[Paleopsych] Harper's Magazine: The pages of sin: indulging in the seven deadlies

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The pages of sin: indulging in the seven deadlies
Harper's Magazine,  Jan, 2005  by [7]Arthur Krystal
http://www.24hourscholar.com/p/articles/mi_m1111/is_1856_310/ai_n8694479 et 

[First of four articles on sin.]

    Discussed in this essay:

    Envy, by Joseph Epstein. Oxford University Press, 2003. 109 pages.

    Gluttony, by Francine Prose. Oxford University Press, 2003. 108 pages.

    Lust, by Simon Blackburn. Oxford University Press, 2004. 151 pages.

    Greed, by Phyllis A. Tickle. Oxford University Press, 2004.97 pages.

    Anger, by Robert A. F. Thurman. Oxford University Press, 2004. 125
    pages. $17.95.

    Sloth, by Wendy Wasserstein. Oxford University Press, 2005.112 pages.

    Pride, by Michael Eric Dyson. Oxford University Press, forthcoming.

    The bad news is that we are born sinners; the good news (Gospel
    literally means good news) is that we can make things right through
    repentance. So Scripture, of the Catholic Church, tells us. It also
    tells us that along with sin there is Sin. Original sin, about which
    we can do nothing (except strive for grace), issues from man's first
    disobedience. Eve ate of the apple, enticed Adam to eat of it as well,
    and all of us, as a result, are rotten at the core. God, however, does
    not refer to this as a sin; rather it was Augustine of Hippo who
    peered closely and identified the hereditary stain on our souls. The
    word "sin" actually makes its first appearance in the Bible after Cain
    becomes angry with God for favoring Abel's. offering of choice cuts of
    meat over Cain's own assortment of fruit. God doesn't care for Cain's
    attitude and says: "If you do not do well, sin is couching at the
    door; its desire is for you, but you must master it."

    By then, however, it's too late. The apple had done its work: Cain
    invites Abel out to the field, and in time, as men multiplied over the
    face of the earth, wickedness and violence were everywhere. Properly
    vexed, He sent His flood, sparing only the 600-year-old Noah, his wife
    and sons, and some animals. This should have been enough to give
    Noah's descendants pause-but no, they too acted up, behaving
    sodomishly and gomorrishly, praying to false gods and the like. This
    time, however, God restrained Himself. Instead of wiping out the race
    of men, He gave them his Ten Commandments, the first doctrinal
    instance of supernal rules of behavior, from which our concept of the
    sins derives. In addition to instructions about honoring God and
    parents and keeping the Sabbath, there are those well-known but
    woefully ineffective proscriptions against murder, adultery, stealing,
    lying, coveting, and lusting. How, one can't help wondering, have we
    avoided another flood?

    Christianity offers one answer: God sent us Jesus instead. It is
    Christ who came to suffer for our sins and to cleanse us of them.
    Whether or not we avail ourselves of the opportunity, Jesus certainly
    altered how we regard sin. The sin that wends its way through the Old
    Testament usually takes the form of flouting God's will; it seems more
    a dereliction of duty--rather brave and exceedingly stupid,
    considering Yahweh's obvious bad temper--than an absence of faith, it
    also appears as something external to man, something "couching at the
    door." Jesus, however, saw sin differently and put it where it
    belongs: in us. Whereas Yahweh demands strict obedience, Jesus expects
    something besides: "You have heard that it was said to the men of old,
    'You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.'
    But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be
    liable to judgment." The Sermon on the Mount is nothing less than a
    corrective to the Ten Commandments. If the Commandments told man how
    to behave, the Sermon told him how to feel.

    Unfortunately, Christ's life and death did not automatically generate
    a radiant and immutable theology. As Christianity evolved over the
    course of several centuries, the Church fathers not only leaned on the
    teachings of the apostles but also borrowed from Pharisaic texts,
    Hellenistic mystery cults, and Neoplatonic cosmology. Ecclesiastical
    councils were convened to determine whether Jesus' body was as divine
    as his spirit, and whether he was equal to, or only a subset of, God.
    The Church may have been built upon the rock that was Peter, but it
    found its hierarchical perspective in the caves of Plato and the
    writings of Aristotle. If God's rule is Judaic and God's love is
    Christian, then God's reason is Greek.

