By DONALD DeMARCO
“Your eyes are bigger than your belly,” my mother used to say to me. I don’t think she coined the expression, despite the authoritative tone she used whenever she enunciated it. Nor do I think she meditated at length on its rich philosophical implications. But she was fond of reiterating this cozy maxim, and its timeless message did not fall either on deaf ears or on a forgetful memory. She may be pleased to know that she now has the Holy Father to amplify her motherly advice.
“Wanting more than you need” is a simple definition of greed. I prefer my mother’s version because it suggests that greed makes our foolishness embarrassingly conspicuous. I can easily imagine inhabitants of Dante’s Inferno having eyes that are literally larger than their bellies. This is a fit punishment, indeed, for a vice that makes lust larger than life. “Keeping up appearances,” is not possible in Hell. Residents of the Inferno are unable to conceal their shame. Hell may be deprived of love, but it is not vacant of truth.
St. Thomas Aquinas had a more elaborate definition of greed that included other vices that it set in motion. For the Angelic Doctor, greed can be “a sin directly against one’s neighbor, since one man cannot over-abound (superabundare) in external riches, without another man lacking them, for temporal goods cannot be possessed by many at the same time.”
By this, the Angelic Doctor means that one person’s superabundance is achieved at the expense of others, exemplified by the contemporary phrase, “the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.” Aquinas goes on to say that greed (or avarice) is “a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, inasmuch as man contemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things,” and also a means by which “man sins against himself, because it causes disorder in his affections” (Summa Theologiae II-II, 118, 1. ad 2).
St. Thomas was right. Greed involves more than mere covetousness. It includes unneighborliness, injustice, injury to self, an inordinate concern for material things, and contempt both for God and things eternal.
Geoffrey Chaucer once warned, “Radix malorum est cupiditas” (the root of all evil is greed). Dante spoke of how greed can “submerge mortals” and render them powerless “to draw their eyes from” its “blinding surge.” And Erich Fromm expressed the futility of greed very well when he said: “Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.”
In a Vatican Radio address given on October 21, 2013, Pope Francis warned of the grave dangers associated with greed. He alluded to the parable of the rich man who lives to gather “treasures for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.”
Elaborating on the parable, Pope Francis went on to advise us to stay away from greed of any kind because “that’s what does harm: greed in my relationship with money. Having more, having more, having more. . . . It leads you to idolatry, it destroys your relationship with others. It’s not money, but the attitude, what we call greed. Then too this greed makes you sick, because it makes you think of everything in terms of money. . . . And in the end — this is the most important thing — greed is an instrument of idolatry because it goes along a way contrary to what God has done for us.”
He closed his address by urging everyone to “take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”
In another address, the Pontiff encouraged the financial experts and the political leaders of the world to consider the words of St. John Chrysostom: “Not to share one’s goods with the poor is to rob them and to deprive them of life. It is not our goods that we possess, but theirs” (May 16, 2013).
In contrast to greed is temperance, the virtue that brings things into balance by properly proportioning our eyes and our bellies so that we would not be humiliated if people could see us exactly the way we are.
If my mother speaks to me in the next world, I hope she will tell me how suitably proportioned my eyes are in relation to my belly.
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(Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth & Charity Forum.)