George Herbert on covetousness and gluttony

Herbert was very interested in eating, or rather, careful eating. You may have been able to spot that from his previous comments on fasting. He was so fascinated, even obsessed, by this subject, that he even translated a treatise on temperance and sobriety by the Venetian writer Alvise/Luigi Cornaro — a man who lived until he was almost a century in an age not renowned for such longevity (1468-1566).

In today’s selection from Herbert’s book A Country Parson, he discusses how a pastor should deal with the sins of covetousness and gluttony in his flock. These sins are not always easy to spot, he says.

Money is for spending. It is not for hoarding. People should not be mean old penny-pinchers, or save too much. You can only spot the sorts of sinful ways ordinary people do this by observation, he adds, not just by learning about it in books! They borrow other people’s things, for example, rather than buying their own, and give their servants poor quality food when they can perfectly well afford to feed them properly.

On gluttony, he urges us to know our own bodies well, and not over-consume. If you couldn’t work or pray well after a meal, you’ve eaten too much, is his general rule. It is against reason to be gluttonous, as well as a sin.

How to spot such sins in ourselves, or indeed others, in our day…?

The Parson’s eye

The country parson at spare times from action, standing on a hill, and considering his flock, discovers two sorts of vices, and two sorts of vicious persons.

There are some vices, whose natures are always clear and evident, as adultery, murder, hatred, lying etc. There are other vices, whose natures, at least in the beginning, are dark and obscure: as covetousness and gluttony. So likewise there are some persons, who abstain not even from known sins; there are others, who when they know a sin evidently, they commit it not. It is true indeed, they are long a knowing it, being partial to themselves, and witty to others who shall reprove them from it. A man may be both covetous and intemperate, and yet hear sermons against both, and himself condemn both in good earnest: and the reason hereof is, because the natures of these vices being not evidently discussed or known commonly, the beginnings of them are not easily observable: and the beginnings of them are not observed because of the sudden passing from that which was just now lawful to that which is presently unlawful, even in one continued action.

So a man dining, eats at first lawfully; but proceeding on, comes to do unlawfully, even before he is aware, not knowing the bounds of the action, nor when his eating begins to be unlawful. So a man storing up money for his necessary provisions, both in present for his family and in future for his children, hardly perceives when his storing becomes unlawful: yet is there a period for his storing, and a point or centre when his storing, which was even now good, passeth from good to bad.

Wherefore the parson, being true to his business, has exactly sifted the definitions of all virtues and vices; especially canvasing those whose natures are most stealing, and beginnings uncertain. Particularly, concerning these two vices, not because they are all that are of this dark and creeping disposition, but for example sake, and because they are most common, he thus thinks —

First, for covetousness, he lays this ground: Whosoever when a just occasion calls, either spends not at all, or not in some proportion to God’s blessing upon him, is covetous. The reason of the ground is manifest, because wealth is given to that end to supply our occasions. Now, if I do not give every thing its end, I abuse the creature, I am false to my reason which should guide me, I offend the supreme Judge in perverting that order which he has set both to things, and to reason.

The application of the ground would be infinite; but in brief, a poor man is an occasion, my country is an occasion, my friend is an occasion, my table is an occasion, my apparel is an occasion. If in all these, and those more which concern me, I either do nothing, or pinch and scrape and squeeze blood indecently to the station wherein God has placed me, I am covetous.

More particularly, and to give one instance for all, if God have given me servants, and I either provide too little for them, or that which is unwholesome, being sometimes bad meat, sometimes too salty, and so not competent nourishment, I am covetous. I bring this example, because men usually think that servants for their money are as other things that they buy, even as a piece of wood, which they may cut, or hack, or throw into the fire, and so they pay them their wages, all is well. Nay, to descend yet more particularly, if a man has wherewithal to buy a spade, and yet he chooses rather to use his neighbour’s, and wear out that, he is covetous.

Nevertheless, few bring covetousness thus low, or consider it so narrowly, which yet ought to be done, since there is a justice in the least things, and for the least there shall be a judgment. Country people are full of these petty injustices, being cunning to make use of another, and spare themselves: And scholars ought to be diligent in the observation of these, and driving of their general school rules ever to the smallest actions of life; which while they dwell in their books, they will never find; but being seated in the country and doing their duty faithfully, they will soon discover: especially if they carry their eyes ever open, and fix them on their charge, and not on their preferment.

Secondly, for gluttony, the parson lays this ground: He that either for quantity eats more then his health or employments will bear, or for quality is licorous [greedy] after dainties, is a glutton. As he that eats more than his estate will bear is a prodigal, and he that eats offensively to the company, either in his order, or length of eating, is scandalous and uncharitable.

These three rules generally comprehend the faults of eating, and the truth of them needs no proof. So that men must eat neither to the disturbance of their health, nor of their affairs (which being overburdened, or studying dainties too much, they cannot well dispatch) nor of their estate, nor of their brethren. One act in these things is bad, but it is the custom and habit that names a glutton.

Many think they are at more liberty than they are, as if they were masters of their health, and so they will stand to the pain, all is well. But to eat to one’s hurt comprehends, besides the hurt, an act against reason, because it is unnatural to hurt oneself; and this they are not masters of. Yet of hurtful things, I am more bound to abstain from those, which by mine own experience I have found hurtful, than from those which by a common tradition and vulgar knowledge are reputed to be so.

That which is said of hurtful meats, extends to hurtful drinks also. As for the quantity, touching our employments, none must eat so as to disable themselves from a fit discharging either of divine duties or duties of their calling. So that if after dinner they are not fit (or unwieldy) either to pray or work, they are gluttons. Not that all must presently work after dinner (for they rather must not work, especially students, and those that are weakly) but that they must rise so, as that it is not meat or drink that hinders them from working.

To guide them in this, there are three rules: first, the custom and knowledge of their own body and what it can well digest. The second, the feeling of themselves in time of eating. Because that is deceitful (for one thinks in eating that he can eat more than afterwards he finds true), the third rule is the observation with what appetite they sit down. This last rule joined with the first, never fails. For knowing what one usually can well digest, and feeling when I go to meat in what disposition I am, either hungry or not, according as I feel myself, either I take my wonted proportion, or diminish of it.

Yet physicians bid those that would live in health not keep a uniform diet, but to feed variously, now more, now less. And Gerson [Jean Charles de Gerson, 1363-1429], a spiritual man, wishes all to incline rather to too much than to too little. His reason is because diseases of exinanition are more dangerous, then diseases of repletion. But the parson distinguishes according to his double aim, either of abstinence a moral virtue, or mortification a divine. When he deals with any that is heavy and carnal he gives him those freer rules. But when he meets with a refined and heavenly disposition, he carries them higher, even sometimes to a forgetting of themselves, knowing that there is one who when they forget, remembers for them. As when the people hungered and thirsted after our Saviour’s doctrine and tarried so long at it that they would have fainted had they returned empty, he suffered it not but rather made food miraculously, than suffered so good desires to miscarry.


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