[Paleopsych] Raghavan Iyer: The Seven Deadly Sins: I. The Historical Context

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Raghavan Iyer: The Seven Deadly Sins: I. The Historical Context

    He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone. John 8:7

         Throughout Christian history, sin has functioned as the
    Archimedean lever of orthodox Christian morality. From the patristic
    period to the close of the Middle Ages, sin and its progeny exercised
    the imaginations of laymen and theologians alike, so much so that
    European society and culture are unintelligible to those unacquainted
    with sin. From the refinements of scholastic philosophy to the
    exuberance of popular fancy, sin functioned as a common measure of man
    for all alike and in every arena. Suffice it to say, this is not the
    case in the twentieth century. Indeed, any enquiry today into the
    seven deadly sins must have a certain quaintness which would itself be
    entirely unintelligible to an officer of the Inquisition. Even where
    there were doubts about the right response to sin and even its
    detailed nature, there was no more doubt of its reality in general
    than there is today regarding notions like progress. To enquire into
    sin today can, however, be instructive. Sin is, so to speak, a
    geologic formation in human history, largely obscured by recent
    deposits of events, but still there, not far beneath the social
    surface and obtruding visibly in certain places. To understand it in
    the past is to understand something of the supports of the present, as
    well as certain possibilities for the future. Not to understand it is
    like being haunted by the ghosts of dead ideas.

         The Christian notion of sin is, naturally, a successor to
    previous cultural conceptions. In particular, as one can see through
    the derivations of terms in the Indo-European tongues, sin and the
    sins reflect a crystallization of moral ideas around certain aspects
    of human nature and action. Activities and conditions that were
    morally neutral became charged with the electric force of sin and
    salvation, while other elements of human life once regarded as central
    to spirituality and ethics fell into conceptual and practical eclipse.
    Since the Renaissance and the Reformation, sin has been displaced by
    other conceptions and modalities, disclosing the pre-Christian era in
    a light that was not accessible during the period of Christian
    dominance, and also putting the era of sin in a not entirely
    favourable perspective. Hence, one can begin to examine the concept of
    sin not simply as a possession of Christianity and not simply as the
    precursor of certain contemporary moral and spiritual ideas, but as a
    specific approach to the articulation of elements in human life which
    antedate Christianity and also will be a part of the future. Viewed in
    this manner, one may ask what sorts of conceptions and ideas about
    human nature were assembled into the notion of sin. How were they
    modified in the process? What is there in the history of the idea of
    sin that illumines the timeless elements of human nature? And is there
    some way in which the collective experience of sin, the cultural
    living out of the idea over centuries, can be assimilated to serve the
    needs of the present?

         These and other related questions could be given a sharper focus
    by attaching a more specific meaning to the idea of contemporary moral
    and spiritual need. In particular, owing to the massive and pervasive
    violence of the twentieth century in every sphere, from the political
    to the social and psychological, it would be helpful to explore the
    historic development of the idea of sin and then to apply this enquiry
    to an understanding of violence. Despite the moral anomie of the
    present century, the idea of violence comes as close as any to
    arousing a universal moral concern comparable to that evoked by sin in
    earlier centuries. At least, like sin, violence is scarcely valued for
    its own sake. This cannot be said, however, for each of the specific
    modes of action and attitude identified in the past as deadly sins.
    Pride, for example, is often treated as an integral component of
    self-respect, a definite contemporary good. Gluttony, though not good
    for health and perhaps unattractive to spectators, certainly has its
    unabashed coterie. Such facts underline the necessity of recovering
    the historical meanings and content of sin and the seven deadly sins
    before attempting to relate them to contemporary moral realities such
    as pervasive violence. If one merely engages in perfunctory
    reflections on pride, avarice and the rest, this will neglect totally
    the force and substance of their lost status. Thus, one would overlook
    the longer-term threads of moral meaning once expressed in the notion
    of sin and now surrounding the notion of violence.

