Self-Love and the Sin of AvaricePETER A. KWASNIEWSKI
If you remember being taught in grammar school that pride is the root of all sins, or if you are fortunate enough to have studied St. Thomas Aquinas who shows why sins concerning material things are intrinsically less grave, less corruptive, than spiritual sins like envy and sloth, you may want to pull back the reins and exclaim “Why does St. Paul go so far as to say that avarice or love of money is the root of all evil?”
In reading the sixth chapter of St. Paul’s first Epistle to St. Timothy, one might be surprised and somewhat puzzled to find the following verses:
For we brought nothing into this world, and certainly we can carry nothing out. But, having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. For they that desire to be rich fall into temptation, into the snare of the devil, into many unprofitable and hurtful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and have entangled themselves in many sorrows.
Most of the truths expressed here are well known to Christians and, ideally, we not only believe them but live by them every day. Yet if you remember being taught in grammar school that pride is the root of all sins, or if you are fortunate enough to have studied St. Thomas Aquinas who shows why sins concerning material things are intrinsically less grave, less corruptive, than spiritual sins like envy and sloth, you may want to pull back the reins and exclaim “Why does St. Paul go so far as to say that avarice or love of money is the root of all evil?” At first, it seems counterintuitive; it does not square with our daily experience, where we see droves of men and women departing from the path of virtue for many reasons that seem to have little to do with the possession of riches. If the author of these verses had been any other saint, we might excuse ourselves by saying that he was writing about and for a given period of time, and that his sentiments no longer applied in the same way to us and our age. But we are dealing here with revelation; the letters of Paul to his zealous co-worker Timothy are enthroned in the canon of divine revelation, and this teaching on avarice, no less than any other, deserves our reverent acceptance. Perhaps, then, it is time to consider St. Paul’s meaning more carefully, in order to understand better the truth contained in this startling assertion.
1. INORDINATE LOVE OF SELF AS THE ROOT OF SIN
Although it may seem a roundabout way of approaching the subject, it will become apparent why we need to back up a few paces to set the context for our discussion. In his great work the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas poses the question “Whether self-love is the source of every sin?,” and gives the following answer:
The proper and direct cause of sin is to be considered on the part of the adherence to a mutable good; in which respect every sinful act proceeds from inordinate desire for some temporal good. Now the fact that anyone desires a temporal good inordinately, is due to the fact that he loves himself inordinately; for to wish anyone some good is to love him. Therefore it is evident that inordinate love of self is the cause of every sin. 
This inordinate love of self is manifested, as Thomas shows, primarily in desiring a temporal or material good inordinately, that is, in violation of the order of divine law and human reason, or put in other terms, in contradiction to the demands of virtue and God’s will. Thus every sinful act involves two components: a good thing desired in an evil way or for an evil purpose, and a person who desires to enjoy that good thing despite the damage it will cause to him and the offense it will cause to God. Any creature can become an occasion or instrument of sin if the person using that created thing uses it badly, which is to say uses it against the function it was intended to serve in the Christian life.
Thus it can be seen that sin is possible only because man, being free, is free to love himself in the wrong way. Indeed, it is obvious upon reflection that no sin is committed “for its own sake”; all sins are committed with a view to the aggrandizement and advancement of one’s own “happiness,” however poorly this goal may be understood. Because man is capable of choosing the practical steps he will take towards securing his happiness, it is always possible that he will choose things that make him temporarily happy but cannot finally satisfy his immortal soul. “The impurity of error consists in this, that the human intellect adheres inordinately to things below itself, through wishing to measure divine realities by the rule of sensible things.  Every time a person chooses something that militates against his true happiness — namely, to rest in the divine blessedness — he is pursuing a false image, an idol, of his own devising. Idols, as Scripture teaches, are deaf and dumb; they are inferior not only to the true God, but to man himself. And that is why all sin ultimately issues in unhappiness. Only by knowing and loving the God who made him after His image and likeness can man be fulfilled; by worshiping an idol, man falls beneath his proper dignity as a child of God and his life necessarily ends in despair. “A good man’s purposes are unified, a sinner’s scattered,” St. Thomas writes. “The life of sin is a fall from coherence to chaos; the life of virtue is a climb from the many to the One.  John Henry Newman describes the subtle danger that imperils even those who are otherwise dutiful and God-fearing:
They do not understand that they are called to be strangers and pilgrims upon the earth, and that their worldly lot and worldly goods are a sort of accident of their existence, and that they really have no property, though human law guarantees property to them. Accordingly, they set their heart upon their goods, be they great or little, not without a sense of religion the while, but still idolatrously. This is their fault, — an identifying [of] God with this world, and therefore an idolatry towards this world; and so they are rid of the trouble of looking out for their God, for they think they have found Him in the goods of this world. 
