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Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Seven Deadly Sins

Go to "Seven Deadly Sins" on Wikipedia and you get a very interesting history of where the changeable list of Seven came from - imagine an ill-tempered committee of the not-so-great-and-good venting their spleen over the centuries: "We need to clamp down on these peasants. Forgetting their place nowadays! Full of sloth! Put that on the list! [Hyah, Hyah!] ... And another thing, they're at it all the time. No decency, no self-control, lusting after each other and laughing at us! Put that on the list! [ Hyah! Hyah!]"

Enough of that. I asked myself, What do I think of as Deadly Sins, sins which pitch people down the slippery slope towards perdition?

I think first of Sins against the Self.

I recoil from Self-Pity and Self-Neglect which show lack of Self-Respect or - in other words - Pride (one of the Deadlies). The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune will always wound us, but with self-respect, not so deeply. Lose your pride, and you have stopped saying Yes to life and its possibilities, including the possibility of doing good in this world. So Pride protects us from the sins of self-pity and self-neglect. It gives us dignity.

Then there are Sins against Others

The Church proposes Temperance and Chastity as the Virtues which protect us from the sins of Gluttony and Lust. But Christian temperance does not always take the benign form of eating your Five a Day. It turns into Meanness, which is a lack of generosity towards the world. And Chastity as well as having no obvious moral merit often turns into Prudery, which is the vice of disapproving of one's fellow human beings - something which in the Vatican can be a full-time job.

Meanness and Prudery are Sins from which Gluttony and Lust afford some protection: in the film Babette's Feast, it is the experience of gluttony which humanises the sectarians. In the life of Oskar Schindler, it is his Lust which ensures that his heart is not locked against his fellow human beings (something which the disapproving biography by David M Crowe is unable to comprehend).

It is often remarked that the Seven Deadlies do not include Cruelty (Wrath certainly does not encompass it). But Cruelty is the sin which most brutally disfigures human relationships. It is an exercise of power: of parents against their children; of the Church against heretics; of despots against their "people" - and it gets passed down the line and from generation to generation. In Ireland, the cruelty of the Church disfigured a whole society - and, oh, in what Self-Pity that Church now indulges when held to account.

The virtues which oppose themselves to Cruelty are kindness or benevolence or love.

It is also remarked that Dishonesty is not among the Seven Deadlies; maybe the Committees responsible for the List were fiddling their expenses.

But I also hesitate to include dishonesty on my own List. It's sometimes cruel (so it can be dealt with under that head) but more often it's merely tiresome. I don't want to go to the wall on it, but I am inclined to think Hypocrisy a greater Sin than dishonesty because it is what so often cements societies around things which, actually, no one believes in.

Faith schools can only exist in the UK because most teachers are willing to keep their mouths shut about what they believe (or more often, don't believe). The core ethos of a modern Faith School is one where the Governors know the Maths teacher is an atheist, and the Maths teacher knows he can keep his job if he keeps quiet about that fact. And the kids probably guess what's going on.

The virtue which protects us from hypocrisy in ourselves is Pride and from hypocrisy in others, Wrath. Oh, how those teachers deserve a tongue lashing!

I am not counting but I am sure you can continue the task of constructing Seven Deadlies appropriate for a world where human beings care for themselves and for each other.

Added 24 July 2018: See now the chapter on "Vice and Virtues" in my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers.


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