         To begin with the linguistic evidence, 'sin' comes from the Latin
    sons, 'guilty', (stem sont-, 'existing', 'real'), originally meaning
    'real'. It is akin to the Old Norse sannr, 'true', 'guilty', from
    which come santh and eventually 'sooth' or 'the truth'. In Latin
    thought, according to Curtius, "Language regards the guilty man as the
    man who it was." The Old High German sin, 'to be', has the zero-grade
    form snt-ia, 'that which is', from the Latin root esse, 'to be', the
    Latin est, 'he is', the Greek esti, 'he is', the Sanskrit asti, 'he
    is', and perhaps also the Sanskrit satya, 'true' and 'real'. (The
    twenty-first letter of the Hebrew alphabet is sin, a variant of shen,
    'tooth', from the shape of the letter, but is not related to the
    Indo-European 'sin'. Also, Sin, or zu-en, the Sumerian moon god, often
    rendered as en-zu, 'lord of wisdom', is unrelated to the term 'sin'.
    Furthermore, the relation to the Latin sinister, 'left', 'evil' and
    'inauspicious', is an etymological speculation of unknown merit.)

         In Greek thought there is a significant distinction between the
    early Homeric conception of sinister acts which vitiate the relation
    between the agent and his or her environment, and the later conception
    of sinful acts considered in themselves morally wrong and hence
    offensive to the gods. Whereas the first meaning seems akin to the
    idea of ritual impurity, the second idea definitely involves the
    notion of specific moral misconduct. Thus, Theognis said that hubris
    -- overweening disregard of the rights of others -- arises out of
    koros -- a satiety such as when too much wealth attends a base man.
    Sophocles added that hubris results in a moral and prudential
    blindness, ate, where the evil appears good. Aeschylus explored the
    relation between such deeds and the rectifying principle of nemesis
    acting over successive generations, whilst the Orphics and
    Pythagoreans depicted its activity through successive reincarnations
    of the soul. In Roman thought there is also an older non-moral notion
    (scelus -- ill luck attendant upon violation of taboos -- and vitium
    -- a shortcoming in the performance of a ritual), which later gave way
    to a moral notion attached to misdeeds. Virgil portrayed heaven, hell
    and purgatory as the exclusive theatres for the experience of the
    consequences of moral misdeeds. Perhaps, like Plato, he thought
    misdeeds were equilibrated in both this world and the afterlife, but
    he was often misunderstood by Christian thinkers who took a one-life

         In the New Testament the Greek term translated as 'sin' is
    hamartia. It comes from the root hamart and the verb hamartano,
    originally meaning 'to miss', 'to miss the mark', and by extension 'to
    fail', 'to go wrong', 'to be deprived of', 'to lose', 'to err', 'to do
    wrong' or 'to sin'. As a substantive hamartia means generally
    'failure', 'fault', 'sin' or 'errors with most Greek authors, but also
    includes 'bodily defect' and 'malady' as well as 'guilt', 'prone to
    error', 'erring in mind' and 'distraught'. In the four canonical
    Gospels, the term hamartia occurs three times in Matthew, all in
    contexts speaking of the forgiveness of sins. It occurs fourteen times
    in John, where it is likened to a form of blindness or incapacity and
    is connected to the ideas of forgiveness and non-condemnation. It
    occurs not at all in Mark or Luke. In the Acts and various letters
    there are about eighty occurrences. This distribution suggests that
    hamartia was perhaps a Gnostic term of reference, so far as the
    Gospels are concerned, and a point of interest or concern more to the
    disciples than it was to Jesus. Certainly he never speaks of hamartia
    in a harsh or violent manner.

         In subsequent history the Latin term peccatum, from the verb
    peccare, meaning 'to stumble', 'to commit a fault' and thus 'to sin',
    became the principal designation for sin in Christian theology. It is
    found, for example, in the formula of confession, "Peccavi '~ meaning
    "I have sinned." The Latin verb derives from peccus, 'stumbling',
    'having an injured foot', itself from the comparative form pejor,
    'worse', of the verbal root ped, meaning 'to fall'. This is the same
    root as the noun ped, 'foot', and traces to the Greek stem pod,
    'foot', and the Sanskrit pada, 'foot', and padyate, 'he goes' or 'he
    falls'. The same family also produces the English 'pejorative',
    'impair' and 'pessimism'.

