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The Seven Deadly Sins

As a group, lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride, are known as the seven deadly sins, or cardinal sins, or even capital vices. Often thought to be a Christian construct, the perception of sins or vices long predates Christianity.1 Nevertheless, it was Pope Gregory I in 590 AD who came up with the definitive list of deadly sins.2 He said that the worst of the sins was pride because it was what bred all the other sins.3

The seven deadly sins are considered to be:

  1. Lust: The inordinate desire to have sexual relations. This is considered undesirable for several reasons. First, it can cause the breakup of marriages which shelter children while they are growing up. Next, it can lead to other more hurtful behaviors of a criminal nature. Finally, it can distract individuals from more worthwhile pursuits. The prescribed Medieval punishment for this sin in the after-life was to be roasted by fire and brimstone.
  2. Envy: The desire to take away what others have, not to have it for one's self, but almost as a punishment for being more fortunate or capable. It is a sense of injustice at the inevitable unevenness of the status of individuals in society. Envy is considered bad because it causes people to attempt to level all individuals to the lowest common denominator, taking away and destroying individual freedom. The traditional cosmic punishment for those guilty of envy is to encased the guilty one in freezing water.
  3. Gluttony: This is an extreme desire for food. A glutton feels compelled not simply to eat to excess, but to horde food. Gluttony is not bad merely because it is an encouragement to waste, but it is also an unhealthful activity. Gluttons tend to overweight and to have medical problems early in life. Gluttony was thought to be punished in Hell by demons forcing the guilty to consume rats, snakes, and other beasts.
  4. Sloth: The almost irresistible need to rest beyond the ordinary hours for sleep. This goes beyond sleeping; a person who is slothful is disinclined to any kind of activity. The modern conception is the "couch potato". In the great Russian novels, fighting sloth was one of the great struggles for the major characters, as Pierre in War and Peace, or more pointedly Oblomov in Goncharov's great work of the same name. For these novelists sloth was the innevitable result of living in a system of slavery, which destroyed the work ethic of the aristocratic class. In the Medieval mind those guilty of sloth were thrown into a snake pit in the after-life.
  5. Avarice: This is the excessive need to accumulate wealth. It has also been called cupidity or greed. An avaricious person often becomes so desirous of gaining wealth that he or she is willing to break the rules of civilized behavior to do so. By destroying financial relationships through cheating, this individual hurts others and can even hurt society. Ultimately, it is self-destructive behavior, as the concentration is on the wealth itself and not the activity that brings wealth. Paradoxically, people who gain considerable wealth are typically not avaricious. In a free market system this is usually attained by skills and efforts applied to productive activity and forming relationships that reinforce this behavior. Avarice is punished in the afterlife by boiling the guilty in oil.
  6. Wrath: Anger beyond the rational. Wrath can cause irrational behavior in response to small events, often out of all proportion to the event. This can be harmful to all concerned and may even result in violence. Those guilty of wrath were thought to have their limbs ripped from their body in the after-life.
  7. Pride: Of all the seven deadly sins, pride is perhaps the most difficult to understand because people are often exhorted to take pride in themselves and the organizations to which they belong. However, here we are dealing with excessive pride, the overweening feeling of superiority to others. This is bad because it leads to the belief that we can and should make decisions for other people, or even more sinister, that we are entitled to priveleges and rights which others are not allowed. Pride in Medieval times was thought to be punished on the rack where they were stretched until their limbs popped from their sockets.

The seven deadly sins have gripped popular imagination for centuries. They have found their way in works of literature, Dante Alighieri's Devine Comedy, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and Marlow's Faustus, just to name a few early works. Since then, they have been the subject of plays, films, and books. As recently as 1995 the movie "Seven" portrayed the seven deadly sins.

These sins are not so much activities as they are objects of the mind. Not one is a concrete noun or is easily turned into a verb. None of them are crimes that could cause an individual to be arrested. Yet all of them lead to activity that is destructive of the individual or society. It is interesting to note that the seven deadly sins today are much better known than the seven virtues: faith, hope, charity, justice, prudence, courage, and temperance.4

  1. Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  3. Death Reference
  4. Changing Minds

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