An Anatomy of Avarice

“The lack of money is the root of all evil.”

Mark Twain

“Avarice distracts those who might do more serious work such as many of

our artists and writers, into the avaricious pursuit of possessions that

neither their work or their lives in fact require, and in the end pervert

and destroy.”

Henry Fairlie

If I am going to write about the subject of greed, surely I am going to talk about Ebenezer Scrooge, or his modern day equivalent Bernie Madoff. Actually I am going to talk about Mark Twain. Twain once defined himself as “the American” and in many ways he was. He is certainly one of the greatest writers we have produced and one which spoke the American voice so well. He was no doubt a brilliant, funny man. At the height of his fame he had a lovely wife and three beautiful daughters. He built himself a magnificent house in Connecticut called “The Hartford House” which was furnished in lavish style and they entertained many guests here in high style. The family had at least seven servants and the children had a governess. He would live in this house with his family from 1874-1891 and write many of the works he is most famous for here, like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. He would call this time the most wonderful time of his life.

Like many geniuses Twain did not have good business sense. His appetite to live the high life caused him to make foolish investments in new inventions. The family was forced to move from the Hartford home. Since they couldn’t afford to maintain the house, they moved to Europe to economize in 1891. In 1894 his publishing company failed and Twain went bankrupt. He set out on a world lecture tour in order to earn money and pay back his debts. Things went from bad to worse. Back in America his favorite daughter Suzy got spinal meningitis and died. She was twenty-four. After her death in 1896 the family never returned to the Hartford house. The home that had brought Twain so much pleasure in family life. Twain’s wife Livy would die in 1903 and he would also lose his daughter Jean On Christmas eve 1909 to an epileptic seizure. Twain himself would die four months later. Though Twain did eventually manage to pay off his debts and restore his monetary fortunes, he was never able to restore his real fortune: family life. Once the family moved from the house, they were never together again as they once were. He was not even able to be present at his beloved daughter’s Suzie’s death or funeral. Twain blamed himself for her death.

In America our greed rules our lives, just as it did for Twain. Fairlie in his work “The Seven Deadly Sins Today “says “Avarice in our societies is a harassment difficult to push aside. We are harassed into working in ways that are unsatisfying, so that we may buy things that we have been harassed into believing will satisfy us. What we complain about today in the increased tempo of is its harassment, and it is caused in part by the Avarice that our societies employ in every hour.” Fairlie also point out that greed is a “distraction.” Certainly many years of Twain’s life went to working to pay back his debt. I wonder how many wonderful books were lost to us because of the distraction of his greed? Fairlie defines Avarice as “not so much the love of possessions, as the love of merely possessing.” We often think of a miser as someone who hoards his wealth. Yet Twain did not hoard his wealth, but lived lavishly. So a miser can also be someone who surrounds himself with many possessions and “runs his eyes and hands over them exactly as the miser does over his coins.” Fairlie quotes William F. May: “Counting is the main object of Avarice and the main pleasure of the miser. Money is the chief object of Avarice, not only because it provides for the control of many objects, but because it offers the very simple satisfaction that it can be counted.” We think of the children’s nursery rhyme: “The king is in his counting house counting out his money.” But for all our love of greed it does terrible things to our hearts. We think of the line from the Grinch which explains the Grinch’s problem: his heart was three sizes to small. Fairlie says it more strongly: “Avarice leads to a form of self-annihlation. Those who surround themselves with things that they do not need, and do not even really want, soon cease to know what they do need or want; and in a little more time they cease also to know or be able to be themselves.” It makes our hearts unfit for eternity. Jesus warns: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” Matthew 19:24.

In the end Twain truly was “The American.” In America success is worshiped, and money is a sign of your success. It was Twain’s great drive for success and the privileged life that led him to make foolish investments in an attempt to gain even more wealth. At the end of his life his success was all he had left. He was not living as Sam Clemens. Sam Clemens had lost everything. He lived his latter years as Mark Twain. He epitomizes, as so many Americans do, the folly of Avarice and the chasing after wealth. A sad end for a man so greatly gifted.

