Seven Deadly Sins

The seven deadly sins, also known as the capital vices, or cardinal sins, is a grouping and classification of vices within Christian teachings, although it does not appear explicitly in the Bible. Behaviours or habits are classified under this category if they directly give birth to other immoralities. According to the standard list, they are pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth, which are also contrary to the seven heavenly virtues. These sins are often thought to be abuses or excessive versions of one’s natural faculties or passions (for example, gluttony abuses one’s desire to eat, to consume).

This classification originated with the desert fathers, especially Evagrius Ponticus, who identified seven or eight evil thoughts or spirits that one needed to overcome. Evagrius’ pupil John Cassian, with his book The Institutes, brought the classification to Europe, where it became fundamental to Catholic confessional practices as evident in penitential manuals, sermons like “The Parson’s Tale” from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and artworks like Dante’s Purgatory (where the penitents of Mount Purgatory are depicted as being grouped and penanced according to the worst capital sin they committed). The Catholic Church used the concept of the deadly sins in order to help people curb their inclination towards evil before dire consequences and misdeeds could occur; the leader-teachers especially focused on pride (which is thought to be the sin that severs the soul from grace, and the one that is representative and the very essence of all evil) and greed, both of which are seen as inherently sinful and as underlying all other sins to be prevented. To inspire people to focus on the seven deadly sins, the vices are discussed in treatises and depicted in paintings and sculpture decorations on Catholic churches as well as older textbooks.

The seven deadly sins, along with the sins against the Holy Ghost and the sins that cry to Heaven for vengeance, are considered especially serious in the Western Christian traditions.

History

Greco-Roman antecedents

While the seven deadly sins as we know them did not originate with the Greeks or Romans, there were ancient precedents for them. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics lists several positive, healthy human qualities, excellences, or virtues. Aristotle argues that for each positive quality two negative vices are found on each extreme of the virtue. Courage, for example, is human excellence or virtue in facing fear and risk. Excessive courage makes one rash, while a deficiency of courage makes one cowardly. This principle of virtue found in the middle or “mean” between excess and deficiency is Aristotle’s notion of the golden mean. Aristotle lists virtues like courage, temperance or self-control, generosity, “greatness of soul,” proper response to anger, friendliness, and wit or charm.

Roman writers like Horace extolled the value of virtue while listing and warning against vices. His first epistles say that “to flee vice is the beginning of virtue, and to have got rid of folly is the beginning of wisdom.”

Origin of the currently recognized seven deadly sins

The modern concept of the seven deadly sins is linked to the works of the fourth-century monk Evagrius Ponticus, who listed eight evil thoughts in Greek as follows:

Hieronymus Bosch’s The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things

  1. Γαστριμαργία (gastrimargiagluttony
  2. Πορνεία (porneiaprostitution, fornication
  3. Φιλαργυρία (philargyria) avarice (greed)
  4. Ὑπερηφανία (hyperēphaniapride – sometimes rendered as self-overestimationarrogancegrandiosity
  5. Λύπη (lypēsadness – in the Philokalia, this term is rendered as envy, sadness at another’s good fortune
  6. Ὀργή (orgēwrath
  7. Κενοδοξία (kenodoxiaboasting
  8. Ἀκηδία (akēdia) acedia – in the Philokalia, this term is rendered as dejection

They were translated into the Latin of Western Christianity (largely due to the writings of John Cassian), thus becoming part of the Western tradition’s spiritual pietas (or Catholic devotions), as follows:

  1. Gula (gluttony)
  2. Luxuria/Fornicatio (lust, fornication)
  3. Avaritia (avarice/greed)
  4. Superbia (pride, hubris)
  5. Tristitia (sorrow/despair/despondency)
  6. Ira (wrath)
  7. Vanagloria (vainglory)
  8. Acedia (sloth)

These “evil thoughts” can be categorized into three types:

  • lustful appetite (gluttony, fornication, and avarice)
  • irascibility (wrath)
  • mind corruption (vainglory, sorrow, pride, and discouragement)

In AD 590 Pope Gregory I revised this list to form the more common list. Gregory combined tristitia with acedia, and vanagloria with superbia, and added envy, in Latin, invidia. Gregory’s list became the standard list of sins. Thomas Aquinas uses and defends Gregory’s list in his Summa Theologica although he calls them the “capital sins” because they are the head and form of all the others. The Anglican Communion, Lutheran Church, and Methodist Church, among other Christian denominations, continue to retain this list. Moreover, modern day evangelists, such as Billy Graham have explicated the seven deadly sins.

Historical and modern definitions, views, and associations

Most of the capital sins, with the sole exception of sloth, are defined by Dante Alighieri as perverse or corrupt versions of love for something or another: lust, gluttony, and greed are all excessive or disordered love of good things; sloth is a deficiency of love; wrath, envy, and pride are perverted love directed toward other’s harm. In the seven capital sins are seven ways of eternal death. The capital sins from lust to envy are generally associated with pride, which has been labeled as the father of all sins.

Lust

Main article: Lust

Lust, or lechery (Latin: luxuria (carnal)), is intense longing. It is usually thought of as intense or unbridled sexual desire, which leads to fornication, adultery, rape, bestiality, and other sinful sexual acts. However, lust could also mean simply desire in general; thus, lust for money, power, and other things are sinful. In accordance with the words of Henry Edward Manning, the impurity of lust transforms one into “a slave of the devil”.

Dante defined lust as the disordered love for individuals. It is generally thought to be the least serious capital sin as it is an abuse of a faculty that humans share with animals, and sins of the flesh are less grievous than spiritual sins.

In Dante’s Purgatorio, the penitent walks within flames to purge himself of lustful thoughts and feelings. In Dante’s Inferno, unforgiven souls of the sin of lust are blown about in restless hurricane-like winds symbolic of their own lack of self-control to their lustful passions in earthly life, for all eternity and unto the ages of ages.

Gluttony

Main article: Gluttony

Georg Emanuel Opiz, “Der Völler” (1804)

Gluttony (Latin: gula) is the overindulgence and over consumption of anything to the point of waste. The word derives from the Latin gluttire, meaning to gulp down or swallow.

In Christianity, it is considered a sin if the excessive desire for food causes it to be withheld from the needy.

Because of these scripts, gluttony can be interpreted as selfishness; essentially placing concern with one’s own impulses or interests above the well-being or interests of others.

During times of famine, war, and similar periods when food is scarce, it is possible for one to indirectly kill other people through starvation just by eating too much or even too soon.

Medieval church leaders (e.g., Thomas Aquinas) took a more expansive view of gluttony, arguing that it could also include an obsessive anticipation of meals, and the constant eating of delicacies and excessively costly foods. Aquinas went so far as to prepare a list of five ways to commit gluttony, comprising:

  • Laute – eating too expensively
  • Studiose – eating too daintily
  • Nimis – eating too much
  • Praepropere – eating too soon
  • Ardenter – eating too eagerly

Of these, ardenter is often considered the most serious, since it is extreme attachment to the pleasure of mere eating, which can make the committer eat impulsively; absolutely and without qualification live merely to eat and drink; lose attachment to health-related, social, intellectual, and spiritual pleasures; and lose proper judgement: an example is Esau selling his birthright for ordinary food of bread and pottage of lentils. His punishment was that of the “profane person … who, for a morsel of meat sold his birthright”. It is later revealed that “he found no place for repentance, though he sought it carefully, with tears”.[Gen 25:30]

Greed

Main article: Greed

Greed

Greed (Latin: avaritia), also known as avaricecupidity, or covetousness, is, like lust and gluttony, a sin of desire. However, greed (as seen by the Church) is applied to an artificial, rapacious desire and pursuit of material possessions. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Greed is a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, in as much as man condemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things.” In Dante’s Purgatory, the penitents are bound and laid face down on the ground for having concentrated excessively on earthly thoughts. Hoarding of materials or objects, theft and robbery, especially by means of violence, trickery, or manipulation of authority are all actions that may be inspired by greed. Such misdeeds can include simony, where one attempts to purchase or sell sacraments, including Holy Orders and, therefore, positions of authority in the Church hierarchy.

