Vol II No. 5
History & Theology

Thomas Aquinas On Covetousness

by William J. Martin



Summa: II, ii, 118, iv.

Article 1. Whether covetousness is a sin?

Objection 1. It seems that covetousness is not a sin. For covetousness [avaritia] denotes a certain greed for gold [aeris aviditas*], because, to wit, it consists in a desire for money, under which all external goods may be comprised. [The Latin for covetousness “avaritia” is derived from “aveo” to desire; but the Greek philargyria signifies literally “love of money”: and it is to this that St. Thomas is alluding here]. Now it is not a sin to desire external goods: since man desires them naturally, both because they are naturally subject to man, and because by their means man’s life is sustained (for which reason they are spoken of as his substance). Therefore covetousness is not a sin.

It would appear that covetousness is mere desire for the gold that buys the goods that a man needs in order to sustain his earthly existence. Thus money is necessary for procuring the natural goods needed for survival.

Objection 2. Further, every sin is against either God, or one’s neighbor, or oneself. But covetousness is not, properly speaking, a sin against God: since it is opposed neither to religion nor to the theological virtues, by which man is directed to God. Nor again is it a sin against oneself, for this pertains properly to gluttony or lust, of which the Apostle says He that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body. (1 Cor. vi. 18) On like manner neither is it apparently a sin against one’s neighbor, since a man harms no one by keeping what is his own. Therefore covetousness is not a sin.

The desire or love for money is not harmful in any religious or theological sense. It stands against neither religion nor the theological virtues. Nor is it a sin against oneself, for to sin against oneself involves the sins of gluttony and lust, whereby a man dishonors and disrespects his body. Nor does it appear to be a sin against one’s neighbor, since what is one’s own cannot harm others.

Objection 3. Further, things that occur naturally are not sins. Now covetousness comes naturally to old age and every kind of defect, according to the Philosopher (Nic. Ethics, iv. 1) . Therefore covetousness is not a sin.

Avarice or greed is merely a natural kind of habit that develops over time as men grow in age. Thus a man seems to become overly concerned with his money and his fortune as his years come to a close. Naturally he is worried that he might not have enough. So avarice or love of money is merely a natural habit or custom in life that accompanies the weakness and uncertainty of advanced maturity.

On the contrary, It is written: Let your manners be without covetousness, contented with such things as you have. (Hebr. xiii. 5)

I answer that, In whatever things good consists in a due measure, evil must of necessity ensue through excess or deficiency of that measure. Now in all things that are for an end, the good consists in a certain measure: since whatever is directed to an end must needs be commensurate with the end, as, for instance, medicine is commensurate with health, as the Philosopher observes (Politics, i. 6). External goods come under the head of things useful for an end. Hence it must needs be that man’s good in their respect consists in a certain measure, in other words, that man seeks, according to a certain measure, to have external riches, in so far as they are necessary for him to live in keeping with his condition of life. Wherefore it will be a sin for him to exceed this measure, by wishing to acquire or keep them immoderately. This is what is meant by covetousness, which is defined as immoderate love of possessions. It is therefore evident that covetousness is a sin.

Evil is an excess or deficiency in some expressed desire or voluntary habit. And so the good consists in a proper relation to sought after ends. The good is found in a man’s measured relation to the ends which he needs for his well being. External things are useful for an end, that is, they serve and fulfill necessary needs in man’s life. Therefore, in this case, man needs the external good of riches in order to sustain his existence. External riches enable him to procure food, drink, lodging, clothing, and so forth. Nevertheless, to desire more than one needs in an immoderate and excessive way, is sinful. Thus a man ought not to possess more than he needs for his bodily health and well being. If he desires to obtain, possess, hoard, or spend more than he needs, he is covetous, greedy, or avaricious. Such a desire is immoderate and excessive. Money, mammon, or earthly treasure has then taken on the nature of a false god. Again, a man commits the mortal sin of covetousness if he desires too much for himself. Clearly he is then standing against the intrusion of true charity in his life, and thus will be in danger of hell fire and damnation.

Reply to Objection 1. It is natural for man to desire external things as means to an end: wherefore this desire is devoid of sin, in so far as it is held in check by the rule taken from the nature of the end. But covetousness exceeds this rule, and therefore is a sin.

The desire for external things is necessary. But should a man seek to have or hold what is excessive or beyond what he needs, he sins. Here he sins against his knowledge of God’s munificence and charity and he sins against the beginning of God’s perfection of his own life. He sins too against others since what he does not need might be given to those who do, thus contributing to a much more equitable dispersal of the riches of this world.

Reply to Objection 2. Covetousness may signify immoderation about external things in two ways. First, so as to regard immediately the acquisition and keeping of such things, when, to wit, a man acquires or keeps them more than is due. On this way it is a sin directly against one’s neighbor, since one man cannot over-abound in external riches, without another man lacking them, for temporal goods cannot be possessed by many at the same time. Secondly, it may signify immoderation in the internal affection which a man has for riches when, for instance, a man loves them, desires them, or delights in them, immoderately. On this way by covetousness a man sins against himself, because it causes disorder in his affections, though not in his body as do the sins of the flesh.

As a consequence, however, it is a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, inasmuch as man contemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things.

When one man superabounds in external riches, it is always the case that another has much less. The excess for one means the privation of others. Temporal goods are limited in quantity. A limitation of quantity means that more for one is less for others. Avarice, Greed, and covetousness inevitably mean that others are deprived. The avaricious, greedy, or covetous man is often oblivious to the fact that he is a hoarder or spendthrift. He concludes that he is hurting no one. But from the standpoint of Christ if a man fails to help another, he is withholding himself from virtue and thus perfecting real vice. So the man who is not sharing his wealth with others liberally is corrupting himself and hurting his neighbor.

In addition, a man hurts himself when he indulges his own riches and loves them more than he should. The question that the greedy, avaricious, or covetous man must ask is this: Do I need all that I have? Am I enjoying mammon when it ought to be taken off my hands and spread around so that it is not any more of a false god to me than it has become? Love of one’s own riches corrupts their possessor’s heart and affection. Love of one’s own treasure inevitably threatens the health of the soul, since it is clearly more moved and defined by filthy lucre than by Divine riches and eternal virtues.

This sin is one against God since it foolishly reveals the neglect of duty to God in the failure to love Him above all things and through the same love to have all things in common, as much as possible, with other men.

Reply to Objection 3. Natural inclinations should be regulated according to reason, which is the governing power in human nature. Hence though old people seek more greedily the aid of external things, just as everyone that is in need seeks to have his need supplied, they are not excused from sin if they exceed this due measure of reason with regard to riches.

Age is no excuse for indulging inordinate love of riches. Age is no excuse for becoming a mean spirted hoarder of what ought to be given freely to others. When a man reaches his old age, he ought to be giving what he has to those in need. When a man reaches old age, he should be so moved by the love of God that any calculated stinginess or accumulation of wealth ought to be seen as the greatest threat to a soul that needs the love from God more than all else. To secure the love of God for eternity, a man must have given liberally to all others as God has given to him.