    In a world created by an all-powerful intelligence, order and symmetry
    presided. Nature consisted of a series of graded existences, a chain
    of being--"Homer's golden chain," as Plotinus wrote--from the simple
    to the most complex, from the lowest and basest to the highest and
    best. The Church fathers, therefore, took a dim view of anything that
    distorted such a picture or that obscured its beauty and wisdom--a
    perspective that continued well into the Enlightenment. Thus
    worshiping the world--the divine organizing principle that informed
    all things--was another way of worshiping God, as long as one didn't
    grasp at earthly pleasures at the expense of seeing the bigger

    In effect, the Church, having gotten its philosophical bearings, had
    decided that fear of hell, although necessary, was not sufficient.
    Thoughts and behavior offensive to God were also an affront to Nature,
    and sin was nothing less than a violation of the natural order, an
    upending of a set balance, a small tear in the divine fabric. And
    where Nature was concerned, one did not so much make distinctions as
    take inventory of those that already existed. There were four basic
    elements, ten heavenly spheres, four cardinal humors, four classical
    virtues, seven Christian virtues, and a specific number of sins. (You
    could fiddle with the list, but there had to be a list.) Reason moved
    the spheres, kept everything in alignment, and extended even to hell;
    the reason not to sin was Reason itself.

    With that established, the Church could turn its compartmentalizing
    mind to defining rules and responsibilities, assigning values to
    various kinds of behavior. So how many sins were there, and what were
    their respective degrees of badness? Proverbs notes:
    There are six things which the
       LORD hates,
    seven which are an abomination
       to him:
    haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
    and hands that shed innocent
    a heart that devises wicked plans,
    feet that make haste to run to evil,
    a false witness who breathes out
    and a man who sows discord
       among brothers.

    Theft and adultery are absent from this list, but there were still the
    Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and the apostles, who had
    plenty to say about sinning. There was no shortage of sins for the
    Church fathers to choose from, and if they required assistance, Paul
    ne Saul was only too happy to oblige them. In his Epistle to the
    Colossians, Paul denounces "fornication, impurity, passion, evil
    desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry ... anger, wrath, malice,
    slander, and foul talk." In Romans, he comes down equally on same-sex
    relations, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, gossip, slander,
    insolence, haughtiness, disobedience, foolishness, heartlessness, and
    ruthlessness. Fine distinctions were not Paul's forte--in Corinthians,
    he lumps the effeminate with liars, thieves, and extortionists. A
    pattern emerges: "If you live according to the flesh you will die, but
    if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will

    Over time, Scriptures' cautionary words about behavior would become
    canonical law, with only slight variations between Jews and Christians
    (mainly in the matter of conjugal relations). But before the sins
    became seven or Deadly, they were first Cardinal or Capital and
    amounted to eight. in written form they materialize in the works of
    Evagrius Ponticus, a monk (c. 345-399), who identified in men eight
    "evil thoughts." John Cassian (c. 360-435), another monk, soon
    Latinized these thoughts as eight vitia, or faults; in ascending order
    of seriousness they were: gula (gluttony), luxuria (lust), avaritia
    (avarice), tristitia (sadness), ira (anger), acedia (spiritual
    lethargy), vana gloria (vanity), and superbia (pride). Cassian also
    proposed that each sin summons the next one in the chain. * ("Summon"
    because the sins were identified with external demonic forces that
    could enter and poison the mind.) Two centuries later, Pope Gregory I
    (c. 540 604) officially adopted the list, modifying it slightly by
    folding vainglory into pride, merging lethargy and sadness, and adding
    envy. Pride now became the sin responsible for all the others (an idea
    later taken up by Thomas Aquinas), and, from bad to worst, Gregory's
    list includes: lust, gluttony, avarice, sadness (or melancholy),
    anger, envy, and pride. (Sloth would replace melancholy only in the
    seventeenth century.)


