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The Insatiable Appetite For Pursuing A False God

June 19, 2022 Featured Today No Comments

By DONALD DeMARCO

Postage stamps are miniature memorials of persons, places, and events. In 1968, the Principality of Liechtenstein issued a set of five stamps under the banner, “Pioneers of Philately.” The second in the series was the man who accumulated the most extensive and valuable collection of stamps ever assembled, one that will never be equaled. His name to posterity was Count Philip la Renotière von Ferrary (1850-1917), but to stamp dealers, he was known simply as Ferrary.
Among his more prized items were the unique Treskelling Yellow of Sweden and the 1856 one cent “Black on Magenta” British Guiana. He also owned the only unused copy of the Two Cent Hawaii Missionary of 1851, for which its owner, Gaston Leroux, was murdered. Also in his incomparable collection was the only known cover of the first Mauritius “Post Office” stamps. In today’s markets, these items would command many millions of dollars. The British Guiana Magenta, alone, sold at a Sotheby auction in 2014 for $9,480,000.
Ferrary’s father, Raffaele Luigi De Ferrari (1803-1876), was born to an aristocratic and wealthy family. At the behest of Pope Gregory XVI, he was given the title Duke of Galliera. His wealth was his passion. He maintained a private library with such secrecy that he forbade even his wife from entering it.
When he died (it is said that he passed away locked in one of his massive safes), his widow entered the room for the first time and found there some three hundred volumes each fastened with a gold clasp. Upon opening these locks, she discovered that each page of every volume was a 1,000-franc government bond, a total value at that time of more than three million francs.
Having inherited a sizable fortune from his father, Philip, from an early age, spent his life seeking and obtaining stamps. His driving ambition was to collect at least one copy of every stamp ever minted, indeed, a hopeless task. He was generous with dealers but impulsive in his buying habits and seemed more interested in accumulating stamps than in studying and enjoying them. As an inevitable consequence, he was exploited by dealers who sold him counterfeits. The forgeries he purchased unwittingly became known as “Ferrarities.”
Although born in France, he became an Austrian citizen. In his will, dated two years before his death in Switzerland, he bequeathed his vast collection to “the German Nation” to be exhibited in a separate room. His dying wish, however, was not granted. The French government confiscated the collection, claiming it as a war reparation. The unique assemblage of postage stamps, which he had put together over the course of a lifetime, was broken up and sold at auction between 1921 and 1926, in 14 separate sales realizing some 30 million francs.
Ferrary did not realize his dream of obtaining a copy of every stamp ever issued, although he obtained 75 percent of the world’s rarities, and died in exile, a lonely and frustrated man. Like his father, he was obsessed with having more and more.
But there is no logical endpoint to this form of endless accumulation. In Macbeth, Shakespeare speaks of “my more-having would be as a sauce to make me hungry more.” Philosophers have referred to this problem as Schlechte Unendlichkeit (bad unendingness). The obsessive person, who wants more and more, cannot know peace. He is pursuing a false god that urges him on, but cannot give him the ultimate contentment which, as a human being, he is made to enjoy.
Our hearts are made for God, as St. Augustine reminds us. The pursuit of endless material things is the pursuit of a false god. The Duke of Galliera and his son offer us dramatic examples of ambitions gone wrong. “I charge thee fling away ambition,” Shakespeare states in Henry VIII, “By that sin fell the angels.” Citizen Kane, the tragic story of the fictional Charles Foster Kane, as Hollywood has vividly shown us, was an unforgettable victim of his own ambition.
If Philip Ferrary is to be regarded as a “pioneer,” he is leading us in the wrong direction. The true path to the infinite leads to the Infinity of God. Infinity is not the path itself. Everything in our life is ultimately ordered to God. To think otherwise is to turn things into idols. The two Ferraries, father and son, took the wrong paths, as is evident from their tragic endings.
In this regard, they have provided us with an important message. What we have should always be used for a higher purpose. Ultimately, all things must be ordered to God who is Infinity in Himself. Plato advised parents to bequeath to their children not riches but the spirit of reverence. This remains very good advice. Materialism is the great enemy of spirituality. Postage stamps are fine memorials and honor tradition. But it is far better to enjoy them as memorials than as objects of enslavement.

  • + + (Dr. Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus, St. Jerome’s University, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College. He is a regular columnist for St. Austin Review and is the author of 41 books. He is a former corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy of Life. Some of his latest books, The 12 Supporting Pillars of the Culture of Life and Why They Are Crumbling, Glimmers of Hope in a Darkening World, and Restoring Philosophy and Returning to Common Sense, are posted on amazon.com. His most recent book is Let Us not Despair. He and his wife, Mary, have 5 children and 13 grandchildren.)
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