As a result of connecting these ideas, we are in a position to appreciate why inordinate love of self goes hand in hand with inordinate love of temporal goods to the exclusion of divine goods. Whenever a person loves himself wrongly, he puts this misdirected love into practice by loving creatures wrongly; and whenever creatures are used against their rightful purpose, it is certain that behind the abuse lies the first and most fatal abuse of all, the idealization and glorification of the ego.  In an eloquent passage from his book On Free Choice of the Will, St. Augustine describes what happens when a soul commits the worst error, that of taking itself for its own highest end:
In its contemplation of the highest wisdom — which is not the soul, since wisdom is unchangeable — the changeable soul also looks upon itself and somehow enters its own mind. But this happens only as the soul realizes that it is not the same as God, and yet that it is something that, next to God, can be pleasing . . . .If instead someone takes pleasure in himself and wills to enjoy his own power in a perverse imitation of God, he becomes more and more insignificant as he desires to become greater. This is “pride, the beginning of all sin” (Sir. 10:13); and “the beginning of pride is apostasy from God” (Sir. 10:12.5)
When the self attempts to become its own God, the measure of right and wrong, happiness and misery, how could such an absurd negation of reality yield any good fruits? A creature that tries to seize divine privileges is living in a world of lies, or more to the point, in a world of deep self-deception, with all the malaise that follows from having divorced itself from the truth. The result of pride is folly, and this folly is nothing other than alienation from divine wisdom. For a creature endowed with mind — a mind made to gaze upon the light-filled face of its maker — there is no worse evil than to be cast into the outer darkness of divine nescience. Yet as Augustine proves, this banishment results in no way from an arbitrary God’s decree; it is neither more nor less than the sinner’s condemnation of himself.
For it is pride that turns one away from wisdom, and the result of this turning away is folly. Folly is in fact a sort of blindness, as Paul says: “And their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:21). What is the source of this darkness, if not their turning away from the light of wisdom? And what is the source of this turning away, if not that someone whose good is God wants to be his own good, as if he were his own God? And so it is written: “Within myself, my soul is disquieted” (Ps. 42:6), and “Taste it and you will be like gods” (Gen. 3:5). 
If sin is necessarily caused by inordinate love of self, one might then ask how exactly this kind of love goes awry. St. Thomas explains that there are two components involved in every sin, cupidity and pride, where these components are taken in a general way:
There are two sides to every sin, the turning toward transient satisfaction and the turning away from everlasting good. As regards the turning-toward, the principle of all sins is cupidity in its most general sense, namely, the unbridled desire for one’s own pleasure. As regards the turning-away, the principle is pride in its general sense, which is lack of submission to God: “the beginning of pride is man’s revolt from God” (Ecclus. 10:14). Cupidity and pride in this pervasive sense are not called capital sins, because as such they are not special sins: they are the roots and sprouts of vice, as the desire for happiness is the root of all virtue. 
When it is said that cupidity or pride is the root of sin, therefore, what is meant is that in every sin there is both a disordered desire and a lack of submission to God. The sinner’s mistake is twofold: he chooses something harmful out of a mistaken perception of what will make him happy, and in doing so he refuses to submit to the divine wisdom which created and sustains all good things in their proper places and for their proper purposes.
Before moving on, we should pause to note how this twofold mistake underscores the importance of distinguishing between the use and abuse of created goods. Although no error more antithetical to authentic Christianity can be imagined than that of Manichaeism, which sees reality as a battlefield where a good but limited God fights continually against an evil God responsible for making the material world and the bodies inhabiting it, there have been and still are many Christians who seem to distrust the whole of the created world, including the human body and its natural pleasures, regarding them as little better than a snare and pitfall, a trap set by the devil to keep his chattel in chains. According to this distorted view of reality, material goods, especially riches, are intrinsically evil and cannot be used without incurring guilt and punishment. No distinction is made between putting good things to a good use, and twisting them with a bad will to an evil end. Yet if such a distinction is not decisively made, we are prone to think that Christian perfection consists exclusively in ascetical renunciation and utmost contempt of the world, and that, as a result, the vast majority of Christians are condemned to lives of patent inferiority, if not downright hypocrisy. A full reply to these exaggerated but sadly influential views falls outside the scope of this article, but it will do us good to think about the incomparable response of Augustine, who in many places assaults the Manichaean error that held his intellect in thrall for many wearisome years:
The very same things are used in different ways by different people; some use them badly and others use them well. Someone who uses them badly clings to them and becomes entangled with them. He serves things that ought to serve him, fixing on goods that he cannot even use properly because he is not himself good. But one who uses these things rightly shows that they are good. . .For those things do not make the one who uses them good or better; in fact, they become good by being put to good use. And so someone who uses them well does not become attached to them. . .Since this is the case, you must realize that we should not find fault with silver and gold because of the greedy, or food because of gluttons, or wine because of drunkards, or womanly beauty because of fornicators and adulterers, and so on, especially since you know that fire can be used to heal and bread to poison. 