    Still, there remained the business of classification. Catholic dogma
    divides sin into two general categories--commission and omission--and,
    in each case, the malice and gravity must be determined. As regards
    malice, sins may partake of ignorance, passion, and infirmity; as
    regards gravity, they are either mortal or venial (pardonable). "All
    wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal" (1 John
    5:17). A mortal, of cardinal, sin was defined by Augustine as Dictum
    vel factum vel concupitum contra legem aeternam--something said, done,
    or desired contrary to the eternal law. Thus, a mortal sin is always
    voluntary, whereas a venial sin may contain little or no realice or be
    committed out of ignorance. The Church even makes allowances for those
    sinners whose ignorance is "invincible." But be very, very careful if
    you are not one of the invincibly ignorant. ** Of course, if you are,
    you won't know it--and, well, don't eat any apples.

    Conceived by monks for monks, the seven deadly sins took hold in the
    popular imagination, though probably not in equal measure. One can see
    how lust and gluttony would be a bother in a monastery, but should the
    secular poor not dig in if the opportunity presented itself? Still,
    the unmagnificent seven were a handy compendium, available to priests,
    parents, poets, and artists. Brueghel, Bosch, Donizetti, Dante,
    Rabelais, Spenser, and John Bunyan took the seven asa subject, and
    neither by pen nor brush did they let them off lightly. Sin sent you
    straight to hell, where freezing water awaited the envious;
    dismemberment, the angry; snakes, the lazy; boiling oil, the greedy;
    fire and brimstone, the lustful. The sins, it bears repeating, were
    real external influences, and they were waiting for you.

    Aquinas, who did his Aristotelian best to elucidate the finer points
    of sin, reserves "mortal" for offenses committed against nature (e.g.,
    murder and sodomy); for exploiting the less fortunate; and for
    defrauding workmen of their wages, which nicely raises the stakes
    involved in screwing over one's employees. Mortal also splits into the
    spiritual (blasphemy) and the carnal (adultery), the commission of
    which puts a stain (macula) on the soul. The sins of the flesh, born
    of the flesh, however, are less serious than sins of the spirit. In
    fact, the greater the carnal nature of the sin, Aquinas argues, the
    less culpability is involved. Oddly enough, Paul might agree, since
    he's pretty sure that nothing good dwells within the flesh, and
    although he "can will what is right, [he] cannot do it." So if Paul
    does what he doesn't want to do, it's sin, not himself, that's at

    Sin, of course, became even less manageable during the Reformation. in
    fact, the very words Luther overheard that led to his break from the
    Church were "I believe in the forgiveness of sins." But what did that
    mean exactly? Only that forgiveness was not in our power to effect. In
    general terms, Protestant doctrine--which, of course, rejected the
    Church as the intermediary between God and man, thereby rejecting the
    Church's right to forgive our sins--held that the fulfillment of God's
    will cannot be affected by our will. Grace, in other words, comes
    about not through good works but through the goodness of God, about
    which we cannot presume. Sin exists: live with it, die with it, and
    hope that God forgives you for it. That doesn't mean you can do as you
    like, but it does mean that confession--however good for the
    soul--isn't good enough for absolution. One may surrender the self to
    God, in which case grace may miraculously descend, but it will not be
    as a reward for such surrender. Thus a certain helplessness exists not
    only in having been born in sin but also in being unable to do
    anything about it.

    Tellingly, Jesus himself doesn't really harp on sin. Sin is
    regrettable, to be sure, but also pardonable. There is, however, one
    sin that is unforgivable: "Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven
    men," Jesus says in Matthew 12:31-32, but ... "whoever speaks against
    the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age of in the age
    to come." The Unforgivable Sin makes the seven deadly ones look
    piddling by comparison. And, truth to tell, the seven sins are not in
    and of themselves all that exciting; it's what frenzied or slothful
    people do with them that's peculiar or outrageous. Angry? Envious?
    Lustful? Well, who hasn't been? Moreover, who cares? Certainly an
    excess of any one of the sins, or some nasty combination of them, may
    not win you friends, but who truly believes that the bad-tempered, the
    envious, or the lazy are going to hell? Even the all-too-pleasant idea
    of bastards like Mengele or Stalin eternally roasting together is
    credited only by scriptural literalists.

