“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” – Exodus 20:17
The first nine of the Ten Commandments instruct us about how we must behave, what we should do and not do. The tenth commandment markedly differs from the first nine; it tells us how we must feel, or more particularly, how we must not feel, specifically envious. Envy, of course, leads to greed and from greed arises acts of theft, murder, and deceit. In the hierarchy of commandments, logically, the 10th should be first.
Notably, the 10th Commandment also sets forth the principle of possession and elevates private property it to its hallowed place in contemporary human society. It’s stunning in the simplicity of its “thingness,” the way it relegates wives and servants to the status of oxen and donkeys, things “that belong to your neighbor.” We’re still struggling with its effects on law, as regulating women’s reproductive rights amply demonstrates. And as for the rights of oxen and donkeys, well, think meat-packing plants and dog food producers.
The 10th Commandment mandates how we must feel, but the implication is clear. Not only coveting is prohibited, but by extension, envious thoughts. This reminds us of President Jimmy Carter’s declaration that he sinned by committing “lust in his heart.”
Freedom of thought is mirrored by efforts to control it. In liberal western countries like ours, thinking is controlled through propaganda, advertising, and social pressure. Controlling the sources of information, wealth and power wield a crucial tool of domination. In China, a straight-up totalitarian approach is used to control thinking; instrumentalities of pervasive surveillance, “re-education” camps, numerous executions, and a “social merit point system” are vigorously employed. If that smacks of an Orwellian approach, a la “1984,” well, that’s because it is.
Controlling how we think and feel extends to the nature of language itself; words are loaded just as powerfully as guns, i.e.: “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Writer George Orwell understood this so well that in his book “1984” he introduced the concept of “Newspeak,” the wholesale deracination and enfeeblement of language. Rather than allowing a variety of words to express pleasure like “wonderful, excellent,” and “great,” Newspeak replaced them with “good, plus-good,” and “double-plus good.” By limiting the words of thought, Orwell’s Newspeak limited thought itself. A similar effort is taking place today. Think book banning.
Notably, as the battle against “dirty words” has failed, the battle against words deemed socially and politically incorrect has gained ground. Ethnic, sex-based, and cultural signifiers are the new forbidden fruits of language; Lord protect us should we say or write, and by implication think, the “N, F, C,” or “K” words.
When you get down to it, the Ten Commandments inform us about how terribly we fail in getting along with each other. The coveting of the 10th Commandment essentially points to an enduring power of our animal nature: desire. Born hungry and hungry until we die, the entire project of human civilization – its elaborate systems, industrial engines, and cultural instrumentalities – is built upon the foundation of hungry bellies and satisfying our endless elaborations of desire. With seven billion hungry mouths to feed, the Ten Commandments are mostly doomed to failure, and most especially the 10th.