Throughout our discussion, therefore, it must be borne in mind that only the selfish and harmful use of worldly goods, not their use and even less their existence, is the target of the Apostle’s (and the Catholic faith’s) condemnation. If one objects that this distinction begs the question by assuming that wealth and worldly goods do admit of a virtuous use, we may reply, as argued above, that such goods become morally evil when a man who loves himself inordinately applies them to the task of advancing his selfish agenda. To do so is the very definition of abuse. All other uses are morally acceptable and often praiseworthy. Were it not so, how could Sacred Scripture speak in the most generous terms of the beauty and worthiness of creaturely goods and of their rightful and divinely pleasing use by mankind? “In themselves creatures are no obstacles to eternal happiness,” remarks St. Thomas. “We make them so, by abusing them and by committing ourselves to them as if they were our ultimate goal.” 
II. LOVE OF MONEY AS THE ROOT OF SIN
After the foregoing analysis, one might still feel incredulous about St. Paul’s statement. After all, it is hard to see how love of money, a vice also named greed or avarice, can be extensive enough to be called the root, the source and sustainer, of all sins, when we have seen above that inordinate love of self, as well as pride and misdirected desire, are involved in every sin as its originating forces. How does “love of money” deserve to be ranked in this class? Several considerations will help to shed light on this Pauline utterance. On a simple textual level, note that the verse in question reads, in the Latin of St. Jerome’s Vulgate, “radix omnium malorum est cupiditas.” Jerome selected a word with a range of meanings: cupiditas can signify either disordered desire for temporal goods in general, or love of money in particular. Although its literal meaning is tied to wealth, cupiditas, as well as its Greek name philarguria (which means “love of silver”), suggests any inordinate love for the things of this world, the most obvious examples of which are the means of wealth whereby things of the world can be acquired and maintained. Augustine explains this in clear terms:
You should not search any further than the root of the issue. Take care that you believe in the unsurpassable truth of the saying that the root of all evils is greed (1 Tim. 6:10), that is, wanting to have more than enough. Enough means whatever is necessary to preserve a nature according to its kind. But greed, which in Greek is called philarguria, does not merely have to do with the silver or coins from which the word is derived (for it used to be that coins were made of silver or had some silver mixed in). Rather, it should be understood to apply to any object of immoderate desire, in any case where someone wills to have more than enough. Such greed is cupidity, and cupidity is a perverse will. 
Although this argument is compelling, the reader may still wonder if Augustine is doing full justice to the pointed language of the Apostle. In the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas grapples with it when he asks “Whether covetousness is the root of all sin?,” to which he answers:
According to some, covetousness [cupiditas] may be understood in different ways. First, as denoting inordinate desire for riches, and thus it is a special sin. Secondly, as denoting inordinate desire for any temporal good, and thus it is a genus comprising all sins, because every sin includes an inordinate turning to a mutable good. Thirdly, as denoting an inclination of a corrupt nature to desire corruptible goods inordinately: and they say that in this sense covetousness is the root of all sins, comparing it to the root of a tree, which draws its sustenance from earth, just as every sin grows out of the love of temporal things.
Here we see Thomas even-handedly presenting a few basic ways of interpreting St. Paul’s statement, which can be reduced to the wider and the narrower readings. The wider reading we have already discussed and will take up again in a moment. The narrower reading makes the elementary observation that without the concrete means to pursue them, most desires go unfulfilled. But there is more to it than that. If we patiently make a few connections we will come to see how the wider and narrower readings support each other — how, in other words, the inordinate desire, the cupidity and pride, which functions in all sins relates to that covetousness of wealth singled out by St. Paul. 
