I’ve heard and read many times that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” While this is likely a mistranslation of a bible verse it is certainly a pervasive idea in popular culture. It seems intuitive that greed is the source of many problems, but here I’d like to consider that perhaps greed is nothing more than a symptom of a deeper problem.
Greed is “an inordinate desire to acquire or possess more than one needs.” I’ve had many conversations about ‘more than one needs’, but I’m more curious about the ‘possess‘ part of the definition: what does it mean to possess something?
Possession is: “the state of having, owning, or controlling something,” so let’s dig into this idea. What does it mean to own something? Ownership is: “the act, state, or right of possessing something.” These definitions are a bit too circular to really mean anything. Possession is ownership is possession is ownership.
But possession is also “the state of having,” so what does this mean? To have is defined as: “to possess, own, or hold.” From this we learn two things: 1) having is possession is ownership is having is possession is ownership… and 2) physically holding something is one way to have/possess/own. Possession defined as “to hold” is likely where we get the phrase ‘finders keepers, losers weepers,’ but that strikes a sour note in my moral palate, so let’s keep digging.
Finally, possession is “controlling something.” To control is defined as “the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events.” This is where I think the heart of the matter lies. Doesn’t this definition (the only non-recursive definition we’ve found for having/possessing/owning) imply that it is possible to own another person? Hopefully you find this idea to be distasteful, but it seems almost comically easy to possess another human being by this standard — all you have to do is influence their behavior. But we influence each other’s behavior all the time.
Humans are inherently designed to be behavioral copy machines. We are essentially malleable, blank slates at birth. All of our behaviors and thoughts are acquired (refer back to the definition of greed) by way of reflecting the people around us. In fact, our ability to mirror isn’t a simple developmental mechanism to help us learn how to walk or talk or socialize, rather, this is a constant process that occurs throughout our lifespan. We pick up on each other’s habits, beliefs, and personalities. We all have some level of control over every person and thing we interact with and, therefore, own at least a small piece of everything we encounter. Perhaps you can’t tip a skyscraper onto its side, but you can certainly smudge your finger oils on it without any protest, or open its doors without consent from the building. Similarly, your control over a person may not be total and complete, but the mere presence of another being changes the way we act and think entirely.
This ties directly into what we consider ‘freedom’ to mean. There are many definitions of freedom, but the relevant one for this post reads: “the quality of being independent of fate or necessity.” Freedom, in a sense, is independence from need (strangely enough, if you continue to want possessions when you are independent of necessity, isn’t that greed?). I posit that the root of all evil is not the love of money, or greed, but, rather, the concept of ownership itself.
The problem with ownership is that it is a meaningless ideal, like perfection, total randomness, or an omniscient being — if these things existed they would simply break the logic of our reality. Is it necessary to have complete control over something to truly own it, because, if so, you would need to stop the flow of time to totally control your property. Do you own your self, because, if so, who is doing the owning and who is being owned?
Of course, meaningless ideals don’t necessarily invoke evil (freedom is a good example… although perhaps I will write a post in the future about the consequences of thinking that true freedom can exist). But we expose ourselves to a nearly unavoidable danger by pretending to own things: we must remove ourselves from the equation if our lives as owners are to have any semblance of sanity and logical coherence. I have already described how we must do this to avoid thinking of other people as property, but as another example, take inanimate objects. If ownership is control and control is influence, when you are compelled to buy something because of its beauty, or effectiveness, or cost, isn’t that material item influencing you? This is a truth too overwhelming for most to consider: that our things own us just as much as we own them. If ownership is real we want, no, we need to own our selves. Otherwise, how can we even call what we are a self? When we think that ownership is real our self is merely a jumbled collection of somewhat related puzzle pieces that struggle against competing external influences to manipulate a body with loosely attached strings like a broken marionette dancing in the wind.
Finally, our pretension of ownership not only logically negates the existence and value of our selves, it removes the value from our lives.
As Alan Watts says: “Apart from life, the self is as meaningless as a solitary note taken from a symphony, as dead as a finger cut from the hand, and as stagnant as air caught from the wind and shut tight in a room. The same may also be said of any person, idea, object, or quality which the self tries to grasp and keep for its own exclusive property.”