In the words of Henry Edward, avarice

“plunges a man deep into the mire of this world, so that he makes it to be his god”.

As defined outside Christian writings, greed is an inordinate desire to acquire or possess more than one needs, especially with respect to material wealth. Like pride, it can lead to not just some, but all evil.

Sloth

Main article: Sloth (deadly sin)

Sloth (Latin: tristitia or acedia (“without care“)) refers to a peculiar jumble of notions, dating from antiquity and including mental, spiritual, pathological, and physical states. It may be defined as absence of interest or habitual disinclination to exertion.

In his Summa Theologica, Saint Thomas Aquinas defined sloth as “sorrow about spiritual good“.

The scope of sloth is wide. Spiritually, acedia first referred to an affliction attending religious persons, especially monks, wherein they became indifferent to their duties and obligations to God. Mentally, acedia has a number of distinctive components of which the most important is affectlessness, a lack of any feeling about self or other, a mind-state that gives rise to boredom, rancor, apathy, and a passive inert or sluggish mentation. Physically, acedia is fundamentally associated with a cessation of motion and an indifference to work; it finds expression in laziness, idleness, and indolence.

Sloth includes ceasing to utilize the seven gifts of grace given by the Holy Spirit (Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Knowledge, Piety, Fortitude, and Fear of the Lord); such disregard may lead to the slowing of one’s spiritual progress towards eternal life, to the neglect of manifold duties of charity towards the neighbor, and to animosity towards those who love God.

Sloth has also been defined as a failure to do things that one should do. By this definition, evil exists when “good” people fail to act.

Edmund Burke (1729–1797) wrote in Present Discontents (II. 78)

“No man, who is not inflamed by vain-glory into enthusiasm, can flatter himself that his single, unsupported, desultory, unsystematic endeavours are of power to defeat the subtle designs and united Cabals of ambitious citizens. When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”

Unlike the other capital sins, which are sins of committing immorality, sloth is a sin of omitting responsibilities. It may arise from any of the other capital vices; for example, a son may omit his duty to his father through anger. While the state and habit of sloth is a mortal sin, the habit of the soul tending towards the last mortal state of sloth is not mortal in and of itself except under certain circumstances.

Emotionally and cognitively, the evil of acedia finds expression in a lack of any feeling for the world, for the people in it, or for the self. Acedia takes form as an alienation of the sentient self first from the world and then from itself. Although the most profound versions of this condition are found in a withdrawal from all forms of participation in or care for others or oneself, a lesser but more noisome element was also noted by theologians. From tristitia, asserted Gregory the Great, “there arise malice, rancour, cowardice, [and] despair”. Chaucer, too, dealt with this attribute of acedia, counting the characteristics of the sin to include despair, somnolence, idleness, tardiness, negligence, indolence, and wrawnesse, the last variously translated as “anger” or better as “peevishness”. For Chaucer, human’s sin consists of languishing and holding back, refusing to undertake works of goodness because, he/she tells him/her self, the circumstances surrounding the establishment of good are too grievous and too difficult to suffer. Acedia in Chaucer’s view is thus the enemy of every source and motive for work.

Sloth not only subverts the livelihood of the body, taking no care for its day-to-day provisions, but also slows down the mind, halting its attention to matters of great importance. Sloth hinders the man in his righteous undertakings and thus becomes a terrible source of human’s undoing.