         The enumeration of the seven deadly sins as specific categories
    of active moral transgression took place sporadically through the
    general development of Christian theology. While a popular notion in
    the patristic period, it did not gain a precise and permanent
    delineation, probably because of the open texture of theological
    disputation. In principle, the deadly sins are the causes of other and
    lesser forms of sin. They are fatal to spiritual progress. The
    distinction between mortal and venial sins is not a distinction of
    content such as separates the seven deadly sins from each other.
    Rather, as in the writings of St. Augustine, it is a juridical
    distinction of degree of gravity in any sinful act. Mortal sins are
    either sins serious in any instance or lesser sins so aggravated in
    their circumstance or degree of wilfulness as to become grave. Mortal
    sins involve spiritual death and the loss of divine grace. Venial sins
    are slight offenses against divine law in less important matters, or
    offenses in grave matters but done without reflection or without the
    full consent of the will. Actual sin is traceable to the will of the
    sinner, whereas original sin (peccatum originale) is an hereditary
    defect transmitted from generation to generation as a consequence of
    the choices made by the first members of the human race.

         The classification of sins was ordinarily, during the Middle
    Ages, part of a system of classification of virtues and vices. Whilst
    such efforts owed something to classical Greek ideas, they were also
    varied and distinctly Christian. In the twelfth century monastics like
    Bernard of Clairvaux and mystics like St. Hildegard of Bingen
    presented rich visionary descriptions of personified virtues and
    vices. Hildegard, in her Liber Vitae Meritorum, described "cowardly

           Ignavia had a human head, but its left ear was like the ear of
      a hare, and so large as to cover the head. Its body and bones were
      worm-like, apparently without bones; and it spoke trembling.

    She was also witness to the hellish consequences of various sins:

           I saw a hollow mountain full of fire and vipers, with a little
      opening; and near it a horrible cold place crawling with scorpions.
      The souls of those guilty of envy and malice suffer here, passing
      for relief from the one place to the other.

    Thus, through an array of boiling pitch, sulphur, swamps, icy rivers,
    tormenting dragons, fiery pavements, sharp-toothed worms, hails of
    fire and ice and scourges of sharpened flails, Hildegard traced out a
    catalogue of the varieties of sin and their consequences.

         With equal imagination, Alanus Magnus de Insulis, in his complex
    religious allegory Anticlaudianus, showed man protected by a host of
    more than a dozen virtues, clothed in the seven arts, and engaged in a
    complex struggle against a corresponding host of besetting sins and
    vices. Nature calls upon the celestial council of her sisters to aid
    in forming a perfect work. Led by Concord, they come forth to help --
    Peace, Plenty, Favour, Youth, Laughter (banisher of mental mists),
    Shame, Modesty, Reason (the measure of the good), Honesty, Dignity,
    Prudence, Piety, Faith, Virtue and Nobility. Despite all this
    assistance, Nature can produce only the mortal, albeit perfect, body
    of man. The soul demands a divine artificer. Reason praises their plan
    to place a new Lucifer upon the earth to be the champion of all the
    virtues against vice, and he urges the celestial council to send an
    emissary to Heaven to request divine assistance. Prudence-Phronesis
    agrees to go, and Wisdom forms for her a chariot out of the seven
    arts: Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Music, Geometry and
    Astronomy. Reason attaches the five senses to the chariot and then
    mounts it as its charioteer. He is able to bring Prudence-Phronesis to
    the gate of Heaven, but can go no further. There, Theology, the Queen
    of the Pole, takes Prudence into her care and conveys her, supported
    by Faith, into the Presence. She cannot bear the vision directly, but
    must look into a reflecting glass, wherein she adores and worships the
    eternal and divine All. Then she explains Nature's plight and asks for
    aid. Mind is summoned and ordered to fashion the new form and type of
    the human mind. Mind constructs the precious form in the reflecting
    glass, including in it all the graces of the patriarchs. Then the new
    form is ensouled and Prudence-Phronesis is entrusted with it. She
    returns in the chariot with Reason to the celestial council of Nature,
    where Concord unites the human mind with the mortal, though perfect,
    vesture formed by Nature.

