Opinion

Covet your neighbor's Blu-ray? A fresh look at the 10 Commandments.

Why rules against envy are so vital to society.

Leon R. Kass gave a lecture last month on the 10 Commandments at the American Enterprise Institute. This is an excerpt, printed in AEI's newsletter, from that talk.

Murder, adultery, and theft are outlawed by virtually all civilized peoples. These legal prohibitions are not only the necessary condition of civil peace; they erect important boundaries, not to be violated, between what is mine and what is thine: life, wife, property, and reputation.... Here, the principles acquire the elevated standing of sacred teaching, ordained by a divine law-giver and resting on ontological ground firmer than mere human agreement or utilitarian calculation:

Thou shalt not murder. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house; thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his [man-] servant nor his maidservant, nor his ox nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor's.

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The first three absolutes defend the foundational – rather than the highest – human goods: life, without which nothing else is possible; marital fidelity and clarity about paternity, without which family stability and responsible parenthood are very difficult; and property, without which one's chance for living well – or even making a living – is severely compromised.

The proscription of bearing false witness carries a moral message that goes beyond its clear importance in judicial matters. At stake are not only your neighbor's freedom, property, and reputation, but also the character of communal life and the proper uses of the godlike human powers of speech and reason. Echoing the earlier prohibition on taking the Lord's name in vain, this injunction takes aim at a deed of wrongful speech – speech that is, in fact, vain, light in weight, and empty of truth. To speak falsely is to pervert the power of reasoned speech and to insult the divine original, whose reasoned speech is the source of the created order and the model of which we are the image.

If most of the prohibitions in the second table are familiar, the Decalogue concludes, with a surprising turn, by focusing not on an overt action but on an internal condition of the heart or soul, a species of ardent desire or yearning. The uniqueness of this proscription of coveting is suggested both by its greater length and by the spelling out of the seven things belonging to your neighbor that you not only must not steal but also must not even long for.

What is this doing at the close of the Decalogue? To begin with a practical matter, the forbidden objects are all goods that belong to your neighbor's "house," meaning less the physical structure than what belongs to it and serves its purposes. True, the list specifies particular "properties," most of them living creatures; yet, if we regard them only in that light, we will overlook their true significance. The emphasis on "everything that is thy neighbor's" underscores the importance of the household for all human flourishing, and therefore the need that it be properly respected in its entirety. Moreover, a prohibition against covetous thoughts and desires builds a fence against the other forbidden deeds, for if you do not covet any of the things that are your neighbor's, you will be less likely to steal, commit adultery, or even murder, and you will be less tempted to make your neighbor suffer harm or loss by bearing false witness against him.

But beyond these practical considerations, the final injunction causes us to reflect about the meaning of possession and about the nature of desire and "neighbor-hood." A man who covets what is his neighbor's suffers, whether he knows it or not, from multiple deformations of his own desire. Not content with his own portion of goodly things, he is incapable of seeing them in their true light: as means to – and participants in – a higher way of life.

Moreover, some of the same items occur on both the list of seven partakers in Sabbath rest and in the list of seven "covetables" – as if to indicate the mistaken direction of the coveter's desire. His heart is set on the possessions of another because he fails to realize that the things that matter most are not the things that cannot be shared but the things we have in common: knowledge of the Lord and what He requires of us, participation in His grace and the bounty of creation, and the opportunity to live a life of blessing and holiness – despite our frailty and penchant for error and iniquity.

Our neighbor's aspiration to and possession of these goods in no way interferes with our chances to attain them. On the contrary, to live among neighbors who yearn for the sharable goods is to live in a true community, in which each and all can be lifted up in the pursuit and practice of holiness, a veritable light unto the nations.

Leon R. Kass, a distinguished fellow at AEI and a professor at the University of Chicago, is the former chair of President Bush's council on bioethics.

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