In his Purgatorio Dante portrayed the penance for acedia as running continuously at top speed. Dante describes acedia as the “failure to love God with all one’s heart, all one’s mind and all one’s soul”; to him it was the “middle sin”, the only one characterised by an absence or insufficiency of love. Some scholars have said that the ultimate form of acedia was despair which leads to suicide.

Wrath

Main article: Wrath

Wrath (Latin: ira) can be defined as uncontrolled feelings of anger, rage, and even hatred. Wrath often reveals itself in the wish to seek vengeance. In its purest form, wrath presents with injury, violence, and hate that may provoke feuds that can go on for centuries. Wrath may persist long after the person who did another a grievous wrong is dead. Feelings of wrath can manifest in different ways, including impatience, hateful misanthropy, revenge, and self-destructive behavior, such as drug abuse or suicide.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the neutral act of anger becomes the sin of wrath when it is directed against an innocent person, when it is unduly strong or long-lasting, or when it desires excessive punishment. “If anger reaches the point of a deliberate desire to kill or seriously wound a neighbor, it is gravely against charity; it is a mortal sin.” (CCC 2302) Hatred is the sin of desiring that someone else may suffer misfortune or evil, and is a mortal sin when one desires grave harm. (CCC 2302-03)

People feel angry when they sense that they or someone they care about has been offended, when they are certain about the nature and cause of the angering event, when they are certain someone else is responsible, and when they feel they can still influence the situation or cope with it.

In her introduction to Purgatory, Dorothy L. Sayers describes wrath as “love of justice perverted to revenge and spite”.

In accordance with Henry Edward, angry people are “slaves to themselves”.

Envy

Main article: Envy

Envy (Latin: invidia), like greed and lust, is characterized by an insatiable desire. It can be described as a sad or resentful covetousness towards the traits or possessions of someone else. It arises from vainglory, and severs a man from his neighbor.

Malicious envy is similar to jealousy in that they both feel discontent towards someone’s traits, status, abilities, or rewards. A difference is that the envious also desire the entity and covet it. Envy can be directly related to the Ten Commandments, specifically, “Neither shall you covet … anything that belongs to your neighbour”—a statement that may also be related to greed. Dante defined envy as “a desire to deprive other men of theirs”. In Dante’s Purgatory, the punishment for the envious is to have their eyes sewn shut with wire because they gained sinful pleasure from seeing others brought low. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the struggle aroused by envy has three stages: during the first stage, the envious person attempts to lower another’s reputation; in the middle stage, the envious person receives either “joy at another’s misfortune” (if he succeeds in defaming the other person) or “grief at another’s prosperity” (if he fails); the third stage is hatred because “sorrow causes hatred”.

Envy is said to be the motivation behind Cain murdering his brother, Abel, as Cain envied Abel because God favored Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s.

Bertrand Russell said that envy was one of the most potent causes of unhappiness, bringing sorrow to committers of envy whilst giving them the urge to inflict pain upon others.

In accordance with the most widely accepted views, only pride weighs down the soul more than envy among the capital sins. Just like pride, envy has been associated directly with the devil, for Wisdom 2:24 states: “the envy of the devil brought death to the world”.

Pride

Main article: Pride

Pride (Latin: superbia) is considered, on almost every list, the original and most serious of the seven deadly sins: the perversion of the faculties that make humans more like God—dignity and holiness. It is also thought to be the source of the other capital sins. Also known as hubris (from ancient Greek ὕβρις), or futility, it is identified as dangerously corrupt selfishness, the putting of one’s own desires, urges, wants, and whims before the welfare of other people.

In even more destructive cases, it is irrationally believing that one is essentially and necessarily better, superior, or more important than others, failing to acknowledge the accomplishments of others, and excessive admiration of the personal image or self (especially forgetting one’s own lack of divinity, and refusing to acknowledge one’s own limits, faults, or wrongs as a human being).

What the weak head with strongest bias rules, Is pride, the never-failing vice of fools.

— Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, line 203.

