“Keep your life free from love of money and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you,” is a line from The Bible’s Hebrews 13:5. Hebrews is a letter to the Hebrews by Paul the Apostle in the New Testament. Paul is writing about one of the seven deadly sins, greed. Greed has been argued to be one of the most horrid sins, but it is only the fourth circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno. Needless to say, there is a discussion to be had around the importance of self-interest, but there is a fine line between greed and self-interest. This paper will analyze the difference between greed and self-interest, and how greed is demonstrated in Dante’s Inferno and played out in American culture to boot.
The Seven Deadly Sins have a long history of being intertwined with the Christian faith, but they were not originally equated with the “lucky number seven.” Evagrius Pontus, a Greek monk and theologian, initially documented eight offenses in the 4th century. He argued that the eight offenses were ranked in severity against the “self” (“History”). Initially, they went from gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia (sloth), vain, glory, and pride. In the 6th Century, Pope Gregory I turned the eight offenses into the seven sins. He ranked their severity based on their actions against love. In order, they were: pride, envy, anger, sadness, avarice, gluttony, and lust (“History”). In the 13th century, right around when Dante would write his Divine Comedy, Saint Thomas Aquinas would revitalize the seven deadly sins into what people know today as pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. He also argued there were seven virtues to combat each sin, and these were humility, charity, chastity, gratitude, temperance, patience, and diligence (“History”).
Matthew Clements, the author of “Self-interest vs. greed and the limitations of the invisible hand,” defines greed as “self-interest to the extreme or at other’s expense” (Clements, 952). On NPR’s “Ted Radio Hour,” Dave Meslin argues that self-interest is what pulls people out of apathy, the sloth of the sins. Meslin claims that if society wants to see people make active changes, then society must tell others that it is in one’s best interest to do anything that will make a change, whether it be to vote, to make money, or even to revolt (Zomorodi). However, Nick Hanauer continued after Meslin on the show, and he expanded on the sin of greed and the idea of self-interest. He stated, “greed is a sin because humans are social creates, and they simply cannot survive with the opposite of greed, which is cooperation (Zomorodi). Hanauer is now a billionaire after selling the tech company he built from the ground up, highlighting how he was a successful businessman who focused on success. Clements writes, “markets composed of self-interested agents tend to generate efficient outcomes” (Clements, 949). Self-interested people will gravitate towards success and money. Hanauer explains that these people are focused on status, and he explains the only reason to have a 300-foot boat is because it is bigger than the 200-foot boat a competitor has. This mindset is why some people thrive in a sales position, and for others, it is their worst nightmare. However, there is a fine line between greed and self-interest, and when that becomes a slippery slope is when people hoard their wealth.
Saint Thomas Aquinas argued that charity is the antithesis of greed. Valerie Karras provides two examples of theologians that would support this argument. She reviews works by Clement of Alexandria and John Chrysostom. The men argue that self-interest and wealth are not the sins themselves. Instead, when someone does not share that wealth is when it develops into the sin of greed. Karras writes, “charitable giving is demanded of Jesus” (Karras, 50). Karras argues that Clement means, “if no one has anything that would be left to give” (Karras, 49). She continues by explaining John Chrysostom’s stance on greed and wealth. Karras contextualizes that Chrysostom argues that wealth is not private, but rather “it belongs to God and is simply held in trust by the wealthy for the benefit of the poor” (Karras, 51). This idea from Chrysostom that God is renting out wealth to people as a means to help the poor correlates to Virgil’s message about Fortune. “Now you can see, my son, how brief’s the sport/of all those goods that are in Fortune’s care,/for which the tribe of men contend and brawl;” (Inf.VII, 61-63). Virgil personifies Fortune as the errand runner of wealth and goods. Fortune shifts the wealth around from time to time to keep them humbled. “ guide to shift, from time to time, those empty goods/from nation to nation, clan to clan/…just so, one people rules, one languishes,” (Inf.VII, 79-80, 82). Virgil acknowledged that people were not sharing the wealth, a huge reason they are now in the 4th circle of hell.
Fortune and God blessed people with wealth in an attempt to make everyone prosperous. This is the same argument Nick Hanauer has towards running a business. He argues that raising wages is in one’s best interest, not just for one company, but for all companies. He cites Henry Ford’s model of the $5 day. He tells the audience how Ford raised the pay to almost double the industry standard. This not only increased productivity on his factory line, but it also converted an entire class of exploited workers into a prosperous middle class. These people now had the finances to spend money throughout other sectors and industries, which paved the way for the American Middle Class, the nuclear family, and the way of life that many celebrate today.