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When did it become ok to covet? Michael McDonald looks into sinful desire.

Well, here we are on the threshold of another Christmas. What used to be a gentle season of giving and receiving, feasting with family and friends, and perhaps contemplating the birth of the saviour of the world, has become – just like everything else, it seems – an orgy of shopping. How is it that commerce manages to cast its deadly pall over every human activity? Nothing is spared. Not hospitals. Not schools. Not our national game, nor our statutory holidays. All must make obeisance to this most godless of gods.

Commerce long ago moved beyond the simple exchange of useful goods to grace useful lives. It is, now, in and of itself, insatiable, omnivorous, and unstoppable in its pursuit of endless growth and limitless profit.

It’s absurd, of course. The world can’t stand much more. That’s clear. But what drives it? What causes someone to want to be a billionaire? Why does anyone need nineteen tee shirts or twenty-eight pairs of shoes? Who really requires not one but two 78-million-dollar yachts? Or a driveway full of cars? Or a kitchen groaning with gadgetry? The answer of course is Desire. Greed. Lust. Envy. Chamad, in Hebrew. Coveityse, in Chaucer’s Medieval English. Covetousness.

It’s not a word we hear very often. Perhaps because it belongs to the philosophical and spiritual realms, when we are now so determinedly secular and materially driven. We don’t hear about it much because greed and lust and getting what you want are all now commonplace, unquestioned, and endemic – and probably taught in the curriculum – whereas the notion of ‘coveting’ implicitly challenges this mindset. Coveting is about value, but not commercial value. It is about the battle for the soul, not for the discretionary dollar.

The exotically named Omarosa Manigault Newman, in her book about the Trump White House, Unhinged, said of Trump: ‘I believe he covets his daughter. It’s uncomfortable to watch them.’ Blimey. Uncomfortable indeed. Covet, in the sense Manigault Newman uses it, means sexual desire. This, though, is not the way some commentators on her work understood it. Many of them thought coveting meant ‘caring for’ or ‘being affectionate to’. Wrong. It shows just how much we have lost in a short time when many grown-ups simply don’t know what this word means anymore.  M. Newman knew exactly what she meant and it’s purely biblical. When Exodus 20:17 says, ’Thou shalt not covet thy neighour’s wife’, it’s not saying ’thou shalt not pat thy neighbour’s wife on the head in a caring way,’ It’s pretty clear.

When I first became aware of this proscription about neighbours’ wives, it was known round our way, as the Tenth Commandment. I didn’t really know at the age of seven what ‘covet’ meant exactly. I was pretty damn sure all the same that I didn’t covet Mrs Dix. Our neighbour’s wife was, in my father’s memorable summary, ‘a woman of repellant aspect.’ As far as the rest of the Commandment was concerned, while Mr Dix had neither a manservant, maidservant, ox nor ass to covet, he did have a powder blue Morrie Thou’, which I coveted enormously. Mea culpa Mr Dix.

The last two Commandments – the ninth and tenth – which deal with coveting of all manner of sinful loveliness, are different from the other eight. They are all about actions – murder, blaspheming, adultery, stealing – all that lurid stuff. But the coveting ones are about the heart’s desires. When then USA President, Jimmy Carter told Playboy in 1976 that he had ‘looked on a lot of women with lust’, he was quite right – in a scriptural sense – when he said that by this very act of coveting he had, in fact, ‘committed adultery in my heart.’ In saying so, he was reflecting Matthew 5:28: ‘…whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.’ Jimmy Carter’s becoming and self-deprecating shame seems quaint now in an age when the President of the United States appears happy to grab any passing bit of ass without so much as turning a yellow hair of his pompadoured head.

Across all religions and most philosophies, coveting always led to trouble. Greed, avarice, the desire to amass wealth without limit, and the passion for power were all the same to the church and it was seen as the deadliest of sins – well, for others at least, if not for the church itself. Philosophers typically felt the same. ‘Covetous desire’ said Philo of Alexandria, ‘is the worst kind of passion. Left unchecked it is the cause of personal, interpersonal, and international strife.’ Well, he’s not wrong there. What is China grabbing rocks in the South China Sea but covetousness writ large and dangerous. What is Bashar al Assad’s slaughter of half his people but the expression of lust for personal power at any expense. The annals of human depredation are long and depressing, and behind all of it is people’s desire for what they don’t have and others do. The simplest and best antonym for covet is ‘not want’.  Well, I suppose it’s easy for me to say. I’ve reached an age where I don’t have much and I don’t want much.  My covetousness seems extremely low, if not in complete abeyance. It’s strangely restful. I recommend it.

On the other hand – if anyone out there has a spare Cartier tank watch or an Aston Martin Superleggera they don’t want, I’d be very happy to relieve them of the burden. Just a thought.

First published in Capital issue #56
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