    If the Seven Deadlies don't exactly make us cower in fear, they can at
    least serve as fodder for the literati. Ian Fleming certainly thought
    so when, as a member of the editorial board of the London Times in the
    late 1950s, he asked, among other luminaries, W. H. Auden, Cyril
    Connolly, and Angus Wilson to weigh in on a particular sin. The
    resulting smallish book might be described, if one were given to
    verbal raffishness, as sinfully entertaining. The essays are urbane,
    knowing, and casual--one or two almost too casual--and bear out
    Fleming's own assessment: "How drab and empty life would be without
    these sins, and what dull dogs we all would be without a healthy trace
    of many of them in our make up!"

    Of the seven contributors, only Auden (on anger) and Evelyn Waugh (on
    sloth) take a marked exception to their subjects, perfectly
    understandable given their religious beliefs. Waugh takes the lazy to
    task in high style, suggesting that any show of indulgence is
    unwarranted: "Just as he is a poor soldier whose sole aim is to escape
    detention, so he is a poor Christian whose sole aim is to escape
    Hell." Auden, meanwhile, sends anger down some subtle byways: "To
    speak of the Wrath of God cannot mean that God is Himself angry."
    Because the laws of the spiritual life are the very laws that define
    our nature, Auden suggests that we can defy but never break them.
    Should any souls wind up in Hell, "it is not because they have been
    sent there, but because Hell is where they insist upon being."

    Over the years other writers have sallied forth with varying success
    to confront the Seven Deadlies, usually with our best interests at
    heart. Unfortunately, the well-intentioned are more concerned with
    grace than with graceful prose, and their books will appeal only to
    the converted. The same, happily, cannot be said of the writers
    engaged in the new Oxford University Press series. Oxford has reprised
    Ian Fleming's project, coramissioning seven slender volumes from seven
    contemporary scribes. True, it seems a publishing ploy on the order of
    forming a boy band, but there is precedent--although, as before, the
    pairing of writer and sin is not immediately evident. Why would an
    Englishman be asked to write about lust? ponders Simon Blackburn:
    "Other nationalities are amazed that we English reproduce at all."

    In order of publication we now have, or can soon expect, Joseph
    Epstein on Envy, Francine Prose on Gluttony, Simon Blackburn on Lust,
    Phyllis A. Tickle on Greed, Robert A. F. Thurman on Anger, Wendy
    Wasserstein on Sloth, and Michael Eric Dyson on Pride. The books grew
    out of lectures delivered at the New York Public Library, and the
    final results, slim as they are, still feel a bit padded because a
    little sin does not go very far: the Brits were wise to keep them at
    essay's length.

    The trouble with sin nowadays is that there's no sting in the tale.
    Without a firm conviction in the soul's vertical passage, either up or
    down, sin is neutered, shorn of religious fear and loathing. Sin has
    to have some bite to it if it's going to make an impression on the
    page, which is not to say that the Oxford series is anything less than
    smart and civilized (and hence unpalatable to the sanctimonious who
    want their sins demonized). The authors, of course, recognize the
    dilemma of writing about sin for secularists. Gluttony, as Francine
    Prose observes, has become "an affront to prevailing standards of
    beauty and health rather than an offense against God." When sin has
    been co-opted by the helping professions, it should come as no
    surprise to learn that a congregation of French chefs recently
    petitioned the Vatican to remove gluttony from the list (though,
    apparently, it's more of a semantic dispute than a religious one).


    The Oxford series' charter is to make the sins relevant. That means
    turning them into vices and character flaws by presenting a lot of
    anecdotal evidence concerning contemporary bad behavior. All well and
    good, but it is the early Christian references to sin and its
    divisions that constitute the books' main appeal. You can learn things
    here, mainly the philosophical, political, and economic evolution of
    the sins as culture and values change. Joseph Epstein's Envy wittily
    dissects the different forms that envy takes as it morphs into
    covetousness, Schadenfreude, snobbery, and ressentiment. And Phyllis
    Tickle, whose Notes constitute nearly a third of her book, is
    particularly good on greed. How many readers know that avarice was not
    originally defined solely as material greed but as "thinking about
    what does not yet exist"? Of that the first known Christian
    ecclesiastical court "was an adjudication of sorts involving the
    ownership of land and greed over its proceeds"? Ah, where are the sins
    of yesteryear?

