“The Seven Deadly Sins” – Dr. Sue Hill

As many of you know, I spent part of last summer in Cambridge, England participating in a seminar on The Seven Deadly Sins in the Middle Ages. During the Middle Ages, which covers the thousand years between 500 and 1500, numerous religious and theological treatises, artwork, sermons, and literary texts dealt with the Seven Deadly Sins. Augustine, Aquinas and Pope Gregory wrote extensively on them, numerous illuminators of manuscripts and famous artists like Breughal painted pictures of them, numerous preachers preached about them, and writers like Chaucer, Dante and Christine de Pisan wrote about them. The Seven Deadly Sins were, in other words, a really big deal to the people of the Middle Ages.

But why? The Seven Deadly Sins aren’t in the Bible (after the Reformation, the 10 Commandments rule Christian morality, not the seven deadly sins…); in fact, no one is really sure where they came from. But their longevity continues even to this day:

MTV did a special on the 7DS in the early 1980s; and, of course, there’s the Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman movie “Seven.” Why do the seven deadly sins continue to exert their influence, even if we don’t really think of them in the same way today as people did in the Middle Ages? Today, we may not speak much of gluttony, but we do find ourselves in a rather chronically persistent culture of thin. Lust, well, lust perhaps continues unabated from the Middle Ages, though it has lost its association with vanity. Greed, well, we all know that greed is bad in some sense, but we do valorize the capitalist way of life which is based on, well, greed. Sloth. Hmmm. We may not talk about sloth anymore; we have couch potatoes instead. Anger. We all know that anger can lead to less than desirable behavior, and have set up anger management workshops and try desperately to control it. Envy. Envy may be the most difficult, but don’t we all know that it’s important to “keep up with the Joneses”? Pride, well, pride is good, isn’t it? In the MTV special on pride, Queen Latifah makes a comment somewhat like, Pride? Who said pride is a sin? With our current appreciation for black pride or gay pride, pride doesn’t seem all that bad. What I’d like to do today is give you a taste of the 7DS in the Middle Ages. Such a look back might give us perspective on the way that we think about the 7DS today.

So, Where do the 7DS come from?

Seven, of course, is an important number. Pythagoras thought it was the perfect number; there were seven planets, there are seven circuits of a labyrinth, seven days in a week, the dance of the seven veils…you get the picture. Before there were 7DS, there were eight, attributed to the 4th century desert monk, Evagrius Ponticus. For Evagrius, there were eight kinds of evil thoughts which would tempt the monk and try to dissuade him from his spiritual pursuits. In order, they were: gluttony, lust, greed, sadness, anger, sloth, vainglory and pride. Evagrius begins with the bodily sins–gluttony and lust–because they were, for him, the “easiest” to overcome. Pride was the most difficult, since, if you got through all of the others, you would still be left with pride…that you’d been able to conquer them. What was important about these eight evil thoughts is that they threatened the stability of the monastic community. The thought of gluttony, for instance, “suggests to the monk that he give up his ascetic efforts in short order.” Thinking about food isn’t a very good idea if one is supposed to be eating only what is necessary for bodily sustenance while one works on one’s soul.

The most important medieval formulation of the 7DS is Pope Gregory the Great’s. Gregory was a Pope in the 6th century. Gregory changed the order of the 7DS because he thought that the bodily sins were the least damaging (and also the most difficult–after all, people do have to eat, which makes the definition of gluttony fuzzy at best. And, sex, well, you gotta have it if the human race is going to continue.) For Gregory, Pride was the beginning and end of sin. Gregory’s list begins with Pride, and continues with anger, envy, greed, sloth, gluttony and lust.

But, why are they sins?

Actually, they’re not. Really, they’re vices. The shift to sin comes when Greek ideas of vices and virtues are Christianized (so there’s another potential source for the 7DS:

Greek moral treatises…) According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, a vice is a habit that inclines one toward sin. Sins, in contrast, are specific actions that offend God. This explains why murder isn’t one of the 7DS, for example. One may commit the sin of murder because of greed or lust or pride, so the vices are the foundations for human sin; this is what makes them so bad. It’s not necessarily the vices in and of themselves that are so bad, but the fact that when acted upon, they inevitably give rise to sins. Aquinas, who is the main authority on the categorizing of virtue, vice and sin, distinguished between venial and mortal sins. Mortal sins go against God in a serious way; they threaten the very order of God’s universe, i.e. murder. Mortal sins cut humans off from God. In Catholic teaching, if one dies without having repented of a mortal sin, one will go to hell. Venial sins result in a “temporary loss of grace” from God. They’ll extend your time in purgatory, but won’t send you to hell.

