Covetousness and Temperance (Parsha Yitro Ex. 18:1-20:23)

This weeks (2/6/21) Torah Parsha is Parsha Yitro (Exodus 13:17-17:16). This weeks Torah reading includes the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:1-17). Among the ten, is the commandment “you shall not covet” (20:17). This commandment clearly demonstrates the Stoic philosophy embedded in the Torah. This commandment requires self control over. It requires a person to use their rational mind to overcome their inclinations and emotions and thus to exhibit the virtue of temperance. The author of 4th Maccabees (also called “On the Supremacy of Reason”) writers:

[5] Thus the law says, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife…or anything that is your neighbor’s.
[6] In fact, since the law has told us not to covet, I could prove to you all the more that reason is able to control desires. Just so it is with the emotions that hinder one from justice.
[7] Otherwise how could it be that someone who is habitually a solitary gormandizer, a glutton, or even a drunkard can learn a better way, unless reason is clearly lord of the emotions?
[8] Thus, as soon as a man adopts a way of life in accordance with the law, even though he is a lover of money, he is forced to act contrary to his natural ways and to lend without interest to the needy and to cancel the debt when the seventh year arrives.
[9] If one is greedy, he is ruled by the law through his reason so that he neither gleans his harvest nor gathers the last grapes from the vineyard. In all other matters we can recognize that reason rules the emotions.
(4Maccabees 2:5-9 RSV)

The very fact that the Torah requires us to control our inclinations and emotions demonstrates that the rational mind *can* control our inclinations and emotions, and that the Torah teaches us to put our rational mind in control over our emotions. Were it not so, we would not be direct in the Torah “you shall not covet.”

Philo of Alexandria writes of the great perils of the passion of covetousness, or desire:

Every passion is open to and deserving of blame, inasmuch as every immoderate and violent impulse, and every irrational and unnatural emotion of the soul is also faulty and blameable, for what is either of these things but an ancient passion spread over a wider extent? If any one, therefore, does not set limits to these feelings, nor put a bridle on them as on restive horses, he will be afflicted by an evil difficult to remedy, and then, without being aware of it, he will, because of their unrestrainable character, be carried away by them, as a charioteer sometimes is by a chariot, and hurried into ravines and pits from which it is difficult to rise up, and very hard to escape with safety.
(Special Laws IV, 79)


Last of all, the divine legislator prohibits covetousness, knowing that desire is a thing fond of revolution and of plotting against others; for all the passions of the soul are formidable, exciting and agitating it contrary to nature, and not permitting it to remain in a healthy state, but of all such passions the worst is desire. On which account each of the other passions, coming in from without and attacking the soul from external points, appears to be involuntary; but this desire alone derives its origin from ourselves, and is wholly voluntary.
(Decalogue 142)

Philo goes on to discuss the root cause of desire as an emotion:

(143) But what is it that I am saying? The appearance and idea of a present good, or of one that is accounted such, rouses up and excites the soul which was previously in a state of tranquillity, and raises it to a high degree of elation, like a light suddenly flashing before the eyes; and this passion of the soul is called pleasure. (144) But the contrary to good is evil, which, when it forces its way in, and inflicts a mortal wound, immediately fills the soul against its will with depression and despondency; and the name of the passion is sorrow. (145) But when the evil presses upon the soul, when it has not as yet taken up its habitation in it, but when it is only impending, being about to come and to agitate it, it sends before it agitation and suspense, as express messengers, to fill the soul with alarm; and this passion is denominated fear. (146) And when any one, having conceived an idea of some good which is not present, hastens to lay hold of it, he then drives his soul forward to a great distance, and extending it in the greatest possible degree, from his anxiety to attain the object of his desires, he is stretched as it were upon the rack, being anxious to lay hold of the thing, but being unable to reach it, and being in the same condition with those who are pursuing people who are running away, following with an inferior speed, but with unrivalled eagerness.
(Decalogue 143=146)

This agrees with the Hebraic Stoic work “On the Supremacy of Reason” (4Maccabees) “the two most comprehensive types of the emotions are pleasure and pain” (4Macc. 1:20)

