Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbour's. Exod. 20. 17.
ONCE THERE WAS a boy named James Watt, and he had an old kettle that belonged to his mother. And one day, behold a great hissing cloud, and a vague shape that said, "I am the Genie Steam; and I serve the owner of the kettle. What is your will, O Master?"
And the boy said, "Make us all rich. Bring us miles of woven cloth, and piles of food, and acres of diamonds; let us have houses that touch the sky and coaches that run swifter than the wind, and let all this be done without our having to strain ourselves with overwork."
"To hear is to obey, Master!" answered the genie. And in the twinkling of an eye all men became rich and happy, neither did they study war any more, but spent their time contentedly enjoying the flow of good things provided by the genie of the kettle....
Or so the dream ran, for its first dreamers. Since then we have extended it somewhat. We have sent the genie for his swifter brother Petroleum, and then for his tall, glittering sister Electricity, and we have put all three to work turning out riches for us, until every man of us has become entirely happy and peaceful.... Well, perhaps not quite. But now we have learned to call up the great-granddaddy of all genies, the towering cloud-and-fire shape named Atomic Power, and by his efforts we are certain to content all our desires at last....
Well, perhaps not quite.
Yet it was a good and hopeful dream when it started. Ancient and medieval men talked of a golden age in the past, a reign of Saturn or a Garden of Eden, lost beyond recapture; and they shrugged wistfully, and turned again to face the bitter present and the dark future. Modern men, however, have for two hundred years or so looked for the earthly paradise ahead of them. Utopia is for them no longer the Land of Nowhere, but the Land of Somewhen; no longer a consoling daydream of escape, but a practical possibility. With power and machines, one could stuff every man's belly with chicken, drape every woman's shoulders with silk, fill every child's heart with laughter. And since one could, one should. The march to the earthly paradise became a new moral absolute and a new religion, under the name of progress.
Let no one say that the dream was a dream of selfishness. The first machine makers lived in a time of revolutionary ferment, when the rights of man were on everybody's lips. When Blake swore to build Jerusalem "in England's green and pleasant land," he was moved not by greed but by Christian compassion for the suffering poor and by white-hot Christian anger at injustice. When Jefferson declared that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, were inalienable rights, he did so at some risk to the life, liberty, and happiness of Thomas Jefferson. Both Christian clarity and secular deism combined to want an end of such miseries as Hogarth painted in Gin Lane; the poet and clergyman Cartwright, who invented the power loom, did so out of pity for the endless crippling labour of the hand weaver. He could not have expected that in a few years weavers would be smashing and burning his machines as a cause of their unemployment. For greed came in, soon enough; the men who looked a hundred years ahead were as always easily victimized by the men who looked only to their pockets; the profiteer who can himself dream of nothing but money is quick to cash in on the dreams of better men. Nevertheless it was a noble thing, that early vision of a Kingdom of God on earth in which, since every man would have whatever he needed, no man could be driven to covetousness.
At first, too, progress looked so easy! One didn't have to work at achieving the Kingdom, for it was coming of itself. Just let us alone, said the laissez-faire capitalists, and our enlightened self-interest will enrich the world. The machine smashers, the union agitators of the early days, may have been hanged and transported so savagely, not as radicals, but as reactionaries, traitors to the new hope of all mankind. Fifty years soberer, however, the thinkers learned from the horrors of child labour and mine murder that the Kingdom could not be achieved so simply; that progress required more than profit making : it required conscience and regulation and taking thought and working hard. The great humanitarian movements of the nineteenth century were born; Dickens wrote against prisons and slums, Lincoln freed the slaves, the English Fabian Society campaigned for an ideal socialism to be reached an inch at a time. Another fifty years, and patience ran out. The desperate nations of Europe turned from progress by reform to the Fascist and Communist gospel of progress by violence; one must achieve the earthly paradise instantly, at all costs, or it would be too late. Yet, though the ritual has changed so much in these years, the goal has not changed at all. The goal is still material plenty for everybody; and the hope is still that men who are rich enough will become, somehow, just, peaceful, and loving men.