         Unfortunately, when news of this new creature reaches Alecto in
    Tartarus, she is enraged. She summons the masters of every sin --
    Injury, Fraud, Perjury, Theft, Rapine, Fury, Anger, Hate, Discord,
    Strife, Disease, Melancholy, Lust, Wantonness, Need, Fear and Old Age.
    She exhorts them to destroy this new creature who threatens their
    dominions. First, Folly -- accompanied by her helpers, Sloth, Gaming,
    Idle Jesting, Ease and Sleep -- attacks the man, but the virtues with
    which he is endowed repel the assault. So it goes until the final
    onslaught by Impiety, Fraud and Avarice, but the man, protected by all
    the virtues of Nature, by Reason and all its arts, and above all by
    his divine mind, prevails. Love and Virtue banish Vice and Discord,
    and the earth adorned by man springs forth in flowering abundance.
    With this, Alanus closes, observing that all good flows from the
    invisible and unmanifest source of All.

         The doctrinal structuring of this profusion of mystical and
    literary variety into a standardized set of seven deadly sins had
    begun earlier with St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, who spoke of pride,
    avarice, anger, gluttony and unchastity, as well as envy, vainglory,
    gloominess (tristitia) and indifference (acedia, from the Greek
    akedos, 'heedlessness'). It was Aquinas who, in his Summa Theologica,
    depicted a systematic series of seven specific virtues, coupled with
    corresponding gifts, and opposed by seven specific vices or sins. In
    this scheme there are three theological virtues -- fides, spes and
    caritas -- and four cardinal virtues -- prudentia, iustitia, fortitudo
    and temperantia. Fides, 'faith', is accompanied by the gifts of
    intellectus and scientia and opposed by the vices of infidelitas,
    haeresis, apostasia, blasphernia and caecitas mentis ('spiritual
    blindness'). Spes, 'hope', has timor as its corresponding gift and
    despratio and praesumptio as its opposing vices. Caritas, 'charity',
    is accompanied by the gifts of dilectio, gaudium, pax, misericordia,
    beneficentia, eleemosyna and correctio fraterna. It is opposed by the
    vices of odium, acedia, invidia, discordia, contentio, skhisma,
    bellum, rixa, seditio and scandalum.

         Then comes the first of the purely moral cardinal virtues,
    prudentia, 'prudence', which is accompanied by the gift of consilium
    and opposed by the vices of imp rudentia and neglegentia. Justitia,
    justice', the second cardinal virtue, has as its general gift pietas
    and is opposed to iniustitia. It comprehends ten lesser virtues as its
    parts. First comes religio, enacted through devotio, oratio, adoratio,
    sacrificium, oblatio, decumae, votum and iuramentum, and opposed by
    superstitio, idolatria, tentatio Dei, periurium, sacrilegium and
    simonia. Second is pietas, 'piety', along with its opposite, impietas.
    Third is observantia, enacted through dulia, 'service', and
    oboedientia and opposed by inoboedientia. Fourth comes gratia and its
    opposite, ingratitudo.

         Fifth is vindicatio or 'punishment'. Sixth is veritas, 'truth',
    opposed by hypocrisis, iactantia, 'boasting', and ironia. Seventh is
    amicitia, coupled with the vices of adulatio and litigium. The ninth
    is liberalitas, and its vices are avaritia and prodigalitas. The tenth
    and last of these virtues subordinate to iustitia is epieikeia or
    aequitas. Then comes the third of the cardinal virtues, fort itudo,
    enacted through martyrium and opposed by the vices of intimiditas and
    audacia. Fortitudo has four subordinate parts -- magnanimitas,
    magmficentia, patientia and perseverantia -- each with the evident
    opposing vice. Finally, the fourth cardinal virtue, temperantia,
    'temperance', has as its opposite, intemperantia, along with the
    lesser constituents verecundia, honestas, abstinentia, sobrietas,
    castitas, dementia, modestia and humilitas, each of these having in
    turn its own appropriate vice. Despite the complexity of this system,
    or perhaps because of it, it did not lead to a popular designation of
    the virtues and vices, although it endorsed the idea that the mystical
    number seven should be employed in enumerating the sins.