Each of these two root emotions is part of a past-present-future, cause and effect process of three emotions each:

21 The emotions of both pleasure and pain have many consequences.
22 Thus desire precedes pleasure and delight follows it.
23 Fear precedes pain and sorrow comes after.
(4 Macc. 1:21-23)

Philo also describes how covetousness can be insatiable:

(80) But of all the passions there is not one so grievous as a covetous desire of what one has not got, of things which are in appearance good, but not in reality; a desire which produces grievous anxieties which are hard to satisfy; for such a passion puts the reason to flight, and banishes it to a great distance, involving the soul in great difficulties, while the object which is desired flies away contemptuously, retreating not with its back but with its face to one; (81) for when a person perceives this passion of covetousness after having started up rapidly, then resting for a short time, either with a view to spread out its alluring toils, or because it has learnt to entertain a hope of succeeding in its object, he then retires to a longer distance uttering reproaches against it; but the passion itself, being left behind and coming too late to succeed, struggles, bearing a Tantalus-like punishment in its miserable future; for it is said that Tantalus, when he desired to obtain any liquor to drink, was not able to do so, as the water retreated from his lips, and if he wished to gather any fruit, it all disappeared, the productiveness of the trees becoming suddenly barren; (82) for as those implacable and inexorable mistresses of the body, thirst and hunger, do very often strain it more, or at all events not less, than those unhappy persons are strained who are racked by the torture even to death, unless when they have become violent some one appeases them with meat and drink; in like manner, covetous desire, having first rendered the soul empty through its forgetfulness of what is present and its recollection of what is removed to a great distance, fills it with impetuosity and madness, and introduces into it masters worse than even its former tyrants, but having the same names with them, namely, hunger and thirst, not, however, now of those things which conduce to the enjoyment of the belly, but of money, and glory, and authority, and beauty, and of innumerable other things which appear to be objects of desire and contention in human life.
(Special Laws IV, 80-82)

Stoicism teaches us that the things that we need are few, but the things that we imagine we need are many, ever expansive and never satisfied.

Philo also writes:

(147) And something of the same kind appears to happen, also, with respect to the external senses; for very frequently the eyes, hastening to come to the comprehension of something which is removed to a great distance, strain themselves, exerting themselves to the very fullest extent of and even beyond their power, are unsuccessful, and grow dim in the empty space between themselves and their object, wholly failing in attaining to an accurate knowledge of the subject before them, and moreover impairing and injuring their sight by the exceeding intensity of their efforts and steady gaze. (148) And, again, sometimes when an indistinct noise is borne towards us from a long distance, the ears are excited, and feeling as it were a fair breeze, are eager and hasten to approach nearer to it if possible, from a desire that the sound should be distinctly apprehended by the sense of hearing. (149) But the noise, for it is still obscure as it seems, strikes the ear but faintly, not giving forth any more distinct tone by which it may be understood, so that the desire of comprehending it, being unsuccessful and unsatisfied, is excited more and more, the desire causing a Tantalus-like kind of punishment. For Tantallus, whenever he seemed about to lay his hands on any of the objects which he desired, was invariably disappointed, and the man who is overcome by desire, being always thirsting for what is not present, is never satisfied, wallowing about among vain appetites, (150) like those diseases which would creep over the whole body, if they were not checked by excision or cautery, and which would overrun and seize upon the whole composition of the body, not leaving a single part in a sound state; in like manner, unless discourse in accordance with philosophy did not, like a good physician, check the influx of appetite, all the affairs of life would of necessity be set in motion in a manner contrary to nature; for there is nothing exempt from such an affliction, nothing which can escape the dominion of passion, but, when once it has obtained immunity and license, it devours everything and becomes by itself everything in every part. (151) Perhaps it is a piece of folly to make a long speech upon matters which are so manifest, as to which there is no individual and no city that is ignorant, that they are not only every day, but even every hour, as one may say, supplying a visible proof of the truth of my assertion. Is the love of money, or of women, or of glory, or of any one of the other efficient causes of pleasure, the origin of slight and ordinary evils? (152) Is it not owing to this passion that relationships are broken asunder, and change the good will which originates in nature into an irreconcilable enmity? And are not great countries and populous kingdoms made desolate by domestic seditions, through such causes? And are not earth and sea continually filled with novel and terrible calamities by naval battles and military expeditions for the same reason? (153) For, both among the Greeks and barbarians, the wars between one another, and between their own different tribes, which have been so celebrated by tragedians, have all flowed from one source, namely, desire of money, or glory, or pleasure; for it is on such subjects as these that the race of mankind goes mad.
(Decalogue, 147-153)


