Sunday, July 31, 2022

Spiritual Quote of the Day (St. John Chrysostom, on Greed, an ‘Unrestrainable Frenzy’)

“Now tell me why is wealth an object of ambition?.... To the majority of those who are afflicted with this grievous malady it seems to be more precious than health and life, and public reputation, and good opinion, and country, and household, and friends, and kindred and everything else….Nor is there any one to quench this fire: but all people are engaged in stirring it up, both those who have been already caught by it, and those who have not yet been caught, in order that they may be captured. And you may see everyone, husband and wife, household slave, and freeman, rich and poor, each according to his ability carrying loads which supply much fuel to this fire by day and night: loads not of wood or faggots (for the fire is not of that kind), but loads of souls and bodies, of unrighteousness and iniquity. For such is the material of which a fire of this kind is wont to be kindled. For those who have riches place no limit anywhere to this monstrous passion, even if they compass the whole world: and the poor press on to get in advance of them, and a kind of incurable craze, and unrestrainable frenzy and irremediable disease possesses the souls of all. And this affection has conquered every other kind and thrust it away, expelling it from the soul.”—Father of the Eastern Church and Bishop of Constantinople St. John Chrysostom (345-407), “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."

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