In the moment before waking, dreams sometimes change to nightmares. And in the nightmarish last minutes of the progress dream, we often forget how good it was for a while. We talk as if all Western civilization since the Renaissance were no more than a sinful mistake, as if technical advances had never given us anything but shoddy goods and greedy hearts. Yet much was accomplished by the belief in progress and much more by the striving for it; to give one instance, mothers no longer have to bear ten children in the hope of raising two.
To some extent we have realized the dream. Where a medieval woman kept a dress for a lifetime, our girls throw it away in a year because it's out of style, and where bygone Frenchwomen devised a nourishing soup from an end of cheese, a crust of bread, half an onion, and some leftover meat broth, all many of us can think of when we see such is a quick trip to the dustbin. And we are safer than our predecessors, safe to the point of softness; we fret about juvenile delinquents and corrupt politicians, and explain all these as "psychopathic"-but to our ancestors dangerous streets and violent youth and wicked rulers were merely the normal hazards of life. And we live longer, healthier, better-insured lives than the men of previous nations. As far as material goods go, our earthly paradise has given us more, far more, than the first progress worshippers ever dreamed possible.
Yet there is one indispensable condition of paradise lacking. We are not happy in the place. Nor, for that matter, can we honestly maintain that we are completely just and peaceful and loving in it.
The nations of Europe have some time ago wakened screaming from their dream. We are still lulled by comfort, but even so we are beginning to echo their wail: something has gone wrong, the world is in crisis, and all our attempts to struggle out of the quicksands of this life have only plunged us deeper in. In short, the richer we are, the worse off we seem to be. Many explanations of the world crisis have been offered-technological unemployment, wrong distribution of the wealth, over-population with its consequent exhaustion of the farm land. No doubt all have some truth in them, particularly as applied to the poorer countries. But none of them will do adequately for us. We have solved technological unemployment by constantly increasing production until now we have to employ women as well as men; we are solving distribution with taxes and Government services; we look to solve the food shortage with conservation and scientific agriculture. Meanwhile we're comfortable enough. Yet who would dare to tell contemporary America that it is rejoicing in an unparalleled golden age? We manage to be restless and discontented. Why?
Perhaps we had better look beyond the explanations, at the dream itself. Perhaps it was the wrong dream. Perhaps, in spite of its apparent nobility and charity, something is false in the doctrine that you can make men happy and virtuous by making them rich?
We have planned for the more abundant life; we have exalted free competition, i.e., the desire to get more of the world's rewards than our neighbour; we have declared (to quote D. R. Davies' provocative The Sin of our Age) that "the good life has become inseparable from the maximum possible consumption of things. The dogma of the new religion is the dogma of increasing wants." Can we reasonably expect happiness from an insatiable appetite which, no matter how it stuffs its belly, is still psychologically like Oliver Twist in the poorhouse, holding up an empty bowl and begging, "I want some more"? Isn't it possible that our dream of the good society contained, from the beginning, a hidden violation of the Tenth Commandment "Thou shalt not covert thy neighbour's goods"?
If worldly plenty could stop coveting, the ancient Jews might not have needed the Tenth Commandment. "Surely it [the land] floweth with milk and honey," said the explorers, bringing figs and pomegranates and a great bunch of grapes that took two men to carry. We hear of the corn and wine, of the flocks of sheep and the wild deer of the mountains, of myrrh and frankincense and lilies and cedars - "a fountain of gardens, a well of living water, and streams from Lebanon." This is scarcely fable; Israel in those days was a green and flowery pleasance that needed no reclaiming. Before two thousand years of wasteful agriculture did their work, the whole Mediterranean basin overflowed with milk and honey; Greece was fruitful and southern Italy luxuriant, the coast of North Africa blossomed with garden cities, and Egypt was the granary of Rome. Whenever the spirit seized him, a man might retire into the wilderness, to commune with God, and live not too badly for years on whatever came his way. Today, in the same wilderness, he would die in a week.