As pride has been labelled the father of all sins, it has been deemed the devil’s most prominent trait. C.S. Lewis writes, in Mere Christianity, that pride is the “anti-God” state, the position in which the ego and the self are directly opposed to God: “Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.” Pride is understood to sever the spirit from God, as well as His life-and-grace-giving Presence.

One can be prideful for different reasons. Author Ichabod Spencer states that “spiritual pride is the worst kind of pride, if not worst snare of the devil. The heart is particularly deceitful on this one thing.” Jonathan Edwards said “remember that pride is the worst viper that is in the heart, the greatest disturber of the soul’s peace and sweet communion with Christ; it was the first sin that ever was, and lies lowest in the foundation of Satan’s whole building, and is the most difficultly rooted out, and is the most hidden, secret and deceitful of all lusts, and often creeps in, insensibly, into the midst of religion and sometimes under the disguise of humility.”

In Ancient Athens, hubris was considered one of the greatest crimes and was used to refer to insolent contempt that can cause one to use violence to shame the victim. This sense of hubris could also characterize rape. Aristotle defined hubris as shaming the victim, not because of anything that happened to the committer or might happen to the committer, but merely for the committer’s own gratification. The word’s connotation changed somewhat over time, with some additional emphasis towards a gross over-estimation of one’s abilities.

The term has been used to analyse and make sense of the actions of contemporary heads of government by Ian Kershaw (1998), Peter Beinart (2010) and in a much more physiological manner by David Owen (2012). In this context the term has been used to describe how certain leaders, when put to positions of immense power, seem to become irrationally self-confident in their own abilities, increasingly reluctant to listen to the advice of others and progressively more impulsive in their actions.

Dante’s definition of pride was “love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for one’s neighbour”.

Pride is generally associated with an absence of humility.

In accordance with the Sirach’s author’s wording, the heart of a proud man is “like a partridge in its cage acting as a decoy; like a spy he watches for your weaknesses. He changes good things into evil, he lays his traps. Just as a spark sets coals on fire, the wicked man prepares his snares in order to draw blood. Beware of the wicked man for he is planning evil. He might dishonor you forever.” In another chapter, he says that “the acquisitive man is not content with what he has, wicked injustice shrivels the heart.”

Benjamin Franklin said “In reality there is, perhaps no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history. For even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.” Joseph Addison states that “There is no passion that steals into the heart more imperceptibly and covers itself under more disguises than pride.”

The proverb “pride goeth (goes) before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (from the biblical Book of Proverbs, 16:18)(or pride goeth before the fall) is thought to sum up the modern use of pride. Pride is also referred to as “pride that blinds,” as it often causes a committer of pride to act in foolish ways that belie common sense. In other words, the modern definition may be thought of as, “that pride that goes just before the fall.” In his two-volume biography of Adolf Hitler, historian Ian Kershaw uses both ‘hubris’ and ‘nemesis’ as titles. The first volume, Hubris, describes Hitler’s early life and rise to political power. The second, Nemesis, gives details of Hitler’s role in the Second World War, and concludes with his fall and suicide in 1945.

Much of the 10th and part of 11th chapter of the Book of Sirach discusses and advises about pride, hubris, and who is rationally worthy of honor. It goes:

Do not store up resentment against your neighbor, no matter what his offence; do nothing in a fit of anger. Pride is odious to both God and man; injustice is abhorrent to both of them…. Do not reprehend anyone unless you have been first fully informed, consider the case first and thereafter make your reproach. Do not reply before you have listened; do not meddle in the disputes of sinners. My child, do not undertake too many activities. If you keep adding to them, you will not be without reproach; if you run after them, you will not succeed nor will you ever be free, although you try to escape.

— Sirach,10:6–31 and 11:1–10

Jacob Bidermann’s medieval miracle play, Cenodoxus, pride is the deadliest of all the sins and leads directly to the damnation of the titulary famed Parisian doctor. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the penitents are burdened with stone slabs on their necks to keep their heads bowed.

