A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why are the "seven deadly sins" so deadly?

June 1, 2001

Dear Cecil:

Why are the "seven deadly sins" so deadly? You got your gluttony, envy, greed, etc. Those things, while not admirable, will not kill you. I mean, there's no commandment in the Bible against pigging out. Of course your lust kind of fits in with the neighbor's wife commandment, but still, what's the deal with anger?

Cecil replies:

They don't mean deadly in the sense of putting you in physical danger, muttonhead, they mean destructive of your immortal soul. But it's not hard to imagine scenarios in which gluttony, envy, greed, and so on could get your literal butt in a bight, too. I can think of any number of parties (rap artists, oppressed high school students, assorted NFL players) who might have benefited from a course in anger management. You raise a good point, though. I mean, how did sloth make the list? In a world of slaughter, fanaticism, and pain we're worried because somebody is taking too many naps?

The seven deadly sins go back a long way, having gotten their start in Eastern monasticism. The fourth-century Egyptian monk Evagrius Ponticus defined eight deadly sins, which were later reduced to seven, presumably for the same reason there are seven sacraments, seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, and seven dwarfs. (In case you're wondering, they condensed eight to seven by combining pride and vainglory.) But it hasn't always been the same seven. The current heptad (pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust) was fixed by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. Earlier, instead of sloth, there was accidie, often translated as sadness or listlessness. You're thinking: Sadness? It isn't bad enough I'm depressed in this life, I'm going to rot in hell for it in the next? I can only point out that the list was developed by desert monks living lives of Survivor-type privation. You got some slacker who's not doing the dishes, you want that bastard to pay.

To be strictly accurate, the preferred term isn't seven deadly sins but seven capital vices, which better conveys the thought that the seven aren't sins in themselves, merely habits or predilections disposing one thereto. This point was made by Saint Gregory the Great in the sixth century AD and later restated by Aquinas. But the term seven deadly sins survives for obvious reasons — it sounds a lot snappier.

In current thinking the seven really bad things do not loom very large. I notice in the official Catechism of the Catholic Church, consisting of 2,865 numbered sections published in 1994 by order of Pope John Paul II, the capital sins warrant exactly one paragraph. The principal codification of moral transgression for Christians continues to be the Ten Commandments, upon which the catechism confidently excogitates, much as the Supreme Court finds guidance for cable TV regulation in a document written in 1789.

Still, you can understand the impulse to find gradations in these things. Even now Catholics distinguish between mortal and venial sin. A mortal sin is one "whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent." If not repented, it condemns the sinner to "exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell." Surely such punishment must be reserved for the most infamous crimes. Yet the catechism also tells us that "on Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass." Deliberate failure to meet this obligation is a "grave," presumably mortal, sin, same as if you were Pol Pot.

Dante tried to address this by positing nine circles of hell, with the minimum security, wear-a-security-bracelet-around-your-ankle-and-sleep-at-home part reserved for pagan poets, Sunday late sleepers, and the like while the real badasses had to go farther down. This was strictly a literary conceit, but the catechism does retain the belief in purgatory, where the faithful do time for their nonmortal failings pending reunion with the communion of saints. I personally feel this is inadequate and think the "seven deadly sins" angle could stand revisiting. Not that we want to stick with the same seven. Your greed, your gluttony, your lust, and so on — maybe those ancient monks considered these great evils. I'm seeing the ingredients of an incentive program that works.

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