Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Last Commandment

Let's have a drum roll for the last of my godless commandments, albeit not the last of my ethical ruminations, and introduce it with a story about its origins.

As with the Psalms in the Bible, the numbering of the Ten Commandments is not uniform.

Catholics merge the first three biblical injunctions -- I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me, and you shall not make for yourself an idol -- into one first commandment. Anglicans consider the first injunction to be a preface, leaving the other two separate. Talmudic Judaism and Orthodox Christianity opt for two commandments, the first being the first injunction and the second containing the other two.

This is followed by seven parallel but differently numbered commandments. For example, Thou shalt not kill is the 5th commandment to Catholics, but the 6th to everyone else.

Then at the end, the Catholics catch up by drawing a distinction regarding the prohibition concerning coveting. The Douay-Rheims English translation, produced in France by exiled English Catholics during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, renders the commands as follows:
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife: nor his house, nor his field, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is his. (Deut. 5:21)
Obviously, the Catholics saw the colon as an important distinction, but others do not.

Catholic seminarians used to joke that to Protestants, evidently, wife and "ass" was pretty much the same thing. Ba-da-bing!

When I was constructing my norms founded in the notion of survival, I sought to focus on what might mitigate against my (one's) survival. Hence I promulgated the dictum that
Thou shalt rein in desires that give rise to hate, theft, disrespect of others, despoiling of the earth that sustains thee, and the diminishment of life.
The notion of coveting -- in dictionary definition, to desire wrongfully, inordinately, or without due regard for the rights of others -- has been the source of much mischief. Wrongfully? Inordinately? What is wrong? Is there an order, who defines it and what sets the order off kilter as to be "inordinate"?

No one argues much about the rights of others, any more than anyone credibly argues about "thou shalt not kill" (other than to say it doesn't apply to war, execution, abortion and few sundry other things).

The rights of others are pretty obvious; when we want to trample on them, we generally just ignore them and leave the sheriffs and deputies to argue about them.

Survival being so essential to the notion of ethics, I wanted to cover much broader, uncontested territory. I thought that any unbridled desire that could give rise to disrespect of another human being or the natural environment that sustains us, would be detrimental.

These would include envy, greed, prejudice. In action, I specified razing a forest merely to make more money, wishing an accident on someone who has a better car than ours, deriving one's own self-respect from a dim view of entire classes of people.

Let's face it: envy, greed and prejudice are toxic. They corrode inside us.

Often a home, a way of living, a job, looks, possesions or social standing that have served us perfectly well, become puny and embarrassing, simply because we see a mirage. We suddenly see in an imaginary lake the image of someone else richer or more beautiful, wealth beyond our normal imagining, a difference in appearance that we can make into something of to make ourselves look better.

Then we begin the mindless chase that disregards even our own well-being. Most of the time, if we manage to grasp the object of our desire for an instant, its gleam vanishes and we then seek it again and again, in hopes of retaining the glitter.

John D. Rockefeller was once asked how much money would be enough. His reply was, "A little more."

This rule of life is about enough being enough. We can survive perfectly well with a lot less wealth, fewer possessions and a lower level of esteem than we think. We need not worry on this account.

1 comment:

Diane said...


I agree. Why is it, in my opinion, people who are surviving on less, sometimes seem to have a much better attitude toward life than people who have "everything"? Maybe because like you said the people who have everything, like you quoted Rockefeller as saying, still always want more. Actually simpler is better, if a person tat least has food and a place to live. Greed seems to get more greed as I am now thinking in the case of Madoff, many of the Wall Street mogols, the people who sold real estate to people who they knew couldn't afford it, and the banks who gave loans to the people who they knew couldn't afford it.
Not to mention the hedge funds and all those other funds that most of people don't understand.
I also think Greenspan is partially to blame for all of his manipulating of the system.
Someone I know who has several million told me the same thing Rockefeller said a few years ago and I understand. If you buy one thing you always want something else. You buy a Lexus and then you want a bigger house, etc. Now after all this Wall Street Greed we all have been reading about, I really understand.

Diane in DC