Friday, September 05, 2008

Pleonexia

I have already alluded in these pages to this author's love of words.  From time to time I find a beautiful word and "pleonexia" is one such word.  Let me explain it.  It is a noun meaning excessive or insatiable covetousness. Like most such abstract nouns its etymology is classical, in this case from the Greek pleonektein (to be greedy), from pleion (more) + ekhein (have).

This is a beautiful word in and of itself, even before we look to its meaning.  The word refers to a condition at the heart of humankind -that of greed.  Greed is an obsession with possessions and hence with all objects, acquisitions and indeed attendant status that accompanies such blandishments and allurements.

This word fascinates me because it cuts to the heart of the human condition as we experience it in modern living.  I read somewhere that several people have argued that a condition called pleonexia has overtaken the U.S.  A writer called Don McClanen states that 'Pleonexia is an insatiable need for more of what I already have, and it has penetrated our culture to the point where people are angry at the poor." (See www.wordsmith.org )

Being angry with the poor is nothing short of prejudice whether class or race-based.  Some years ago I remember seeing a documentary where one politician argued that the blacks in his constituency in one southern state of the USA were poor because quite simply they were innately lazy.  In other more philosophical terms one could argue that this politician believed in a meritocracy.  A meritocracy on the surface seems to be fair.  But, then, is one to argue that only those who earn a living deserve a living?  Where do the poor lie in such a scheme of things?  Let's take a few ways of stating some myths which lie behind meritocracy.  One myth could be stated thus: "The poor are sinful and corrupt and are only getting their true deserts" ( a travesty of all religious values).  Another would be "The poor owe their poverty to their stupidity" or another still "The poor owe their poverty to their sheer laziness or sloth."  Alain de Botton in his wonderful little book Status Anxiety (Penguin Books, 2004) has some interesting reflections on these matters:

With the rise of an economic meritocracy the poor moved, in certain quarters, from being described as 'unfortunate', the target and charity and guilt of the rich, to being described as 'failures', fair targets of contempt in the eyes of robust self-made individuals...

There could be no more telling expression of the idea of satisfactory justice behind the distribution of wealth and poverty than the nineteenth-century philosophy of Social Darwinism.  Social Darwinists proposed that all humans began by facing a fair struggle over scarce resources: money, jobs, esteem.  Some gained the upper hand in this contest, not because of improper advantages or luck but because they were intrinsically better than those they outpaced.  The rich were not better from a moral point of view.  They were, intimidatingly, naturally better.  They were more potent, their seed was stronger, their minds were cannier, they were the tigers of the human jungle predestined by biology...to triumph over others.  Biology wanted the rich to be rich and the poor to be poor. (Op. cit., 87)

This, to my mind, adds another layer of understanding to the way the British administration both in England and Ireland handled the Great Famine or the Gorta Mór in Ireland between 1845-1848.  Of Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan (1807 – 1886) who was a British civil servant and later Governor of Madras we read in the WIKI:

He was assistant secretary to HM Treasury from 1840 - 1859, during both the Irish famine and the Highland Potato Famine of 1846-1857. In Ireland he was responsible for administering famine relief, whilst in Scotland he was closely associated with the work of the Central Board for Highland Relief. His inaction and attitude towards the Irish are widely believed to have worsened the Famine. As Assistant Secretary to the Treasury he was placed in charge of the administration of Government relief to the victims of the Irish Famine in the 1840s. In the middle of that crisis Trevelyan published his views on the matter. He saw the Famine as a "mechanism for reducing surplus population". He described the famine as "The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated. …The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people".  (See this link: Trevelyan)

My goodness, could you imagine anyone arguing for this today? "Reducing surplus population" is exactly a tenet of Social Darwinism.  Imagine the outcry if someone said this about the consequent deaths and injuries due to the great natural disasters we have had recently like tsunamis, earthquakes and all the other natural disasters that have beset our world.  Look at the prejudice which probably masked an innate hate in these seemingly logical words.  Social Darwinism, then, argued that the weak (or poor) were nature's mistakes and that their sufferings and early deaths were beneficial to society as a whole and consequently should not be prevented by government interference.

In such a light these Social Darwinists argued that it was probably wrong to offer welfare to the poor.  Even if welfare were given the poor would have to earn it.  Hence we have all those useless roads leading into bogs and piers built at different places around the coast where no boat ever docked - these poor 'works' were a means whereby the poverty stricken and starving people earned their welfare or food.

Alain de Botton argues cogently in the above named book that such philanthropists like the Scottish American magnate Andrew Carnegie were at heart people who subscribed to an often heartless meritocracy.  He sums up this philosophy of meritocracy succinctly and with great insight thus:

To the injury of poverty, a meritocratic system now added the insult of shame.  (Ibid., 91)

It's all too easy to hate.  Prejudices are often the outer masks of a deeper naked hatred of others whether because of their creed or colour or any other characteristic one might care to mention.  Hence I feel Don McClanen's contention quoted about is worth repeated here for emphasis.  His sentiments are really the truth of the matter that lies at the heart of the concept of meritocracy.  Once again, read the following meditatively and let the truth sink in: 'Pleonexia is an insatiable need for more of what I already have, and it has penetrated our culture to the point where people are angry at the poor." It's a beautiful word and yet it cuts to the heart of the matter by getting to the essential way we humans are and how we treat each other!

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