Only those who burst into the American prairies, and stared at the great buffalo herds and the clouds of passenger pigeons, have ever in modern times seen anything like the abundance of that ancient world. Every great nation of antiquity had reason to dream of happiness-through-wealth-the Athenians with their silver mines and ships, the princes of Hind with their gold and elephants, the Romans with their empire. And all alike found that some perversity of human nature defeated the dream. For men coveted. Men found themselves hankering after their neighbour's ox or slave-or even his wife; no oversupply of women ever prevented that. No matter how many fat sheep the rich man had, it was always the poor man's ewe lamb that caught his eye. No one who had once learned to identify happiness with wealth ever felt that he had wealth enough.
The nations looked at the state of soul called covetousness, and recognized it as an ugly, itching misery; a destroyer of men and ruiner of the state; an enemy to all joy-in short, a sin. Their chance of escaping it, however, was limited by their degree of insight. The crystalline Greek mind gave us Aesop's fable of the envious and covetous man to whom Zeus granted any wish he liked on condition that his neighbour would get twice as much of it; unable to bear the thought of another's luck, he wished to lose one eye ! The Greeks gave us, too, the reverse of the coin, the story of rich King Croesus wallowing in his gold, beside himself with mortification because he could not make the Anthenian philosopher Solon envy him. But the Greek moral was only that earthly prosperity is insecure-"Call no man fortunate until he is dead." India, where greed and gold Were in excess, reacted more violently-to extremes of asceticism which thought the only alternative to wanting everything at all costs was wanting nothing at any price. And Eastern "non-attachment" does have the advantage of rescuing men from slavery to their appetites and their envies; yet wanting nothing, when carried to extremes, leaves us not wanting help, not wanting love, not wanting God-and the name of such self-sufficiency is pride. When the Roman Stoics took up non-attachment, they did so with a far too keen sense of their superiority to their unstoical neighbours.
The pagans could see that desiring wealth made you miserable and getting it did not make you happy. But they seem to have had little else to offer, except a sort of gloomy snobbery which felt itself too good for the good things of this world. The Jews saw more clearly, for they recognized that the gifts of God are worth having, but forbade men to desire them in the wrong way.
The Tenth Commandment is unique; its predecessors deal with specific actions, but this alone forbids a state of mind. It is the first implied awareness that wrong ideas precede wrong actions, and that no matter how pious and decorous a man's outward behaviour may be, if he encourages his mind to seethe with hate and greed, he is an abomination in the sight of God. It may be, indeed, that this Commandment comes last because it represents a transition from the old idea of a God who is bound by the physical actions of a prescribed ritual to the new awareness of a God who is spirit, and looks beyond all actions to the heart. Yet the transition is not complete. The counsel remains negative; it forbids coveting, but it does not tell a man what he should do instead. And, with the chracteristic limitation of Judaism, it assumes that virtue can be achieved by will power alone-that a man is the master of his own house and can feel what emotions he likes. The Tenth Commandment does not tell us how to stop coveting.
Not until Christ came were we shown the real alternative to covetousness, in that charity which not only loves to give but also takes with love. And not until Paul taught us did we understand how a man may appeal to the Grace for help against the covetousness in his own heart.
Christianity is everywhere paradoxical, everywhere too difficult for simple black-and-white thinking; but nowhere more so than in its doctrine of worldly goods. For they are good things-and yet we must not long for them. They are to be enjoyed-and yet we must not make that enjoyment our goal. They are God's plenty; in the form of bread and wine, they are the very vehicles of that act of God which makes and keeps us men; they are "things ye have need of," yet we must not devote our lives to getting them. If we have them, the best possible thing we can do is to give them away; if we don't have them, we may expect to get them, but we mustn't worry about it! The Saviour who bestows miraculous loaves and fishes upon the multitude is the same who proclaims that man does not live by bread alone, and he who teaches us to pray, "Give us this day our daily bread," also warns us, "Take no thought, saying, what shall we eat?" It seems almost that we are told not to desire what, by our very natures, we cannot live without.
