In our materialist era, it is worth considering John Cassian’s description of avarice in his treatise “On the Eight Vices.” (This treatise brought to the Latin West Evagrius' list of eight vicious thoughts and it is from this treatise that Gregory the Great would later develop the idea of the seven deadly sins). Cassian, whose feast would be tomorrow if this were a leap year, identifies the relationship between the destructive influence of demons and excessive worldly possessions. This vice, he teaches, is contrary to our true nature as creatures of God. It grows into an all-consuming passion, but we can overcome it.
Cassian does well to emphasize the role of the demonic in encouraging sinful passions. In this treatise, he begins his description of the struggle against each vice, except gluttony, the same way, as a “struggle against the demon.” In the case I am now considering, “our… struggle is against the demon of avarice.” By attributing evil thoughts instead to nature, the present age too quickly discounts the activity of evil spirits. Remembering that it is not from our selves that avaricious thoughts and desires come properly externalizes the enemy many all too readily internalize and consider to be only natural. Just as an abused child constantly told that he is useless and no good may begin to believe these lies about himself, so we become when we believe the lie told to us by demons that our sin is in our true nature.
We may have been “born this way” (Gaga), we may have been brought forth in iniquity and conceived in sin (Ps. 50/51:5), but it is not our true nature. There is a struggle within us. In that struggle, it is good and helpful to remember that we are not created sinful and avaricious, but holy and generous.
This vice is a sickness contrary to our true nature and thus needs healing. “It enters from the outside,” as Cassian writes, because it is concerned with possessions and the external things of this world. Cassian is careful not to “accuse nature of being the cause of sin.” The false belief that sin is our very nature leads to despair of the possibility of freedom from sin and the battle is lost before the fight begins.
Concerning avarice particularly, it is important to reference, as Cassian does, the scriptural description of the love of money as “the root of all evil” (1Tim 6:10). This image of the root is evocative. It is easy to pull up the roots of a very new and young plant. If the plant is allowed to grow, however, it roots grow deeper and stronger and soon it becomes difficult – eventually nearly impossible – to pull it up. It is the same way with the vice of avarice. One begins by setting aside perhaps more than they need to. Another begins by reducing, just a small amount, but for no good reason, the offering they put in the collection each Sunday. Habits contrary to a generous attitude begin to wear on the individuals that practice them. Soon, they are giving nothing and hoarding all. Instead of supporting the poor and hungry, perhaps they purchase a luxurious automobile. They convince themselves that they deserve to have fine things, even while their neighbors go without necessities. At this point, the roots of avarice are deep and strong.
The vice of avarice presents a particular problem for those of us who are living in the world rather than the monastery. Cassian writes of overcoming avarice, “This uprooting is difficult to achieve unless we are living in a monastery.” Monks, to whom Cassian primarily addresses his treatise, live in such a way that the daily necessities of life do not need to occupy so much of their attention. Those who have families to provide for or others that depend on them are unable to avoid some contact with money. Nonetheless, it is important that they do not love this money or make an idol of it. Some of what Cassian says about a monk applies also to those who are in the world. For example, “raging fury when he happens to sustain a loss,” or “gloom and dejection when he falls short of the gain he hoped for” reveals sinful and idolatrous passion in a layman as much as in a monk. Even those who have not renounced the world entirely should not have a “fear of poverty.” Such fear “comes from lack of faith.” The Lord calls all alike to trust in Him. Not only monks, but also each of us, must live in faith.
Cassian’s remedy to the vice of avarice of utterly renouncing the world and all possessions is a good one, but it is not a virtuous option for those who already have responsibilities for the welfare of others in the world. Consequently, I will conclude with some of his suggestions for healing vices generally. For example, against dejection he recommends “prayer, hope in God, [and] meditation on Holy Scripture.” These remedies are efficacious not only against dejection, but also against the love of money. Rather than hoping in money to provide for our needs, we should hope in God and look to Scripture to teach us its proper use.