No One Can Harm the Man Who Does Not Harm Himself,” translated by W.R.W. Stephens, from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 9, edited by Philip Schaff (1889).
I wish that a picture of the eloquent preacher who said these words, St. John Chrysostom (the surname means “golden-mouthed”), would interest people enough to read these words. But I’m afraid that an illustration of a figure from nearly two millennia ago is not someone to capture the attention of a 21st century reader.
So, I thought I would use an image likely to be more familiar to the common reader—or, at least, film fans, since mass entertainment is the unlikely modern equivalent of the ancient parable.
So, in case you are wondering: yes, that is director John Huston, in a role he took on increasingly on in the last two decades of his long Hollywood career—actor—facing Jack Nicholson (back to the camera, in shadow), in the great 1974 neo-noir classic, Chinatown.
Huston’s character, a jovial-seeming industrialist called Noah Cross, is one of the great villains of movie history. The name itself is ironic: read one way, it suggests an Old Testament patriarch, along with New Testament redemptive qualities.
But as Nicholson’s private eye, Jake Gittes, discovers, this figure is behind the massive diversion of water from farms to Los Angeles. And the “Cross” surname might as well be short for “double-cross,” for few evils are beyond this magnate’s thirst for money, including municipal corruption, murder and child molestation.
In one of the most striking exchanges in Robert Towne’s Oscar-winning screenplay, Gittes probes for the motive behind all this, asking Cross, “How much are you worth?”
Cross: “I have no idea. How much do you want?”
Gittes: “I just wanna know what you're worth. More than 10 million?”
Cross: “Oh my, yes!”
Gittes: “Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can't already afford?”
Cross: “The future, Mr. Gittes! The future.”
Beware of a pursuit of wealth so frenzied that it mortgages the future of society, the film tells us. It does indeed become what Chrysostom cautioned of: “a kind of incurable craze and unrestrainable frenzy and irremediable disease [that] possesses the souls of all.”
Or, as Gittes warned in Chinatown's climax, about the poisonous influence of Cross: "He's rich! Do you understand? He thinks he can get away with anything."