Friday, October 7, 2011

Mammon's Curse

I doubt many outside of the Christian faith have heard of the concept of mammon. (For those readers not of the Christian faith, please bear with me. This is a critical concept in the Long Ascent, I am just developing it from my background.) Indeed, mammon is only mentioned twice in the Bible, in Luke 16 and Matthew 6, both saying you cannot serve God and mammon. Sometimes mammon is personified as a god, Mammon. Most Christians take mammon to be synonymous with money or greed. There is some justification for thinking that way; before the quote in Matthew 6:24, verses 19 through 21 talk about treasure, and in the next verse after the quote in Luke 16:13, it says how the Pharisees scoffed him, because they loved money.

There is a far deeper and more powerful interpretation of the god of Mammon, though, which is pointed to by what comes after Matthew 6:24, where Jesus talks about how God feeds the birds and clothes the lilies. This linkage suggests that Mammon is not the god of greed or money but rather is the god of material comforts. That is the concept of Mammon I am discussing.

This means that even when someone says, "I don't want to be rich, I just want to be comfortable,"
they are still serving Mammon. "What's wrong with that?," you may ask. Being comfortable seems very benign. Therein lies Mammon's treachery.

The first problem with serving Mammon is that our appetites tend to grow. If we are accustomed to chopped steak, that may give us comfort. If, however, we start eating sirloin and grow accustomed to that, chopped steak no longer gives us comfort. (Vegetarians, please pardon the example, I'm not familiar with your palate, please make your own substitution.) For those dedicated to seeking material comforts, this ratchet effect is very hard to reverse. Usually this only happens with a long period of deprivation, which is seldom voluntary. The best defense is to never let the ratcheting up happen in the first place. If you only have sirloin very infrequently, it is easier to be satisfied with the chopped steak.

The second problem with serving Mammon is the danger of overindulgence. This goes hand-in-hand with the first problem. In the material realm over-consumption virtually always has bad effects. Eating too much makes one obese and can lead to heart attacks and diabetes. Drinking too much alcohol can lead to cirrhosis of the liver or can even kill outright if consumed quickly. Even oxygen and water can kill in quantities that are too high.

The third part of Mammon's curse is definitely enhanced by the bad effects of overindulgence, but it applies to even the most moderate of people. All our bodies deteriorate with age. There is much we can do to slow the process down, but the process is programmed into the telomeres of our genes. Mammon doesn't have a retirement plan. Those who prize material comforts will find their bodies betraying them as they grow older and become less and less comfortable in their own skin. People who primarily value things other than material comfort can accept the changes in their bodies with much more equanimity.

These three parts of Mammon's curse are the most obvious, because they play out within the lifetime of any individual who serves Mammon. The fourth part is the most insidious and treacherous, because it plays out over the lifetime of any civilization where the majority seek material comfort. Every civilization ultimately has a limited resource base. Most start out so very small compared to their limits that they can act as if they have no limits. Indeed, traditionally the number of people has been the limiting factor in the wealth of a new civilization, so there is an incentive to grow. Even without that incentive, sexual pleasure is an appetite that Mammon's followers usually indulge. As more people are added, there comes a point where some resource becomes the limiting factor. A society that grows deliberately has the chance to see this coming and make adjustments. For a society that is primarily concerned with indulging material comfort, this point is rarely foreseen and even less likely to be avoided. This results in an overshoot which degrades the resource base and leads to a collapse.

This is Mammon's Curse. Not only does he destroy the lives of individuals who follow him, he eventually destroys entire civilizations. This fate can only be avoided by taking away his power and following an ideal other than material comfort. There are many ideals to follow, but each represents a path on the Long Ascent.


  1. Very good, thoughtful, and well-written article. Or maybe I should say, sermon. followed links from ADR, and enjoyed this.

  2. Hey there! Found you thru ADR's follower blogs. I'm starting at the beginning as I usually do when I find a blog.

    I like this interpretation of mammon. It really makes sense on several levels that I had not thought of before. Thank you.