         When the King James translation of the Greek New Testament was
    done, the following terms emerged as the English names of the seven
    deadly sins: pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and

         1. Pride: From the Anglo-Saxon prut, 'proud'; the Old French
    prod, 'valiant', 'notable', 'loyal', as in prud'homme; the Late Latin
    prode, 'advantageous'; and the Latin prodesse, 'to be beneficial'; the
    compound pro + esse, literally 'to be before'. Pro, 'before', is from
    the Greek pro, 'before', 'ahead', and akin to the Sanskrit pra-,
    'before', 'forward'. In Mark 7:22, huperephania, 'haughtiness', is
    spoken of as one of the things that come out of a man, thus polluting
    him. There are two other references to pride in the Epistles.

         2. Covetousness: From the Old French coveitier, 'to desire'; the
    Latin cupiditas, 'desirousness', and cupere, 'to desire'; the Greek
    kapnos, 'smoke' (from which comes the Latin vapor, 'steam'); and the
    Sanskrit kupyati, 'he swells with rage', 'he is angry', having to do
    with smoking, boiling, emotional agitation and violent motion. In Mark
    7:22, pleonezia, 'taking more than one's share', is included in the
    list of things that come out of a man, thereby polluting him. In Luke
    12:15, the same term is used when Jesus points out that abundance in
    life does not arise from possessions. This and similar terms for
    covetousness occur about fifteen times in the non-Gospel portions of
    the New Testament. (The term 'avarice', which is now often preferred
    to 'covetousness', is not part of the vocabulary of the King James
    version. It is a Latin term, avaritia, 'covetousness', from the verb
    avere, 'to long for', 'to covet', and avidus, 'avid', related to the
    Greek enees, 'gentle', and the Sanskrit avati, 'he favours'.
    Similarly, 'greed', from the Gothic gredus, 'to hunger', and the Old
    English giernan, 'to yearn', and the Old Norse giarn, 'eager' or
    'willing', is not a common term in the King James and does not occur
    at all in the four Gospels. Its Latin roots are horiri and hortari,
    'to urge', 'to encourage' and 'to cheer', from the Greek khairein, 'to
    rejoice', or 'to enjoy', and the Sanskrit haryati, 'he likes' or 'he
    yearns for'.)

         3. Lust: From the Anglo-Saxon lust, 'pleasure'; the Old Norse
    losti, 'sexual desire'; the Medieval Latin lasciviosus, 'wanton',
    'lustful'; the Latin lascivus, 'wanton', originally 'playful' as
    applied to children and animals; the Greek laste, 'a wanton woman',
    lasthe, 'a mockery', and lilaiesthai, 'to yearn'; and the Sanskrit
    lasati, 'he plays', and lalasas, 'desirous'. There is no reference to
    lust in the four Gospels. However, the terms orezis, 'appetite',
    epithumetas, 'desire of the heart', and hedone, 'pleasure', occur
    about two dozen times in the Epistles, almost always in a negative

         4. Anger: From the Old Norse angr, 'sorrow', 'distress', and
    angra, 'to grieve'; akin to Old English enge, 'narrow', and the
    Germanic angst and angust, 'anxiety'; the Latin angor, 'strangling',
    'tight', 'anguished', and angere, 'to distress', 'to strangle'; the
    Greek agkhein, 'to squeeze', 'to embrace', 'to strangle'; and the
    Sanskrit amhas, 'anxiety'. There is one reference, in Mark 3:5, to
    orges, irritation', (on the part of Jesus) in the four Gospels. There
    are two other references to anger in the Epistles.