The paradox is easier once we remember that the text runs, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God"-once we remember the distinction between ends and means. Seeing God face to face is our goal; the pleasures of life, and even life itself, are the means to it. Therefore the milk and honey and corn and wine and soft chairs and fine houses and swift cars all those pleasant things! -exist primarily as a kind of currency of love; a means whereby men can exchange love with one another and thus become capable of the love of God.
In charity, we value such things not only for their pleasantness, but also because we can give them away and give our love with them; or else because, in receiving them, we receive another's love for us as a baby at the breast sucks his mother's love with her milk. Nowadays we usually praise the power to give, which implies worldly success, far beyond the power to take, and we are sometimes ashamed of "receiving charity." Yet Christ and the apostles were not. Though it be more blessed to give than to receive, to be fully Christian one must know how to do both with the same humility and the same joy.
Do we then, if we are covetous, value our earthly treasures for their pleasantness alone? No such luck. The covetous man may begin with that, and at least there is some delight in it, something that comes from God. But he doesn't keep it long. "Covetousness, which is idolatry!" said Saint Paul. Almost at once the coveter makes a god of his possessions, asks more than pleasure from them, asks that serenity of soul which only God can give. And Saint Paul might have said, "Covetousness, which is hate." For the man soon learns to value what he gets chiefly because his fellows can't have it; to desire his neighbour's wife, not because she is beautiful, but because she is another's. And Paul might have ended with, "Covetousness, which is pride." Before long the gold and elephants, the convertibles and chinchillas, are no use at all to the coveter in themselves; he will drop them the instant they go out of fashion, he even resents them a little as responsibilities; but he must have them to convince himself that he is all-powerful, all-successful, all-important - in fact, God. For a while he may tolerate the existence of his neighbours, since it reassures him to have somebody to envy him; but in the end he will covet their very lives, for he cannot be satisfied as long as anything exists in all eternity that he does not possess. A thousand sayings in a hundred languages testify to the insatiability of covetousness - "He will never have enough," goes the grim Scottish proverb, "till his mouth is filled with mould."
So much, the Christian world has always known. How it has lived is another story. Almost from the beginning men wanted the Church to be a strong organization, and then saw that it would be stronger if it could grow rich. An order of friars would be founded dedicated to poverty-and would end by owning half the countryside. The temptation was very natural. But the Middle Ages did at least know that it was a temptation; did at least reject covetousness in theory and regard poverty as a necessary part of holiness. The medieval ideal reached its highest expression, perhaps, when Saint Francis married the Lady Poverty and found the marriage a happy one, with meat enough on the table and plenty of singing.
Nowadays we think very differently. Few of us, whether Christian or secularist, can imagine that a sane man would voluntarily seek poverty; and where the old theologians talked of the self-mortification of the ascetic, the modern psychiatrist talks of the guilt complex of the religious maniac. In the nineteenth century, some pious money-makers argued that wealth was God's reward of their virtue, and that therefore a poor man had no right to be angry. But today our materialist reformers seem to argue that wealth is a virtue, and therefore a poor man has no right to be happy! Our usual snap judgment, if we see hillbillies managing to live contentedly without electricity and plumbing, is, "They don't know any better."
To make matters worse, we are most of us underprivileged in our own eyes. Let Davies speak again : "Poverty has been promoted to be the chief evil of human existence.... Men can no longer be judged to be poor by what they consume, but by what they think they should consume, and do not. . . . Even though their bellies be bursting with chicken, the vast majority of people would still be poor if a minority of bellies were bursting with turkey."
Yet there is a good Christian reason for our changed view. The poverty of medieval days, of an agricultural world short on manufactures but long on food and fuel, was often a tolerable and even a cheerful condition; but the poverty of the modern industrial slum is very different. No one who has seen a mining town when the mine shuts down can seriously argue that it is not the duty of all Christians to end poverty like that. Indeed the great ethical contribution of our age is its sensitive social conscience, for we are almost the first of men to understand that all men's welfare is our business. We are the first who blame ourselves when a million Chinese starve; who consider it our task, as the scoffer said, to provide Hottentots with milk; the first, perhaps, since Christ himself to his immediate followers, who have said and really meant : One world, one race of man.
