hope and see no future.
  • Many of the old are sorrowful and full of regret.
  • Many parents of the young, the in between generation, for the first time since such polls began to be taken, do not think that their children will have a better life than they themselves have.

Anomie stalks the streets.
And it is tapping on the front door.

We got what we wanted, but we lost what we had.

Joni Mitchell, put it rather more poetically, in the song The Big Yellow Taxicab:
“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

But she is wrong, wrong, wrong!

This, here and now, is paradise enough, if we only have the strength of mind and spirit to make it so.

Now I’ve been fairly negative so far and I would be remiss if I didn’t give you some positive hints.

So, here are some of the things we can do:

Rightly know, as our first hymn[3] teaches, that:
“Joy and woe are woven fine…under every grief and pine runs joy like a silken twine.”

This is not a new or novel idea, for in the words of Ecclesiastes (3):1,4: “To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: …A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance.”

We must accept the good with the bad; not look for a pill or a recipe, for a new improved, instant cure for all the troubles that ail us, physically or spiritually.

Tomorrow will be another day and, as my mother was fond of saying, “It’s not what you have, but what you do with it, that counts.” And I would amend that by saying: “What you choose to do with it.”

For we are offered, each day, at every moment, choices and opportunities; we each live a life contingent upon possibilities and the acts of others but we are always free to choose, both what we do and how we feel about it.

One of the things we can choose to do is to be simple: not stupid, not ascetic or pride fully self-deprived, but simple in our choices, so as the second hymn[4] teaches,
“We come down where we ought to be. Turning, turning, until true simplicity is gained and our joy will be to come out just right, in the valley of love and delight.”

The key to true simplicity, leading to joy, love and delight and avoiding the sadness and depression of anomie, is to be found more clearly, I believe, in the teachings of Hillel than in those of Jesus.

Jesus taught, what we call “the Golden Rule,” in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do on to others as you would have them do onto you.” But this leads to an impossible, unobtainable personal goal: to reform the world to one’s own moral vision; to produce a community, no matter how large or how small, in which others do to you what you wish to have done, as if they were part and parcel of your own spirit or will.
This is impossible.
This is unobtainable.
This is even unapproachable; a sure fire recipe for anomie.

A century earlier than Jesus, Hillel who did care deeply for others, taught, “If I am not for others, what am I?” But more importantly, he defined the essence of Torah, thus: “That which is hateful to you, do not do onto your neighbor.” He taught also, “If I am not for myself, who will be?”

To weigh each act and desire, to avoid doing and being what is hateful to yourself, is an instantly attainable goal for each of us.

True simplicity can be gained through practicing genugheit, enough ness: having enough, doing enough and being fully mindful of thought and act. That is, through emphasizing the quality, rather than the quantity, of life. In Hillel’s spirit, being for your own self in non-hateful, non-coercive ways and thus, through precept and example, becoming a light and a beacon for others.

The idea of enough ness is that of the middle way, the Greek golden mean: make a virtue of neither deprivation nor of gluttony but find a simple satisfaction in small things, fully realized, fully experienced.

Remembering my mother again: In times of crisis or confusion, she would say: “What I need is a good cuppa tea.” And she’d make us each a good cup of tea and we’d settle down and enjoy it and then everything looked a whole lot better!

We need to act and think thus in our own lives, in our community here at Thomas Paine, in the larger local, national and world communities we are a part of.

Taking, living the middle way, the moderate way, is a conservative idea. We should not be caught up in labels, in speaking pejoratively or dismissively of the liberal or of the conservative.

However, it is good to look deeper into the definition of conservatism: the state of being moderate, of avoiding extremes, of rejecting sudden or extreme change. Conservativism, of which genugheit, enough ness, is an attribute, does not oppose change but favors evolutionary change over revolutionary change. It favors preservation and renovation over opposition, demolition and pursuit of novelty for its own sake. It requires looking at, carefully and mindfully examining, all that we each do and we each believe in and asking, in each case:

  • What of this is good?
  • What of this is hateful to me?
  • What can I do to save the good and discard the bad?

And when should we do this?

In Hillel’s words, again: “If not now, when?”

If not now, when?

Blessed be.

[1] The “extra credit” answer: The seven deadly sins are: pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth.
[2] Robert Putman: Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
[3] Every Night and Every Morn, Singing the Living Tradition, #17.
[4] ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple, Singing the Living Tradition, #16.