Sitting in the Seat Of Mockers

In Psalm One King David says “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers, but his delight is in the law of the Lord and on his law he meditates both day and night.” What does it mean to sit in the seat of the mocker? To mock by definition is “to tease or laugh at in a scornful or contemptuous manner.” It also means “to make something seem laughably unreal or impossible.” One does not have to read very far in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” to understand that Twain definitely sits in the seat of the mocker. Despite his prodigious talent, or maybe because of it, Twain could not make peace with his maker. In their biography of Twain, Ward, Duncan and Burns note that “Twain knew from the start that God was the greatest dramatist, and much of his genius can be found in simply getting out of the way of a good story. He took for granted that God was everywhere, but Twain’s own search disappointed him continually.”1

In the chapter entitled “The Pinch Bug and His Prey” 2 Twain describes a church service. Of the choir he says “The choir always tittered and whispered all through the service. There was once a church choir that was not ill bred, but I have forgotten where it was now.” Of the announcements: “Rev. Mr. Sprague turned himself into a bulletin board and read off ‘notices’ of meetings and societies and things till it seemed that the list would stretch out to the crack of doom….” Of the prayer: “And now the minister prayed. A good, generous prayer it was, and it went into details.” Having grown up attending a Baptist church in a small town I personally find these images hilarious. Believe me I sat through every Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday evening service the church had, and not a few of them had tittering choirs, a list of announcements as long as the constitution and droning prayers. Yet despite the frailties of our human worship, those services made a deep impression upon me that remains to this day. I am deeply appreciative for that heritage.

When Twain describes the preaching he says “The minister gave out his text and droned along monotonously through an argument that was so prosy that many a head by and by began to nod- and yet it was an argument that dealt in limitless fire and brimstone and thinned the predestined elect down to a company so small as to be hardly worth the saving.” When I read this I must admit I laughed. Twain is riotously funny. Yet that is the very danger of mockery. It makes what is serious seem “laughably unreal.” What the above statement told me was that Twain knew quite a bit. If you are familiar with the idea of the elect, you have more than a passing knowledge of Christianity. The Bible makes clear that we are creatures meant for eternity and that all of us have an eternal destiny to be spent somewhere. Making hell seem amusing gives men the idea that they can be complacent in their lives about finding God. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is not a man in hell today that thought he would be there. As the famous puritan preacher Jonathon Edwards says “Men flatter themselves that they will escape hell.” Twain continues “The minister made a grand and moving picture of the assembling together of the world’s hosts at the millennium when the lion and the lamb should lie down together and a little child should lead them. But the pathos, the lesson, the moral of the great spectacle were lost upon the boy.” What Twain is describing here is more than “a great spectacle.” What he is describing is the return of the King. When Christ returns in his glory. The Bible makes clear that Jesus Christ is the only hope man has to be released from his imprisoned state as a sinner and be restored to a relationship with God. Someday Christ will return and it will be the most glorious entrance any King ever made and “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” (Philippians 2:9-11 ) It is clear in his writing that Twain is working out his struggle both with life and with God and he draws us into it. When Twain says “the pathos, the lesson, the moral of the great spectacle were lost upon the boy” he means they were lost upon himself. He is searching for God, but he cannot find him. He can’t find him because Twain sits in the seat of mocker. One can only find God by humbling himself and sitting in the seat of worshiper. That is to acknowledge that we are the creature he is the creator and we will never understand all. We must believe and have faith. God has given us many and numerous reasons to believe, as many as the stars in the sky. He has given enough reasons and proofs that men of the highest intellect should be astounded. The problem of faith in God is never due to God not providing enough evidence, it is due to man not being willing to humble himself in the face of such astonishing, overwhelming clarity of truth.

1Ward, Duncan and Burns, Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography (New York: Knopf, 2001).
2Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (New York: Grossett & Dunlap, 1974).