Many Christians, though keenly sensitive to the dangers of greed and discontent that come with an economy of continually increasing consumption, nevertheless feel that it is worth risking if only it can end man's physical miseries. The trouble is that it can't. In a finite world, continually increasing conumption is just not possible. Some modern fabulist once put this very neatly; he wrote of a wonderful atomic converter which took common earth and stone and turned out whatever goods you wanted. Men rejoiced at the end of all poverty and laughed at the few reactionaries who feared that the world might get used up. Five thousand years later, astronomers were disproving with mathematics the popular legend that the earth had once been much bigger than the moon. Ten thousand years later the story ended-with one starving ancient, perched on his converter, adrift in empty space.
One need not labour the point. We all know there's a world food shortage; that our scientists are developing ways of feeding pigs on urea, cattle on cactus, and men on seaweed; that even in rich America the price of meat often seems rather odd. We have seen the vision of space flight grow in one generation into a serious project, as our necessities force us to seek arable land on the unknown stars. We find ourselves constrained to keep poorer nations alive on our dwindling surpluses, partly through charity but also partly through fear lest they unite with our enemies and take our wealth by force. As always with the treasures of this world, moth and rust corrupt and thieves break through and steal. Our idolatary of the worldly goods in which we trusted-was it only covetousness at bottom, after all?
Can the best of us feel sure that he is not corrupted by "the dogma of increasing wants"? Most of us are modest enough in our demands. We reject the disease of greed, the perversion that turns a decent little shopkeeper into a recluse dead of hunger on a mattress stuffed with ten-dollar bills; turns a cheerful girl in a shabby coat into a fretful neurotic in diamonds and mink; turns an idealistic young writer into a twitching Hollywood executive out to knife his best friend in the back. These, we feel, are exceptions and mental cases. We could never go like that. We don't grudge our neighbour any success; we just want a standard of living that will enable us to maintain our self-respect. We've no heart's desire for a Rolls-we'll be satisfied with an Austin, for this year at least; and of course we've got to buy a television set, but that's only because the kids are so humiliated on account of all their friends already having one... .
Waking from our dream of plenty into hungry daylight, we turn back to God. The lapsed Christians and the lifelong secularists are beginning to recognize that only the Almighty can untangle the snarl of this world; are coming back into the churches and humbling themselves in prayer. So far so good. But for what do we pray? Do we "cry to dream again"? Do we ask the Lord, not for heaven, but for a way of keeping the cars and the television sets?
A certain rich man, we are told, came to Christ and asked to be accepted as a disciple. He was a good and generous and law-abiding youth; yet our Lord asked one thing more of him-"Sell all thou hast, and give to the poor." And the rich man "went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions."
That is exactly our case. We sometimes come to God, not because we love him best, but because we love our possessions best; we ask Christ to "save Western civilization," without asking ourselves whether it is entirely a civilization that Christ could want to save. We pray, too often, not to do God's will, but to enlist God's assistance in maintaining our "continually increasing consumption." And yet, though Christ promised that God would feed us, he never promised that God would stuff us to bursting.
What, then, must we pray for? Nothing that we have not been told over and over again; nothing but "Thy will be done," even if his will is that we lose all that the last two hundred years have given us. We must pray to face our fear honestly. There is no use pretending that our elaborate technology can't be destroyed; like all other civilizations, it can. There is even less sense in pretending that we can't live without it; we can, as men did before it was dreamed of. Let us pray to be free of the idolatry of material things, and then at least we may be able to enjoy them when we have them, instead of being enslaved by them and by the fear of losing them. Our best wisdom may indeed ask God to save our way of life, but his wisdom might conceivably conclude that our way of life is too rich for our blood, that what we need is a purge. At the moment we are still often seeking God not for himself but so that we can hire him as night watchman to mammon. But if we seek him indeed, we shall find that going to church and praying are only the beginning, that our whole lives change from the heart outward until we are no longer interested in mammon. There is, in the last analysis, only one way to stop covetousness and the destruction of body and soul that spring from covetousness, and that is to want God so much that we can't be bothered with inordinate wants for anything else.
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