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Greed Is Bad, Neutral, and Good: A Historical Perspective on Excessive Accumulation and Consumption



Any investigation into the topics of greed and excess is necessarily hampered by the inability to frame and define these concepts for general application to human behaviors. These terms carry significant moral, social, political, and cultural weight, primarily used either as accusations of sin, vice, and social destruction or justified for their virtues, rewards, and social good. In trying to understand the social and economic underpinnings of the behaviors we may term as greedy and excessive, we recognize the need for also exploring why these topics have almost universally been addressed in religions, philosophies, and social rules across the world, whether in sanction and condemnation, or in tolerance or even encouragement. This article investigates the ways in which major philosophical traditions across the world have viewed greed and excess, their impacts on society, and how the meanings and connotations of these terms have changed through time, since the Bronze Age to the present. We suggest that these terms and behaviors are temporally and culturally dependent, and that any investigation into the larger topic of greed and excess must begin with understanding and accommodating the variation in their meaning and social impacts.