    It's probably fair to say that we've become insensitized to the word,
    if not the Word. In those secular neighborhoods where sin has been
    replaced by morality and "cultural" norms," people don't fail God so
    much as they fail themselves and one another. And given the influence
    of early traumatic experience, genetic makeup, and our peripatetic
    hormones, the condemnation, if not morality, of certain behaviors
    becomes problematic. It's not sin that besets us, it's poor impulse
    control, selfishness, and depression. Chemistry is fate, up to a
    point; and lust and gluttony are joined at the lip. Does that not
    absolve the obese adulterer of sin if not of wrongdoing? Unless one is
    a true believer, sin is a conceit rather than something waiting to
    pounce and drive us straight into the ground.

    The truth is, the concept of sin is not required to recognize
    contemptible and malignant behavior. Serious consequences, after all,
    attend certain acts whether we call them vices or sins. Is murder any
    less evil for being sinless? Hardly. God's law aside, there is some
    behavior whose maliciousness is sufficient to tie the perpetrator to
    the rack. Hell merely simplifies the question of punishment. Even
    among the religious, there was and remains disagreement regarding the
    exact nature of our transgressions. Whom and what are we to believe?
    Luther, for example, decreed that all the sins of unbelievers are
    mortal sins, and all the sins of the faithful, with the exception of
    infidelity, are venial. Yet one can go all of one's life without
    committing adultery, and grace, according to Luther, is still not

    It is this unyielding moral absolutism that makes it possible to
    believe in God without taking the idea of sin too seriously. The
    momentous, the significant, fact of Creation is God, not man. On the
    other hand, if one is convinced that He sent his only begotten Son to
    save us, then the soul rather than Creation becomes the point. Got
    soul? Then you've got sin. Got soul, then you also have a body that
    houses it, and most of the cardinal sins, as we know, are associated
    with the body's unregulated appetites. If we were all purely spiritual
    entities, sin wouldn't be a problem. Nor, logically speaking, would
    Christianity. The point has been made before: Christianity is a
    religion of the body. The devout regard the body of Christ with
    unabashed fetishistic devotion (Mel Gibson's Passion does well to
    remind us of this), and although we can imaginatively divorce other
    religions from their founders--it didn't have to be Abraham per se or
    Muhammad or Buddha--we cannot accomplish this with Jesus. Christ is
    God; his arras, legs, tongue, and teeth are God.

    All the same, the body is pretty loathsome--just ask Paul--and the
    distinction that is sometimes made between the "sins of the flesh" and
    the body does not really work. Bodies are flesh; divinity is not. God
    does not bleed. But God did bleed when He took bodily form, and
    perhaps this helps explain the conflicting strains in Christianity
    regarding the sins. If God created the body in His image, should we
    not honor Him by using it to make ourselves happy? Well, that would
    depend on whom you ask. For most Christian theologians and lawgivers,
    separating the body from its trespasses and establishing what aspects
    of the body may be enjoyed without guilt are thorny issues. Just how
    much pleasure, if any, is allowed during procreation?

    Sin, however we think of it, is always a struggle with our own bodies.
    But the body isn't all bad, it isn't just a physical protuberance that
    we scale in order to reach God; it's the means of providing for
    consciousness. Because unless one is an implacable idealist, it's
    obvious that the mind needs the body to teach it to become mind, and
    mind is the means by which we conceive God. Thank God, then, for the
    body. That said, our affinity to Him is found in our ability to think.
    If He made us, he made us to reason. And if He made us, He also made
    us imperfectly (or the apple took care of that). And because we are
    imperfect, and because sin is pervasive, it's reasonable to assume
    that He wants us to become perfect by defeating sin. in effect, sin
    exists to make us worthy of Him. And the best way of showing that
    special affinity is to defeat sin through the gift He gave us--free
    will. We can therefore assume that He would want our devotion (if we
    can say that God "wants") to be a thoughtful devotion, for how much
    greater is faith when it comes through reason rather than from terror
    or insecurity of need of comfort. It's a struggle, of course--but, as
    Augustine said, He wants us to struggle. It's why free will and evil
    both exist. Aquinas tends to agree. Evil is part of His plan, and so
    it must be good. Indeed, it's what we must overcome to attain the
    supreme good that is God.

