Avarice & Generosity

Avarice, hoarding his gold and riding a giant monkey in ‘The Dunois Hours’, France ca. 1440-1450.
British Library, Yates Thompson 3, fol. 174r

Today in the Lenten Seven Capital Vices and their Remedies series, we are talking about avarice and generosity. Let’s begin with something really important that you probably would not know from looking at the lives of most Christians: scripture contains more warnings about money than about sex. Avarice, or covetise, as medieval English authors often called it, is the umbrella term for a whole host of disordered attitudes about money and acquisition. Though greed is often used, these attitudes and actions go beyond that: they include, of course, the burning desire to acquire and consume, hoarding, stinginess, extravagance in purchasing, usury (lending with interest), theft, simony (the selling of spiritual things like offices, positions, authority, sacraments), and withholding.

Funny story: while researching and writing this episode I had a very real moment of avaricious habit bite me, accompanied by a strong dose of pride. Avarice, like all other vices, is a habit. You’re trained into it, or as one medieval penitential manual says, avarice is the teacher at a great school, and everyone is a student there. I’ve recognized that I have some avaricious habits for a while. Despite the fact that our income has considerably shrunk since I left graduate school, after I had my third child during the pandemic, I found myself “rewarding” myself with little treats constantly. Life was so ridiculously hard, why shouldn’t I have that t-shirt or candle or tea latte or cute outfit for my baby? But after several months of this, a long hard look at our bank account and our habits of spending, my husband and I both decided to cut back. I had realized that I gravitated toward online shopping when I was sad or stressed out. This year, I decided that I would try to break my bad habit of self-soothing with purchasing and not buy clothes for myself at all, with the one exception of a dress for a family wedding that I really did not have. So far, so good. 

As I was writing this episode, I started to feel really good about myself. I had unsubscribed from all advertising emails and deals in order to avoid temptation, as one book recommended. I was fasting from consumerism. I was, one might say, noble. Literally as I was admiring myself, I clicked on an Instagram ad for a Jane Austen t-shirt. I caught myself and laughed. The absurdity of vice and its power over us! The power of pride, always reeling us back into itself. 

The fact of the matter is that when we combat avarice, we are facing very large, very serious cultural messaging that is incredibly difficult to avoid. But let’s take a closer look, because buying a t-shirt on its own is not a bad thing. What makes something avaricious?

One penitential text defines covetise, at its rotten core, as a love ruled by worldly goods, love that comes from one’s lack of trust and security in God, for dread of poverty, believing that God and all the world will fail him unless he has gathered much and kept it for dark days ahead. At its root is disordered desire, imbalanced yearning that may swing wildly between excess and hoarding, between prodigality and miserhood. But what each of these different behaviors include at their core is the sneaking idea that God himself is not enough and cannot be enough, so one must protect oneself with goods. As Chaucer’s Parson points out, avarice can be a pretty basic form of idolatry, of worship that puts its trust in places other than God.

Avarice can sometimes be confused with a lust for goods, sheer covetousness alone. Yet avarice has some major differences from lust or gluttony. For one, both lust and gluttony are eventually satiated, however terrible the lustful or gluttonous might feel after their encounter with forbidden fruit. And though their desire will return, there’s a moment of satiation and pleasure. Avarice, while certainly pleasurable in its accumulation, there’s really no obvious moment of “getting your fill.” We can easily recognize this because this is the premise capitalism is based on: the more you buy, the more you want. And I certainly recognize the truth in my own life: the more I buy clothes or books, my two favorite expenditures, the more ideas I get for what I want. I didn’t know I wanted them until I saw them, but want them I do, and make poor decisions in order to get them. 

One could respond, Grace, surely you aren’t buying clothes or books with the idea of securing yourself against the abandonment of God? No, not really. But am I buying them in order to feel better about myself or the world in a tactic that I know will not work in the long run and distracts me from what is actually wrong? Yes. Am I buying them in carelessness for, say, the consequences of fast fashion on the earth, or the millions of people who have less resources than I do? Also yes. There is a disordered desire at play, even if it’s not full-blown private jet purchase while people die casually in poverty. And let me be clear: buying a beautiful blouse is not a sin, even if you have other beautiful blouses. There’s a place for appreciating beautiful clothes in the world. There’s not at all a clear-cut line, like once you have fifteen blouses you are sinfully greedy about clothing. But we Americans have long been in the school of avarice, and avarice has become our primary teacher in our habits of discerning what we need from what we want in terms of material possessions. 