Historical sins

Acedia

Main article: Acedia

An allegorical image depicting the human heart subject to the seven deadly sins, each represented by an animal (clockwise: toad = avarice; snake = envy; lion = wrath; snail = sloth; pig = gluttony; goat = lust; peacock = pride).

Acedia (Latin, acedia “without care”) (from Greek ἀκηδία) is the neglect to take care of something that one should do. It is translated to apathetic listlessness; depression without joy. It is related to melancholy: acedia describes the behaviour and melancholy suggests the emotion producing it. In early Christian thought, the lack of joy was regarded as a willful refusal to enjoy the goodness of God; by contrast, apathy was considered a refusal to help others in time of need.

Acēdia is negative form of the Greek term κηδεία (‘Kēdeia’), which has a more restricted usage. ‘Kēdeia’ refers specifically to spousal love and respect for the dead. The positive term ‘kēdeia’ thus indicates love for one’s family, even through death. It also indicates love for those outside one’s immediate family, specifically forming a new family with one’s “beloved”. Seen in this way, acēdia indicates a rejection of familial love. Nonetheless, the meaning of acēdia is far more broad, signifying indifference to everything one experiences.

Pope Gregory combined this with tristitia into sloth for his list. When Thomas Aquinas described acedia in his interpretation of the list, he described it as an “uneasiness of the mind”, being a progenitor for lesser sins such as restlessness and instability. Dante refined this definition further, describing acedia as the “failure to love God with all one’s heart, all one’s mind and all one’s soul”; to him it was the “middle sin”, the only one characterised by an absence or insufficiency of love. Some scholars have said that the ultimate form of acedia was despair which leads to suicide.

Acedia is currently defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as spiritual sloth, which would be believing spiritual tasks to be too difficult. In the fourth century, Christian monks believed acedia was not primarily caused by laziness, but by a state of depression that caused spiritual detachment.

Vainglory

Main article: Vanity

Vainglory (Latin, vanagloria) is unjustified boasting. Pope Gregory viewed it as a form of pride, so he folded vainglory into pride for his listing of sins. According to Thomas Aquinas, it is the progenitor of envy. The Latin term gloria roughly means boasting, although its English cognate – glory – has come to have an exclusively positive meaning; historically, the term vain roughly meant futile (a meaning retained in the modern expression “in vain”), but by the 14th century had come to have the strong narcissistic undertones, that it still retains today. As a result of these semantic changes, vainglory has become a rarely used word in itself, and is now commonly interpreted as referring to vanity (in its modern narcissistic sense).

Christian seven virtues

With Christianity, historic Christian denominations such as the Catholic Church and Protestant Churches, including the Lutheran Church, recognize seven virtues, which correspond inversely to each of the seven deadly sins.

Confession patterns

Confession is the act of admitting the commission of a sin to a priest, who in turn will forgive the person in the name (in the person) of Christ, give a penance to (partially) make up for the offense, and advise the person on what he or she should do afterwards.

According to a 2009 study by Fr. Roberto Busa, a Jesuit scholar, the most common deadly sin confessed by men is lust, and by women, pride. It was unclear whether these differences were due to the actual number of transgressions committed by each sex, or whether differing views on what “counts” or should be confessed caused the observed pattern.

Revalorization

Ferdinand Mount maintains that liquid currentness, especially through tabloids, has surprisingly given valor to vices, causing society to regress into that of primitive pagans: “covetousness has been rebranded as retail therapy, sloth is downtime, lust is exploring your sexuality, anger is opening up your feelings, vanity is looking good because you’re worth it and gluttony is the religion of foodies”.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

1 Response

  1. 09/11/2020

    […] Roman Catholic theology, the “Capital vices” or sins, also known as the “seven deadly sins“, are the main roots of sin. They are called capital sins not because they are the greatest […]

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