         5. Gluttony: From the Middle English glotonie, 'gluttony'; the
    Middle French glotoier, 'to eat greedily'; the Old French gloton, 'a
    glutton'; the Latin glutto, 'a glutton', derived from gluttire, 'to
    swallow', from gula, 'the throat' or 'gullet' (see 'gullible'); and
    the Greek delear, 'a bait', and deleazo, 'to entice' or 'catch by
    bait'. In Matthew 11:19 and Luke 7:34, Jesus, contrasting the crowd's
    reactions to himself and John the Baptist, says that they regard him
    as a phagos, 'a glutton' or 'man given to eating' (unlike John, who
    neither ate nor drank). There is no other mention of gluttony in the
    New Testament.

         6. Envy: From the Old French envie, 'envy'; the Latin invidere,
    'to look at askance' or 'to see with malice', from in, a prefix
    connoting an intensification of the term modified, and videre, 'to
    look' or 'to see', hence 'to look intensively'; with the Latin root
    videre arising from the Greek eidos, 'form', and idea, 'appearance' or
    'idea', and eventually the Sanskrit veda and vidya, expressing
    'knowledge' and 'vision'. Both Matthew 27:18 and Mark 15:10 refer to
    the phthonon, 'envy' or 'ill-will', towards Jesus of the crowd that
    chose to have Barabbas freed instead of Jesus. There are a dozen
    references to envy in the non-Gospel portions.

         7. Sloth: From the Middle English slowthe, 'sloth'; the Old
    English slaw, the Old Saxon sleu and the Old High German sleo, 'slow',
    'dull' or 'blunt'; and perhaps allied to the Latin laevus and the
    Greek laios, 'the left', and the Sanskrit srevayati, 'he causes to
    fail'. In Matthew 25:26, Jesus uses the term okneros, 'shrinking' or
    'hesitating', to refer, in the parable of the talents, to the man who
    hid his portion under the ground out of fear. There are two other
    references to sloth in the Epistles. (Among Catholic writers, the Late
    Latin Aquinan term acedia, 'sloth', is sometimes preferred to the
    Saxon term. Acedia stems directly from the Greek akedos, 'careless',
    from a, 'not', and kedos, 'care', 'grief' and 'anxiety', derived from
    the Avestan sadra, 'sorrow'.)

         Generally, there is no enumeration or theory of the seven deadly
    sins in the New Testament. Pride, covetousness, gluttony and sloth are
    the only ones mentioned directly by Jesus. Even these are passing
    single references. Of these four deadly sins, pride and sloth are each
    mentioned only a few times in the non-Gospel portions of the New
    Testament. Gluttony is totally neglected in the Epistles. Only
    covetousness seems to be a major concern, receiving mention in
    approximately twelve places. Anger and envy as such are not spoken of
    by Jesus at all, although they are mentioned in the Gospels. In the
    Epistles, however, envy is mentioned twelve times. Lust, which is not
    even mentioned in the Gospels, is referred to more than twenty-four
    times in the various Epistles. Overall, Jesus pays little direct
    attention either to sin or to the species of sin, whilst the
    disciples, particularly in the Epistles, draw a great deal more
    attention to sin and, in particular, lust, covetousness and envy.
    Such, at least, is the testimony of the Greek text of the New
    Testament as rendered in the King James Version.

         It is at this point, where the seven deadly sins receive their
    authoritative delineation in the English language, that their
    significance began to wane. The forces of the Renaissance and the
    Reformation initiated the fundamental moral mutation in European
    culture that led to modernity. The England of Queen Elizabeth gave way
    to the England of King James, and it was not so long from there to the
    Long Parliament. There and elsewhere people started to take a less
    sacrosanct view of sin and the seven deadly sins. Most important, the
    effort to reground morality independent of theological conceptions had
    taken root. It is not necessary here to go into the post-history of
    the notion of sin, which includes both the reaction against it as well
    as the effort to salvage some meaning out of it, and a great deal
    else. Rather, this is the point at which the structure of the concept
    should be examined, internally, in relation to what went before, and
    in relation to the present conception of violence.

    [2]Hermes, November 1985


    2. http://theosophy.org/tlodocs/hermes.htm

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