For St. Thomas, there are two fundamental parts or aspects of man’s nature, the lower which is woven, so to speak, into the organic matter of the body (local motion, sensation, imagination, etc.), and the higher which, operating through the body, is nevertheless immaterial (namely, the rational faculties of intellect and will). We are not dealing with a doctrine of mind-body dualism, since Thomas teaches that man is one whole and indivisible being and his substantial form is unitary. But the rational faculties, though they are part of the one soul that informs the body, are still immaterial in their essence — that is, the activities of thinking and willing are not reducible to the activities of any bodily organ — and hence the rational part of the soul is separable from matter and imperishable. It is only in virtue of its spiritual nature that the human soul continues to live after death. These two parts are called, for the sake of shorthand, the lower soul and the higher soul (which is also known as mind or spirit).  This distinction highlights the fact that the soul by giving unity to the organism is to a certain degree enmeshed in matter, whereas the spirit breathed by God into each person is immaterial and capable of separate existence.
This review of Thomistic anthropology is a preface to the point relevant to us: the highest goods man can choose are the goods of his highest part, namely the mind, so that everything the virtuous man chooses will be for the sake of what is best in him, not for that in him which is akin to the life of brute animals. (For his action to be acceptable and meritorious, a person need not be consciously aware in every case that what he is about to do is “perfective of his better nature”; otherwise it would be very difficult to act quickly and spontaneously in the many contexts of daily life, where prolonged reflection can be a luxury or a hindrance. Two conditions are sufficient before acting: a settled disposition to do what is right, and reliable knowledge that an intended action is not contrary to natural or divine law.) Whenever a man chooses a good for the best aspect of himself, including times when he chooses for the lower aspect a limited good in harmony with the measure appointed by the higher, he acts virtuously. When, on the contrary, he chooses a good that is merely pleasant or useful for the lower part and does not contribute to the perfection of his whole being, he sins against himself, against his own better nature. In the striking words of Augustine:
When the will cleaves to the common and unchangeable good [God], it attains the great and foremost goods for human beings . . . But when the will turns away from the unchangeable and common good toward its own private good, or toward external or inferior things for their own sake, it sins. It turns toward its own private good when it wants to be under its own control; it turns toward exterior things when it is keen on things that belong to others or have nothing to do with itself; it turns toward inferior things when it takes wrongful delight in physical pleasure. In this way one becomes proud, meddlesome, and lustful; one is caught up into a life that, by comparison with the higher life man should lead, is death. 
As we saw earlier, all sins are a choosing of the lower over the higher, or the goods of this world and this life over those goods which remain immortally within the best part of man, such as love for what is noble or knowledge of the truth (these never entirely perish, whereas earthly goods are mutable and subject to decay). Hence, even when a man appears to be choosing a “spiritual” evil such as ambition, envy, or malice, his purpose is tied down to this life, the life of the lower soul. Men are ambitious for honors in this life, they are envious of goods that other people now have or will have, they are malicious towards competitors or enemies. Even the so-called spiritual sins are thus rooted in the materiality of the lower part of man, not in the genuine good of his higher spiritual part. Hence, it is no exaggeration to say that all sins are sins of cupidity, inasmuch as the sinner desires some good for himself in this world that damages the true good of his nature. It therefore makes sense to assert, with Thomas and Augustine, that every sinful act proceeds from inordinate desire for some temporal good. Even a defective or distorted attitude towards others, when looked at from another perspective, proceeds from excessive love of the self and its goods, for love always precedes hatred. Every hatred is rooted in some love: if I hate a co-worker or neighbor, it is because he threatens or insults what I stand for, which I love enough to have cause for hating him. This attachment to one’s own limited good, rather than to the unlimited good which is God, translates into a vain attempt to seek one’s dwelling in the realm of time and change rather than in the realm of changeless eternity, our true home.  “Perfection is reached,” observes St. Thomas, when a man is single-hearted; the more united and compact he is, the more like unto God: “one thing have I desired of the Lord, this will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life” (Ps. 26:4). This unity breaks up when a man seeks riches and the things of this world; his desires are scattered, his heart is tugged this way and that. 