Why, then, if the 7DS are really vices do they come to be called the 7DS? As far as I can tell, these vices are so associated with sin that they begin to be named as such. Tradition helped this slippage from vice into sin during the 4th Lateran Council in 1214, when the church decided that it was necessary for every Christian to confess his or her sins once a year. In order to do so, the sinner must be able to recognize and remember their sins. To do this, preachers were required to preach about the vices. The church helped preachers do this by writing texts that enumerated vices that would lead to sins. Many of the texts that the church used to teach the preachers what to preach were organized by the 7DS, hence, the vices slip into sins, and become deadly because everyone confused venial and mortal sins.

But enough history. Let’s get down to the sins themselves. Here’s the educational portion of today’s talk. The animals on the front of your order of service are the animals traditionally associated with the 7DS. You may certainly take notes, if you wish! Let’s go in the traditional order, bodily sins first:

Gluttony: Gluttony is my favorite sin. It’s not my favorite sin because it’s one that I most enjoy (though I do), it’s my favorite sin because the way that medieval people think about gluttony is so interesting. Gluttony in the Middle Ages isn’t all about being fat, which it is today. Gluttony in the Middle Ages has to do with all sorts of things that we can’t imagine being sinful in any way. For Pope Gregory, there are five ways that gluttony tempts us: eating too soon, too delicately, too expensively, too greedily, and too much. Overeating is only one manifestation of gluttony. And, one might well ask, why is eating too soon–snacking–a problem? This idea goes back to the monastery, when one was supposed to eat only at certain times. Eating out of order could undermine the sense of community that was being created. To eat when others are not disrupts community. The importance of community can be seen in the other temptations of gluttony, too. To eat to delicately is another way of saying that a person is paying too much attention to food, worrying about how it is prepared, seeking the best recipes, spending all one’s time in the kitchen. Such attention to food distracts one from community. Eating food that is too expensive or eating too much might take food away from others, an especially important notion when food is scarce, which it often was during the Middle Ages. Eating too quickly means, again, that one is paying too much attention to one’s food, and not paying attention to the community of diners. To be a glutton means that one pays too much attention to food, and not enough to the community….or to God. The pig is the animal traditionally associated with gluttony, for reasons that probably don’t need to be explained.

Lust: The animal traditionally associated with lust is the cow or the boar. I will leave you to speculate about this association, which, frankly, stumps me, unless medieval cows were particularly randy. Lust’s Latin word is luxuria, and suggests the common association of lust with luxury, with worldliness. Lust is often portrayed as a woman looking at herself in the mirror; lust is a vice that comes in through the eyes. Of course, the association of lust with carnal pleasures also comes into play here. Medieval people knew that inordinate desire for anything can certainly lead to the commission of sins. (Incidentally, all of the vices are depicted as female. This is primarily because the latin words for them are feminine, though I suspect that the association of woman with sin–remember Eve?–is also significant here.)

Greed: Greed is often associated with “small but unpleasant animals” like the frog, leech or mole. No offense to any of these animals, but isn’t it quite easy to make a mental connection between the leech and the greedy person? Jesus actually had much to say about greed: in Matthew 6: 24, Jesus says, No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.

Later in 1 Timothy, early Christians read this as the famous passage, “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” Of all of the vices on this list, greed is the most commonly despised. All of the world’s religions have much to say about how bad greed is.

Envy: Envy and greed are closely associated; one can certainly lead to the other. Envy is associated with the dog, perhaps because dogs are so eager to please. Aquinas had very interesting things to say about envy. Aquinas maintained that one could not envy someone too high in rank away from oneself because in order to be a vice, the envious person would have to be able to do harm to the person being envied. In the context of the Middle Ages, it is impossible for a peasant to envy the king because the peasant is in no position to harm the king. What would be dangerous is for one of the king’s advisors to envy him; such a person is in the position to do harm. It is the potential for harm to another that makes envy a problem.

Anger: Unsatisfied envy can lead to anger–the bear. What’s interesting about anger in the context of the 7DS, is that the problem with anger is equally that it can hurt others and the self. Pictures of anger often have a sword in anger’s hand as she strikes out, and a knife in her gut.

Sloth: Sloth is a problem because laziness can distract us from our spiritual path. In the Middle Ages, though, sloth was more commonly associated with sadness or melancholy. Sloth can be characterized as anger turned inward.

Pride: And, finally, pride. Pride is the root of all sin because pride encourages us to defy authority. Pride is the peacock: puffed up and self-centered. Excessive love of one’s own excellence leads one easily away from God.

This quick rundown of the 7DS doesn’t really do them justice. What makes the 7DS particularly dangerous or problematic–and so long lived–is that they are found on particularly slippery moral slopes. Anger, for instance, isn’t necessarily bad; it’s only bad in particular contexts at particular times. We all have to eat, it’s the misuse and abuse of food that’s the problem–though how abuse is defined will also shift and change in different contexts. Gluttony is different for a monk than for a lay person. . What seems clear is that each of them has the potential to harm the community and take the individual away from spiritual pursuits. It is this feature of the 7DS that continues to make them relevant, and that requires our continued attention.

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