Never Trade For The Bully Taw: A Lesson From Tom Sawyer

In “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer1 Mark Twain describes one of the most infamous scenes in literary history: Tom Sawyer sitting back watching others whitewash the fence he is supposed to be painting and actually paying him for the “privilege” of doing it! The first person Tom tries to swindle into whitewashing the fence is his Aunt Polly’s slave boy, Jim. Jim comes ambling along to go draw water from the well. Immediately Tom ambushes him. He tries to talk him into trading chores. “You whitewash a little while I go get some water.” But Jim has been forewarned by Aunt Polly not to make any stops and to beware of Tom and his schemes. Since he is hesitant Tom has to offer him some sparkles. He pulls one of his treasures out of his pocket. It is a white alley. Jim eyes it. Tom says “White alley Jim! And it is a bully taw!” In terms we understand: Jim, it is one heck of a beautiful marble! Jim says, “My! Dat’s a mighty gay marvel, I tell you!” But before Jim can fall for the temptation Aunt Polly swats him with her slipper and he goes a runnin’ to do his chore. Tom is downcast. He knows all the boys will make fun of him for having to work on a Saturday. Then he has, as the writer notes, “Nothing less than a great, magnificent inspiration.” He figures if he makes whitewashing look fun, all the kids will want to try it. His next victim, Ben Rogers, is not so lucky as Jim. He falls for the bait. Tom makes whitewashing look so attractive that Ben gives up his delicious, juicy apple or the “privilege” of doing Tom’s work. The rest of the kids fall for the same act, and likewise give up their treasures. At the end of the day, Tom is a rich man and the fence has been painted while he sat back and idly watched the spectacle.

Now reading this story makes us chuckle. It seems funny on the surface to watch Tom shrewdly manipulate all his friends and become wealthy to boot. It really does seem very funny indeed and you are about half-way through the laugh when it dies in your throat. All the sudden you realize that every person in history, including yourself, has been the dummy on the receiving end of the deception. The only difference is that the trades have been much more serious. We aren’t just giving up apples. We are giving up much more valuable commodities. With remarkable accuracy Twain outlines the Devil’s age old strategy. First Satan starts with distraction. We are on our way to carry out our task and he shows us a bully taw. It catches our eye. We stop to look. Then we begin to dialogue with the devil. Pretty soon he has convinced us to give up a greater treasure for a piece of junk. Then he sits back and laughs at us when we make the trade. Sometimes it takes us awhile to see we have been duped. When we finally realize it, we jump back in dismay and surprise! Later in the book, Tom performs his trick again. He trades the treasures he gleaned in the whitewashing scheme for “tickets.” These tickets were supposed to be earned by learning Bible verses. Tom is able to trade in his tickets to get a Bible. About Tom’s victims Twain remarks: The boys were all eaten up with envy- but those who suffered the bitterest pangs were those who perceived too late that they themselves had contributed to this hated splendor by trading tickets to Tom for the wealth he had amassed in selling whitewashing privileges. These despised themselves, as being the dupes of a wily fraud, a guileful snake in the grass.” One can almost sense Twain’s personal pleasure here as his protagonist “seems” to outwit God himself by getting the prize of a Bible again without doing the work. Twain often sits in the seat of mocker and makes religious folk out to be dimwitted. Yet it’s not just those who believe in God who are easily duped. We all have been duped and we all despise ourselves for the folly.

In a million different ways we have whitewashed many fences in our lives. We always remember too the person who duped us. We know them by name and usually feel great bitterness toward them. None of us likes to be ripped off. I think of one of the greatest Tom Sawyer’s of our century: Bernie Madoff, a name now synonymous with greed. He bilked billions out of many investors with his Ponzi scheme. Many people lost their life savings. Madoff’s son recently committed suicide unable to live with himself after the fallout of his dad’s arrest and imprisonment. It can seem that life is composed of the Tom Sawyers, and the rest of us dummies who get bilked by them. But in truth the Tom Sawyer’s of this world are being deceived by Satan too, “that guileful snake in the grass.” His trade with them is: do this immoral thing and reap the reward. For awhile it works. They sit back, eat their apples, and watch the painting with amusement. But in the end Satan gets them too. They have traded their eternal souls for the brief pleasure of a few worthless earthly trinkets.

Someone once asked Madoff what he felt about all the people he robbed. He said,”F*#k my clients!” As I said, they trade their soul. Here is the moral of the story: Never trade for the bully taw.

1Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (New York: Grossett & Dunlap, 1974).