We human beings are a greedy lot.
Witness game shows unblushingly titled Greed and Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Or the roaring success of government-sponsored casinos and lotteries.
And those are merely blatant exaggerations of a more pervasive fascination with acquisition and possessiveness. As megacompanies mushroom, corporate profits mount up and markets soar, our tendency toward avarice drives our very economic structures themselves.
Of course there's nothing new in any of this. That root of all evil, the love of money, has been around for a long time.
Twenty-four centuries ago, Plato worried mightily about greed and how to control it. He believed human beings are driven by an excess of bodily desire to accumulate stuff well beyond our needs. In an effort to satisfy this basic greed, society becomes complex and stratified, and wealth is unevenly distributed, leading to internal strife and to war.
Plato's concern about a growing gap between rich and poor sounds distressingly familiar in a world where teens are becoming high-tech millionaires, sports and movie stars earn multimillions, and a growing number of people figure their worth in the billions. In the same world, about 1.2 billion people survive on less than $1 (U.S.) a day, and 57 per cent of the population exists on just 6 per cent of world income.
But Plato didn't think the answer lay in creating more wealth, or in tinkering with the system.
In his famous utopian dream, the Republic, the Athenian recommends a radical social restructuring whereby the ruling class of philosopher-guardians enjoys no personal property at all.
They give up private houses, money, spouses and children, in order to have all things in common except their own bodies. Plato cuts the nerve of acquisitiveness by removing anything for it to grasp.
Utopian dreams have been proposed, tried and dashed many times. We may be tempted to dismiss Plato as just another dreamer. He knows, however, that this solution to greed is too external: We don't give up wanting just because we can't have. So he proposes some interior work on the psyche, which he divides into reason, high-spiritedness and appetite.
Our appetitive nature consists in those elemental cravings for food, drink and sex that keep our physical beings going and also perpetuate our race. The problem with appetite is that it tends to take over the proper business of reason. Instead of living according to a rational plan aimed at virtue, we follow the instincts of gut and gonads and end up with disordered and therefore unhappy souls. Plato recasts these urgent instincts as wild interior beasts in need of taming, a process that requires careful education and training.
Curiously, appetitive soul is not only the seat of drives for food and sex, it is also the money-loving part, in need of taming.
How so? We don't have a particular organ for avarice, nor do most of us find ourselves possessed by an unruly physical craving that can be satisfied only by going after cash. Having money can help achieve bodily desires, but avarice itself doesn't seem to be directly related to our bodies.
Could Plato's own passion against wealth have gotten the better of his rational analysis of desire? Perhaps. But maybe he has an unarticulated point.
The clue may lie in the only possession those philosopher-guardians cannot give up: their own bodies. In an entirely basic way, your body holds a privileged place among everything that is yours; it is that one possession you have that makes it possible to call anything else your own.
And just as we have hard-wired desires for food and reproduction, so we find a hard-wired desire to preserve our bodily presence in the world. It's manifested in our instinctual reactions to threat to life and limbs, in territoriality, and even in the way our possessions -- clothes, houses, automobiles -- become manifestations or extensions of our bodies, their identities and their powers.
Though Plato did not work this out, he was right to hint at the bodily dimension in avarice as acquisitiveness and possessiveness. We have a strong desire for what's ours; we want to hang on to it, protect it, increase it, for the sake of our security in the world. If so, then greed is at root a form of dominating self-concern, born of fear that we won't be able to hang on to the very conditions of our bodily existence.
That said, two problems remain. First, Plato is only half-right about what's wrong with avarice. He saw that greed has an insatiable quality about it, never satisfied nor satisfiable, and he properly argued that we can't find the happiness of a healthy mind and spirit as long as we are dominated by possessiveness. However, Plato's focus on mental health tends to ignore the social consequences of greed. Where a few secure a large share of the available goods, there will be much less for the many others. Greed has no conscience for social justice; it grows fat and bloated but does not share with the needy.
Even should an individual or corporate psyche, blissfully infatuated with accumulating more stuff, escape the pangs of conscience, its greed is wrong as long as it contributes to social injustice.
Second, although Plato sets out some remedies for avarice, they are too severe. He proposed to reform desire by prolonged training and education for a small gifted class, so that they would be content even without anything to call their own. Their own desires reformed, they would then regulate desire in others.
The vision of a psyche guided successfully by reason is not without appeal, but I think it worked for Plato because of the example of his teacher Socrates. Plato makes Socrates into a semi-divine philosopher without bodily needs, whose appetites for food, drink and sex never got the better of him.
This means we cannot generalize from his particular case: it's too inhuman a remedy to strip away from a person all bodily concerns and conditions, too drastic a remedy to destroy possessiveness by removing all possessions.
We know too well that, as embodied beings, we need to be able to mark off what it is that is our own. Without that, we have no dignity, no freedom, no security, no identity.
The trick is to keep our need for our own possessions from turning into the greed of possessiveness.
If Plato doesn't help with that exercise, we could do worse than to turn back to other voices that speak of what kind of love might be the root of all goodness. However each of us loves our own bodily existence and wants to preserve it, these voices remind us that our very life itself is not self-generated, nor can we keep it going all by ourselves forever.
Maybe this dependency gives our lives the character of something like a gift -- not a prize in a game that only a few win, but a gift. If so, the courtesies we learned as children may hide the answer to avarice. You don't grasp greedily at a gift; you don't gloat over winning what others have lost. For a gift, the appropriate response is gratitude; and the appropriate gesture of gratitude is to share. Paul W. Gooch is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and the author most recently of Reflections on Jesus and Socrates: Word and Silence . He is working on a book about Plato on human appetites.