At this point, we come full circle. For what enables man to achieve his ambitions, entertain his envy, satisfy his malice, requite his passions, and so forth, if not material goods, or in a word, wealth? Ambition, envy, malice, and other interior sins culminate in the gravest damage when they are armed with worldly power, and worldly power and prestige, in this fallen reality, is almost always the companion, and usually the puppet, of wealth. “The end of cupidity, i.e., avarice, is related to the ends of all the other vices as a kind of beginning inasmuch as by riches a man can acquire all the things that the other vices desire, for money virtually contains all such desirable things.”  If we closely analyze the sins mentioned, we will see that at the base of them is a desire to put into effect the desire, whatever it may be.  It is not enough to look scientifically at the forbidden apple; the sinner must desire it, take hold of it, bite into it. If I really hate my enemy, then at some level I want him to be incapacitated, imprisoned, maimed, or killed. (Why else would Christ teach that hating a man in your heart is murder, or that looking lustfully upon a woman is adultery?) If the talents of my associates at work arouse a deep envy in me, I desire that either I be recognized in lieu of them, or that their own talents become ineffectual. Sins never wholly terminate in one’s brain; there is always some action we wish to see accompany our wish. The sinner may not be conscious that his desire is accompanied by a will to action; few men think enough about their motives to realize it, but it is there. Now, the way to put into effect one’s sinful desires is to procure suitable means for achieving the end. We need only contemplate all the war, rapine, spite, and cutthroat competition in the world in order to be convinced that, according to the disgraceful standards of fallen man, the way to achieve triumph is to gain wealth and despoil others in the process.  This desire lies at the bottom of all unjust personal dealings and unjust social structures from the beginning of time. Cain was envious of Abel, so he killed him — as if by doing so he could arrogate to himself the honors accruing to his brother. The men of Babel sought to vie with God, so they started building a tower. The prodigal son wanted to do his own thing, so he appropriated his inheritance and went off. In sin there is always this element of cupidity, whether it takes the obvious form of greed for money, or more subtle forms like the wish to see others deprived of the goods they rightfully possess.
Thus, it seems that St. Paul means not so much that love of wealth in the narrow sense is the root of all sin, as that “every sinful act proceeds from inordinate desire for some temporal good,” of which money is the clearest example because it is the most widespread and powerful means for obtaining anything else that men might desire. “Money talks,” the saying goes; and how often do we hear: “Put your money where your mouth is”? He who has enough money can purchase nearly anything — from harmless collectibles to the most shameful crimes and the most horrific cultural disturbances. For this reason, Sacred Scripture uses unusually stern language when addressing the wealthy, in whose hands lay the power to do great good or great evil. By singling out avarice, St. Paul is naming the genus, cupidity or inordinate desire, by its most noticeable and prominent species — that is, he is referring to all temporal goods by their most visible and coveted representative, Mammon. For in the end, Mammon is the most potent force among the sons of Adam because it is the most adaptable and fluid medium of exchange and accumulation. How else can the towers of Babel in every age be funded? “The desire for natural wealth [e.g., food, shelter, sufficient clothing] is not boundless, because nature works within limits,” writes St. Thomas, “but there is no end to the avarice for artificial wealth.”  In the pointed words of the book of Sirach (5:8): “He who loves money never has money enough.”
There is no better synopsis of the Christian teaching on wealth and its standing under the New Covenant than the remarkable sermon of John Henry Newman, “The Danger of Riches.” There he observes:
The most obvious danger which worldly possessions present to our spiritual welfare is, that they become practically a substitute in our hearts for that One Object to which our supreme devotion is due. They are present; God is unseen. They are means at hand of effecting what we want: whether God will hear our petitions for those wants is uncertain; or rather I may say, certain in the negative. Thus they minister to the corrupt inclinations of our nature; they promise and are able to be gods to us, and such gods too as require no service, but, like dumb idols, exalt the worshiper, impressing him with a notion of his own power and security. And in this consist their chief and most subtle mischief. 
In its exposition of the tenth commandment, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The economy of law and grace turns men’s hearts away from avarice and envy. It initiates them into desire for the Sovereign Good; it instructs them in the desires of the Holy Spirit who satisfies man’s heart” (2541). After what we have learned about the sin of avarice with the help of St. Augustine, St. Thomas, and Cardinal Newman, it will be evident why St. Paul concludes his first Epistle to Timothy with the wise counsel (6:1719): “As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed.”
Kwasniewski, Peter A. “Self-Love and the Sin of Avarice.” The Catholic Faith 4, no. 2 (March/April 1998): 45-52.
Reprinted by permission of The Catholic Faith. The Catholic Faith is published bi-monthly and may be ordered from Ignatius Press, P.O. Box 591090, San Francisco, CA 94159-1090. 1-800-651-1531.
Peter A. Kwasniewski is studying for a Doctorate in Philosophy at The Catholic University of America, concentrating on medieval philosophy.
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