(173) The fifth is that which cuts off desire, the fountain of all iniquity, from which flow all the most unlawful actions, whether of individuals or of states, whether important or trivial, whether sacred or profane, whether they relate to one’s life and soul, or to what are called external things; for, as I have said before, nothing ever escapes desire, but, like a fire in a wood, it proceeds onward, consuming and destroying everything; (174) and there are a great many subordinate sins, which are prohibited likewise under this commandment, for the sake of correcting those persons who cheerfully receive admonitions, and of chastising those stubborn people who devote their whole lives to the indulgence of passion.
(Decalogue 173-174)

Philo describes this desire as spreading thru the body like a viral infection:

And as the disease which the physicians call the herpes, does not stop in one part of the body, but moves about and overruns the skin, and, as its name shows, creeps about (dierpei), and becomes diffused in every direction, and spreading widely seizes hold of and infects with its contact the whole combination of the different parts of the body from the head to the feet, so in the same manner does covetous desire spread over the whole soul, and leave not even the smallest portion of it free from its inroads, imitating the power of fire when supplied with abundant fuel, for that spreads and burns away till it has devoured and destroyed everything with which it meets.
(Special Laws IV, 83)

He says that this passion of desire is the source of many evils:

(84) So great and so excessive an evil is covetous desire; or rather, if I am to speak the plain truth concerning it, it is the source of all evils. For from what other source do all the thefts, and acts of rapine, and repudiation of debt, and all false accusations, and acts of insolence, and, moreover, all ravishments, and adulteries, and murders, and, in short, all mischiefs, whether private or public, or sacred or profane, take their rise? (85) For most truly may covetous desire be said to be the original passion which is at the bottom of all these mischiefs, of which love is one and the most significant offspring, which has not once but many times filled the whole world with indescribable evils; which even the whole circumference of the world has not been large enough to contain, but out of their vast number they, as if carried on by the impetuosity of a torrent, have fallen into the sea, and all seas in every region have been filled with hostile fleets. It is owing to this passion that all the terrible evils which are caused by naval wars have happened; and, coming upon all continents and all islands together, have thrown them into confusion, spreading everywhere and returning in their own steps like the warriors in the diaulos, or like the ebb and flow of the tides of the sea, returning to the point from which they originally set out. (86) And by looking at it in this manner we shall more clearly perceive the power of this passion. Everything which covetous desire lays hold of is by it changed for the worse, like poisonous serpents or deadly poisons. Now what is it that I mean when I say this? (87) If this passion is directed towards money, it makes thieves, and cut-purses, and clothesstealers, and house-breakers, and taints men with the guilt of the repudiation of debts, of the denial of deposits, of bribery and sacrilege, and all such iniquities as those. (88) If it is directed towards glory, it makes men insolent, overbearing, fickle, and unstable in their dispositions, depending wholly on what is said to them and on what they hear, at the same time humbled and elated by reason of the variety and inconstancy of the multitudes who praise and blame them with inconsiderate impetuosity, inconsiderate in their enmity and in their friendship, so as easily to change from one to the other, and fills them with all sorts of humours akin to and resembling these. (89) Again, if the desire takes the direction of wishing for authority and power, it renders men’s natures seditious, unequal, and tyrannical, it makes them cruel and inhuman enemies of their native countries, implacable masters unable to restrain themselves, irreconcileable forces to all who are equal to themselves in might, flatterers of those who are more powerful than themselves, in order to be able to attack them treacherously. If what is desired is beauty of person, it makes men seducers, ravishers, adulterers, paederasts, practisers of licentiousness and incontinence, it teaches them to regard the greatest evils as the most fortunate of blessings. This passion, also, when it extends to the tongue, often causes innumerable evils; (90) for some persons desire either to be silent about what ought to be mentioned, or to mention what ought to be buried in silence, and avenging justice pursues them if they reveal things improperly, or, on the contrary, if they are unseasonably silent.
(Special Laws IV, 84-90)