I really appreciated Andrew Pinsent’s meditations on avarice in the book Virtues & Their Vices. He notes this difficulty in discerning avarice: “One of the particularities of the relationship of money and virtue is that there are cases of heroic virtue under surprisingly diverse conditions of material wealth.” From St. Francis of Assisi, a young aristocrat who casts aside all of his wealth to the fabulously wealthy King David, whose various vices do not seem to stem from money but from lust, from Mother Teresa to St. Homobonus, the medieval patron saint of businessmen who had a hefty inheritance and used it to work wonders in his native Italian town, we meet all kinds of holy folk, rich and poor and somewhere in-between. For some, the answer will be to give everything away, and for others, it’s not. 

If we hold too tightly to one particular rule about money, we tend to get into trouble (honestly, this could be extended to most of our temptations in general—the Prohibition, for instance, turned out disastrous). In the Middle Ages, controversies raged around the Dominican and Franciscan friars and their choice to live in voluntary poverty. Many theologians and writers, including the poet of Piers Plowman, William Langland, felt that this commitment actually made them more vulnerable to the sway and influence of money, not less. If you read enough penitential manuals on the vices, a repetitive theme emerges. Many of them have massive sections on simony under the banner of avarice—simony was the sin of selling spiritual goods which should never be sold, like offices, prayers, even sacraments. Wealthy laypeople would bribe these friars to give them light penance in exchange for their confessions—this is actually where the modern-day term of “short shrift” comes from! To give someone “short shrift” means to listen to a very short confession and light penance, not giving their vices the proper attention and depth of contrition needed for real spiritual change and communal harmony. A steady income made bribes and the selling of the sacrament less appealing, thought Langland and many others.

This is related to the next idea about avarice: the way in which you get your money matters. The means do not justify the ends; the acquisition of money does not justify the actions taken to get it. There’s obvious examples, like theft or lying or fraud, that come under the banner of avarice. But there’s also actions that are naturally integrated into our society today, like usury. Usury is the lending of money at “unreasonably high rates,” or at any rates at all. In other words, the modern system of credit cards, student loans, payday lending, and some kinds of mortgages would all have been considered sinful for Christians to partake in, on the end of the person loaning the money. There is a robust, ancient Christian argument, rooted in Old Testament practices, for the forgiveness of longterm debt like student loans—fascinating given some of our current debates. Theoretically, medieval people believed that Christians were not supposed to loan each other money with interest at all—they were supposed to loan freely, and be ready to forgive those loans fairly easily if the person loaned couldn’t pay them back in a reasonable way. This is because we all belong to the Body of Christ, and your success is my success. In reality, these prohibitions against lending with interest led to some pretty convoluted and terrible outcomes as people tried to find ways to get money loaned to them, or make money off the money they were loaning. 

One example comes in antisemitic violence and stereotypes. In the Middle Ages, some wealthy Jewish folks became moneylenders, encouraged by the monarchy and nobles, because according to this system, they could lend at interest because it wasn’t Christian to Christian lending. Not only did this practice not follow the spirit of the warnings against avarice by exploiting a loophole, it inflamed violent animosity and antisemitic stereotypes (Jewish people as money-oriented) that still exist today. The nobles could use Jewish financiers to help them fund their wars, then if they found that the money was too much to return, or that they tired of the relationship, they could surreptitiously look the other directions when prejudiced, angry mobs attacked the Jewish quarter, or they could tax the Jews at insanely high rates. There’s a long and tragic history there.

There are other poor ways of making money guided by avarice: what one medieval book on penance calls “disreputable crafts.” What you do matters and shapes you as it makes you money. Medieval people included distasteful entertainment jobs, like jugglers, public buffoons (which I’m not exactly sure what that entails) and heralds-at-arms, that is, announcers for tournaments, under this category. Do we include sports announcers here now? Comedians? I wouldn’t, but it’s fascinating to see how cultural categories shift and change. In a category we are more accustomed to putting in the disreputable craft category, prostitution is also included. Disordered attitudes towards money, as medieval folks understood it, are ultimately a force that dehumanizes other people, instrumentalizes them towards your own ends of wealth or material gain, and we are all sadly aware of the ways that human trafficking and sex work has in the end dehumanized many people.

This is the poison of all acts of avarice, not just making money in ways that are not congruent to one’s true status as an image-bearer. Avarice dehumanizes and instrumentalizes people, whether that’s in theft, in borrowing and lending money to make money and forget about the person, in hoarding wealth or in rabid accumulation of goods. It destroys community; it elevates the desires of one individual above the needs of the many. We see this in certain lobbyists getting politicians to act against the good of their constituents through massive donations to their campaigns, in landlords wantonly raising rent, in the hoarding of vaccines away from impoverished countries, in the basic injustice of a billionaire in a twenty-room mansion while ten miles away a person lacks the money to pay rent on a roach-ridden apartment. Dante describes the avaricious in hell as having lost their individual identities, faceless men and women with their countenances to the ground:

The undiscerning life which made them sordid

                        Now makes them unto all discernment dim.

