More than the love of possessions, the love of possessing…

Deadly Sins-Fairlie

What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving?  Responding to this question, one 24-year-old shopper on Long Island said she was thankful that “stores are open on Thanksgiving Day.”  A not-at-all-surprising response, given the commercialization of Thanksgiving—beginning with Early Bird Specials on Thursday evening, followed by Black Friday, followed by Small Business Saturday, followed by Cyber Monday. 


Of course, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with saving a few hard-earned dollars.  It may just be good stewardship.  But the consumerist mood of Thanksgiving weekend should provoke some significant reflection on the consumption and acquisitiveness that have taken center-stage.  Even the secular media makes note of that fact.  An ABC News headline reads, “Thanksgiving as a Day of Consumerism.”  A column at the Huffington Post begins, “It seems that every year, Thanksgiving Day gets a little more commercial.”


One writer who can help with our reflections on acquisitiveness is the journalist Henry Fairlie.  A series of his essays for the New Republic were published in 1978 in a book entitled The Seven Deadly Sins Today.  On the sin of acquisitiveness—that is, avarice or greed—he offered the following observations on the mentality of the malls of his day.


The most important fact about our shopping malls, as distinct from the ordinary shopping centers where we go for our groceries, is that we do not need most of what they sell, not even for our pleasure or entertainment, not really even for a sensation of luxury.  Little in them is essential to our survival, our work, or our play, and the same is true of the boutiques that multiply on our streets.  What we call our consumer societies may be gluttonous … but they are ridden more subtly by Avarice.


The gluttonous side of acquisitiveness is driven by the desire to acquire too much.  This is the more obvious consumerism discussed by the secular media in the articles mentioned above.  But according to Fairlie, the more subtle side of Avarice is something rather different.


Avarice is, not so much the love of possessions, as the love merely of possessing.  To buy what we do not need, more even than we need for our pleasure or entertainment, is a love of possessing for its own sake.  We may think that we do not know any misers, since we do not come across people fondling their coins.  But we all know people whose homes are so filled with possessions that there is scarcely room to turn in them.  No one can need so many possessions or take any real pleasure in them.  Our main impression in such houses is of distraction.  Not only is our attention distracted by so many objects, so is the attention of their owner who should be acting as our host.  His eyes dart around his room, noticing his possessions, and he must bring them to our notice.  He must look constantly at what he owns, because it is the mere fact that he owns them that matters to him.  He does not love his possessions for what they are—no one can love so many objects—he loves the fact that he is their possessor. …


This difference between possessions and the mere possessing needs underlining.  The man who really loves the good wine he is serving, as he tastes it at his table, if he mentions it at all, will be heard to make only the briefest comment, almost to himself:  “My, that’s rather good, isn’t it?”  The wine is then left alone, to be itself and to be enjoyed by his guests.  But there is another kind of man who praises the label.  Even at his own table, he praises the label and asks his guests to praise it.  He is not interested in the wine.  It could hardly matter less to him.  He is interested in the fact that he can afford the label.  He is not even a “wine snob”; he is a “label snob.”  This is Avarice:  the love of possessing, rather than the love of possessions.



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One Response to “More than the love of possessions, the love of possessing…”

  1. The desert fathers spoke frequently about the sin of avarice. They closely correlated it with the sin of gluttony. These and sexual sins were even more profoundly rooted in coveteousness, the prohibition in the last of the Ten Commandments. Coveteousness short-circuits the virtue of gratitude, a theme throughout the Bible. Gratitude is aptly summed up in what Paul said: “I have learned to be content in all things, whether in want or in plenty.” Isn’t this the attitude that the Pilgrims displayed at the first Thanksgiving?