Philo also describes the effect this passion has on the flesh:

(91) When it affects the parts about the belly it makes men gluttonous, insatiable, intemperate, debauched, admirers of a profligate life, delighting in drunkenness, and epicurism, slaves to strong wine, and fish, and meat, pursuers of feasts and tables, wallowing like greedy dogs; owing to all which things their lives are rendered miserable and accursed, and they are reduced to an existence more grievous than any death. (92) For this reason those who have tasted deeply of philosophy, not merely with their lips, but feasting thoroughly on its profound doctrines, investigating the nature of the soul, and comprehending its threefold character, and how it is divided into reason, and anger, and appetite, have attributed the chief post to reason as the principal authority, assigning to it the head as its most appropriate abode, where also the company of the outward senses, who are always present as the body-guards of the mind as their king, are stationed; (93) and assigning the breast as the abode of anger, partly in order that the man, being, like a soldier, armed with this as with a breastplate, so that, even if it be not utterly free from all injury, it may, at least, be difficult to subdue, and partly in order that, dwelling near the mind, it may be benefited by its neighbour, who charms it by its wisdom, and who renders the passions gentle and manageable; and to appetite they assign the place around the navel, and to that part which is called the diaphragm. (94) For it was proper that that, as having the smallest participation in reason, should be removed as far as possible from the palace of the mind and located almost at the very extremities; and that which is the most insatiable and the most intemperate of all, the passions, should be confined to the pastures of cattle, where they can find food and opportunities for the propagation of their species.
(Special Laws IV, 91-94)

And Philo concludes by telling us how the Torah teaches us to overcome this passion of desire:

(95) And the most holy Moses appears to me to have had a regard to all these circumstances, and on that account to have commanded that men should discard this passion, detesting it as the most disgraceful thing and the cause of most disgraceful actions; and, therefore, to have prohibited it above all other feelings as an engine for the destruction of the soul; but if that engine is destroyed and the soul brought back to its obedience, to the guidance of reason, the man will become entirely filled with peace and obedience to law and all sorts of perfect good things, so as to produce complete happiness. (96) But as he was fond of brevity and accustomed to cut short things which were inclined to be countless in point of number, by a mode of teaching which was confined to general instances, he begins to admonish and to correct one appetite, that which is concerned about the belly; conceiving that the other appetites will not be equally restive, but will be brought to order by learning that the most important and authoritative of the whole has become obedient to the laws of moderation. (97) What, then, is the lesson which he gives us about this origin of all vices? There are two things of a most comprehensive nature, meat and drink. He, then, has not left either of them unrestrained, but has bridled them with especial commands most calculated to lead them to temperance and to humanity, and to the greatest of all virtues, piety; (98) for he commanded men to offer first fruits of corn, and wine, and oil, and cattle, and other things; (Num 18:12.) and to distribute the first fruits among the sacrificers and the priests; among the sacrificers because of the gratitude due to God for the abundance and fertility of all things, and to the priests because of their sacred ministrations about the temple, and therefore they were worthy to receive wages for their services in respect of the sacred Ceremonies. (Num. 18:31.) (99) And he utterly forbids any one to taste of anything, or to take any portion of anything, before separating off the first fruits, wishing also by this injunction to inculcate the practice of most useful temperance; for he who has learnt not to throw himself greedily on all the abundance which the seasons of the year have brought, but to wait till the first fruits are consecrated, is likely to be able to restrain the restive obstinacy of the passions, making them gentle and manageable.
(Special Laws IV, 95-99)

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