Dante, Inferno, Canto VII

Pinsent usefully explains, “The implication is that, as a consequence of the failure of the avaricious to know or recognize other persons in this life, the distinctiveness of their own personal identity has faded…avarice impedes mutual recognition of persons.” In our desire for objects, we forget people. Service workers become nonentities as the man seeks the perfect dining experience. The poor become a faceless block that have little relation with the $5,000 purse purchased by the wealthy woman. Money can teach a false sense that we are self-made, above the community, and we become our own gods. A side component that may be more relevant to those of us who don’t spend money on exquisite dining or fabulous purses: our ceaseless acquisition and consumption results in trash and waste, which also destroys community. A fruit of avarice that medieval people never would have considered is our ongoing destruction of the planet we live upon through fast fashion, and through unceasing upgrades to our technology and homes and cars. We also become entangled within systems that exploit other people through low pay or even modern-day slavery.

Unsurprisingly, when I think about this, I begin to spiral downward, perhaps all the way mentally into Dante’s Inferno myself. Let’s think about the remedy to avarice, which is, unsurprisingly, generosity or liberality, which are the same idea, and mercy.

Generosity or liberality characterizes, just like avarice, an attitude towards money and material goods. Unlike avarice, it is rightly-ordered orientation towards money, directed towards freedom, justice, and one’s brothers and sisters. In a great phrase from Pinsent, someone who is generous or liberal with their money has a “wholesome lightheartedness” about their possessions. Like a child they enjoy them, but they know their true worth in the grand scheme of things. I like this phrase because it reminds us that our goods can become burdensome. It also puts our goods into the right light. The bottom line of who we are as created people is that nothing we have is earned; everything we have is a gift. This attitude helps us to remember to give because of all we have been given.

Generosity does not concern actual amounts given: anyone, regardless of wealth or age or status, can be generous with what they have. In fact, says Pinsent, all orientation towards money should be governed by human relationship. This is a useful rule of thumb that flexibly expands and contracts to include all kinds of people with different ways of being in the world and different kinds of needs and incomes and access. When we contextualize our spending habits and our money within a larger framework of remembering our fellow human beings, we can more adequately discern good uses of money from ones that exist to distract or self-glorify. Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung also has a good question for us as we learn to reorient our attitudes about money towards the generous: “If I keep handling possessions like this for the next ten or twenty years, what sort of character will I develop and what kind of person will I become?” (114) 

Medieval people focused more on mercy than generosity or liberality. Mercy is nothing more than being materially moved by someone else’s suffering and acting upon those feelings. Mercy is really the opposite of avarice. Instead of depersonalization, it’s forcefully recollecting someone else’s humanity and personhood even in the most awful circumstances. An attitude of mercy needs to be cultivated—it’s not necessarily automatic. To help cultivate mercy, medieval texts almost universally recommend the seven bodily works of mercy as a helpful reminder list for Christians:

1. To feed the poor.

2. To clothe the poor and the naked.

3. To lend to the needy and forgive their debts.

4. To visit the sick.

5. To receive strangers.

6. To visit and comfort prisoners, and save them if you can.

7. To bury the dead.

These acts of bodies materially caring for other bodies combat the spiritual affliction of avarice and put faces back on people that we can easily ignore. Note: there’s no caveats accompanying these acts about worthiness, innocence, or any of the other ways in which we qualify whom we choose to do good deeds for. It’s visit the prisoners and aid them, regardless of what they’ve done. Feed the poor and clothe them, whether they are children or drug addicts. The needy might include a college student or a homeless person. These are remarkably, thankfully simple and flexible and based off of Jesus’s own actions and the actions of his disciples following his death. These are also ways we should be considering using our own money.

These acts of mercy do not only help others in need. They change us in our souls. Acting this way reorients us towards freedom and love and generosity itself. They transform our habits and help us to remember our gifts and practice gratitude. They do not make you the generous powerful patron we would all secretly like to be thought as—they remind us that we are all needy and beloved embodied souls, and everything we have is a lovely gift!

Next week we will think through gluttony and abstinence, another frequently misunderstood set of vice and virtue. If you’d like to see more of what I’m up to, sign up for my free monthly Substack newsletter, Medievalish with Grace Hamman. I am also around on Twitter, @gracehammanphd, and Instagram, @oldbookswithgrace. I’d love to hear from you!

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