    Let us forget for the moment the Church's rules for keeping souls in
    line or the prospect of incurring God's wrath (which Auden was correct
    in doubting); sin is a question of wanting. We want wealth, power, and
    status; we want this man's money and that man's wife; we want to win,
    we want revenge, we want to rest. And whenever we want too much, we
    want Him less. Sin is a question of emphasis: the grasping at earthly
    happiness instead of reaching toward heaven. One might even say that
    the essence of sin is the attempt to secure happiness instead of being
    willing to receive it. Since the gift of true happiness comes from
    God, any undue attempt to attain it on earth casts suspicion on His
    power to bestow it. Again, if God's essence is mind--rational,
    perfect, perpetual, and precise--we can realize Him only through mind;
    and if the mind is clouded, disturbed, or in thrall to earthly
    delights, we're in trouble. So it's also a question of degree. How
    much pleasure or distraction is too much? As Blackburn sensibly notes
    in Lust, "If we build the notion of excess into the definition, the
    desire is damned simply by its name." In other words, we can enjoy
    ourselves so long as enjoyment doesn't blot out God--not something
    most of us want to think about when spooning toward the bottom of a
    pint of Chunky Monkey or gleefully eyeing the contents of our
    blue-chip portfolio.

    Ultimately, sin is a problem only for the sinful, which is another way
    of saying that the believer and the nonbeliever cannot shake hands
    across the spiritual divide. The secular not only reject the
    plausibility of sin; they may well wonder how anyone who really does
    believe in God could sin. I mean, there's hell to pay: twisting and
    turning in the fiery pit ... FOREVER! One would have to be an idiot to
    believe in sin and commit it too. But perhaps that's too simplistic.
    Perhaps the emphasis should be not on the sin but on the temptation to
    sin in the full knowledge that God exists. It's incorrect, then, to
    accuse Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Baker of hypocrisy, or the hundreds of
    priests who abused young boys; that would mean they didn't believe.
    The truth is, they believed and they still couldn't help themselves,
    which is, in effect, the point: Without belief in the soul and the
    afterlife there is no sin. So who is more admirable: the virtuous who
    instinctively lead righteous lives, or the weak and easily tempted who
    put the lid on their lust or envy every waking moment? Isn't the
    alcoholic who refuses a drink more deserving of our respect than the
    teetotaler who thinks it's morally wrong to knock back a beer?


    On the whole, it helps to have sin around; it's like having a set of
    instructions for building a life that God approves of. We may have
    free will, but what are our choices when it comes to salvation? We can
    choose to do good or to do evil. Take away sin, however, and free will
    has no ballast, no epistemological basis of absolute moral certainty.
    Even if ethics is a "condition of the world, like logic," as
    Wittgenstein suggests, how in the world can it be demonstrated? Upon
    what blackboard would Wittgenstein have us look? What's a free moral
    agent to do?

    The obvious answer is: keep looking for answers, keep weighing the
    effect of behavior against the desire that prompts it and the
    satisfaction gained when indulging it. It's not a simple equation,
    and, like schoolchildren, we have to struggle to balance the
    equation's parts. That's one way of looking at it. Another is to
    dismiss with prejudice the idea of original sin, discount the prospect
    of souls becoming muddier the longer their sojourn on earth, and
    instead concentrate on doing good because goodness makes sense. If
    everyone did good (like "obscenity," we know "goodness" when we see
    it), the world probably would make sense. But human nature being what
    it is, we may have to pull up a chair in society's emergency room and
    settle in for a long wait. Those tired of working on the equation can
    always turn to Paul. Me, I prefer to look to a blonder, more bosomy
    expositor of morals and ruefully concede: "To err is human--but it
    feels divine."

    * Although there is no exact counterpart of the seven sins in Jewish
    literature, a rabbinic midrash (an instance of scriptural exegesis)
    enumerates seven successive steps leading to an individual's downfall,
    beginning with the refusal to study Torah and concluding with the
    denial of God himself.

    ** The Catholic Encyclopedia states: "No mortal sin is committed in a
    state of invincible ignorance of in a half-conscious state."

    Arthur Krystal's last review for Harper's Magazine, "Poet in the
    Machine," appeared in the February 2004 issue.

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