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Seven Deadly Sins - I. The Historical Context

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 view.

  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 sloth":

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 sloth.

  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 context.

  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.

Hermes, November 1985
by Raghavan Iyer

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