Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Philosophy and fiction: on "greed"

“Greed” is not only condemned in the Bible—“thou shall not covet…”—but by countless philosophers as well.

And yet, greed plays a considerable part in the foundation of our economic life and is certainly a major part of the reason many of us live a lot longer and more comfortably than did those in Aristotle’s time.

One could think about greed by scanning the Commandments, reading The Republic (where Plato confronts the legacy of aristocratic greed by designing a polis free from greed and injustice) or any number of other classical texts.

Or one could choose a story that illuminates the consequences—good and ill—of greed.

Until I can think of a contemporary novel that fits the bill, I’ll propose a parable from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

Grushenka relates this parable to Alyosha in Chapter Three:
Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God; 'She once pulled up an onion in her garden,' said he, 'and gave it to a beggar woman.' And God answered: 'You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.' The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. 'Come,' said he, 'catch hold and I'll pull you out.' he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. 'I'm to be pulled out, not you. It's my onion, not yours.' As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away.
Grushenka then says she is that old woman, and it's not quite clear if she is bragging--she simply wants to be known for something--or complaining about her character, a self-critique as an act of contrition.

Anyway, you can imagine some of the paths discussion of this passage would follow in freshman philosophy.

Some student might point out that it was indeed the old woman's onion, and that God had offered the deal to her only. So she was well within her rights to fight off the others grabbing for the onion.

Another might point out that these are souls, albeit souls in torment, and thus weigh nothing, so surely the onion could pull them all out if only the old woman didn't start fighting.

And was the fated outcome all part of God's plan anyway? That is, would God really make a mistake of tossing this woman in a lake of fire. Or if He didn't make a mistake, would He actually allow her a second chance (or is the false hope just another part of her torment)? What does all that say about Free Will?

Dostoevsky himself apparently loved this parable and saw it as an expression of the natural brotherhood and communitarianism of the Russian peasant. Greed, in this interpretation, is not only not good (i.e., productive) but it is also against the natural order of things.

But we Westerners, to varying degrees, think that greed is good: it's the foundation of our economy. Greed is a private vice that has considerable public benefits.


--Marshal Zeringue

Know of a work of contemporary fiction that’s a good spark for discussion on the topic of greed? Email me.

For earlier posts on the "Philosophy and fiction" theme, please see this item and this item.