It has been an extraordinary week for greed. First there were those revelations of the expensive lifestyle enjoyed by Lord Black of Crossharbour: the executive jets, the Rolls-Royce refurbishments, the million-dollar bills for servants - all apparently charged to the company of which he was chairman. The newspaper tycoon transformed Hollinger into a "corporate kleptocracy" it is claimed, allegedly conspiring with his former operating officer David Radler to steal £223m from company funds.
Lord Black is accused of large-scale fraud and tax avoidance, but it is the casual personal excess that catches the eye: $43,000 on a birthday party for Lady Black in New York, and a whopping $2,463 on one handbag for that fortunate lady. The details prompt the reflection that conspicuous consumption of this kind is very nearly an art form. Really serious extravagance has to be worked at.
Then came the protracted negotiations - played out so publicly that the participants might have been sitting in one's front room - over how much money a boy of 18 would be paid to kick a football around a pitch once a week. Young Wayne Rooney walked off with an estimated £90,000 a week, which, for purposes of comparison, would keep four families of four persons each in modest comfort for a year. An exorbitant sum, surely, for a teenager who two years before was wondering whether he had the price of a Mars bar. Not at all, the sports pundits pronounce: our man-child has honed his natural skills to the highest possible point and is deserving of everything he can get.
Anthropologists confirm that one of the first acts a civilisation performs when it becomes sentient is to start deciding what to ban. Greed has always featured fairly highly on these proscriptive lists, and with good reason. Mythology and ancient history burst at the seams with people who wanted more than was rightfully theirs, marched in and took it and then settled down uneasily to await the consequences. The super-acquisitive King Midas turned everything he touched into gold, so that he could no longer eat sleep or embrace. Croesus, King of Lydia, was so wealthy that his fame endures more than 2,000 years later as a saying - "rich as Croesus" - but the golden glory of his kingdom attracted the attentions of Cyrus the Great of Persia, who conquered it.
Half the most memorable figures in British history were laid low by unquenchable personal desires: too much money, too much land, too many wives, or - in the case of luckless Henry I - more lampreys than his stomach could decently accommodate.
And yet greed is more problematic than this - more than the simple overbalancing of the equation of need and want. Doubtless Lord Black, asked to justify his excess, would reply that he was merely a living a lifestyle commensurate with his exalted personal status. The late Queen Mother, sitting at Lord Wyatt's crowded table while the flunkies clustered around them, used to murmur about the delight of dining simply with a few old friends. Wayne Rooney probably imagines that he is getting the going rate for the job - just as Keiron Dyer, a player who can scarcely get into the Newcastle first team these days, seemed to think it was perfectly proper to go on television the other week and brag about his car fleet and jewellery stash.
Backed up as it is with questions of status, power and influence, the psychology of greed is fascinating. What is the point, after all, of possessing any commodity to a point beyond utility? In John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath, the impoverished Arkansas sharecroppers heading west to California suddenly divine that this golden land of opportunity is simply a sham, lorded over by a gang of real estate barons. To a man recently robbed of 40 acres, the idea that the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst should want to own a million is merely incredible. "Million acres?" one of them says, "What in the worl' can he do with a million acres?" The proper answer is: use it as the springboard to acquire another million.
Greed is exponential. There are no limits, and any slackening of the pace represents a failure. Hence the absurd spectacle of HSBC hastily "rationalising" away another 1,000 jobs to placate restive shareholders because profits have fallen from hundreds of millions of pounds to slightly less than that.
The pat response to our early 21st-century consumption spree, the four cars in the garage and the thought that only a lottery ticket stands between downtrodden obscurity and the fulfilment of your wildest desires, is to blame Mrs Thatcher and the "greedy Eighties" which she and Nigel Lawson brought into being. This, unhappily, is nonsense - as anyone will realise who remembers the smash and grab raids on the national purse engineered by organised labour in the decades before. Mrs Thatcher was simply an excuse for the middle classes to get some of their own back.
Materialism is an inevitable by-product of any advanced society, which may be defined as one with the capacity to mass-produce, and the past 250 years of British history has included half a dozen decades in which the commentators of the day have complained about money snobbery, from the Edwardian age ("a splashing to and fro of wealth unseen since the early Roman Empire", according to George Orwell) to Harold Macmillan's post-war claim that the majority of his prosperous and well-fed electors had never had it so good.
All of this is undercut, inevitably, by the complexities of one's individual position. Am I greedy? At the bedrock level of personal consumption, probably not, and yet I am darkly conscious of being a Croesus-like figure hitting heights of expenditure and excess unfathomable to my parents' generation.
The worst of it is that greed, more so than practically any other moral failing, is certain to be rebuked by the gods. Over all the great aggrandising tycoons of history and literature, after all, from Robert Maxwell to Augustus Melmotte in Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now, there hangs a terrible air of impending retribution: one just knows that all their fine palaces will crumble to dust.
Which takes us back to Thackeray and the closing lines of Vanity Fair: "Which of us has his desire? Or having it, is satisfied?"
It is too late, perhaps, for Lord Black to do much about the party or the handbag, but if I were Wayne Rooney I'd start donating a quarter of my salary to charity right now. There are worse insurance policies.
HOW GREEDY ARE YOU?
Welcome to The Independent on Sunday's exhaustive, exclusive and expert questionnaire designed to assess your very own cupidity quotient! Just select one - just one, please! - of the four answers available for each question. Ready?
1. Do you sometimes wish you could afford:
a) a second helping?
b) a second mortgage?
c) a second home?
d) a second pilot?
2. Do you want to be:
a) a little bit better off, perhaps?
b) Wayne Rooney's new best friend?
c) Lord Black, but smarter?
d) a lawyer?
3. Would you like:
a) some help round the house?
b) some help round the houses?
c) some help with docking?
d) Tony Blair to come and stay?
4. What would you do for the last choccie?
d) have Tony Blair come and stay?
5. Whom do you most admire?
a) St Francis?
b) Friar Tuck?
d) Wayne Rooney?
6. Your favourite relaxation is:
a) hospital visiting
b) a nice meal out
c) another holiday
d) riding in the Securicor van
7. Your favourite word is:
8. You can never have too many:
d) what kind of a damn fool question is this?
9) Do you give to charity?
a) I give my time
b) I give if I can
c) I give if I can meet Wayne Rooney
d) I give if I can go to an investiture
10) If you could change one thing about the world, would it be:
b) the offside rule?
c) portion control?
d) Gordon Brown?
So there we are! Now give yourself five points for each time you answered "a)"; 10 points each time you answered "b)"; 20 points each time you answered "c)"; and 50 - yes, 50! - points each time you answered "d)".
Score under 100: either maths is not your subject, or it's a big hello to Tony Benn, Nelson Mandela, Anne Atkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury! Score under 200: Your heart's not really in this greed thing, is it? Try watching some of the shopping channels. Score between 200 and 500: That's better! Now get out there and grab! Score 500: This newspaper is not for sale, Wayne.
Quiz by Charles NevinReuse content