I met a traveller from an antique land, Who said — “two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert … near them, on the sand, Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lips, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, […]
“”Sin creates [an inclination] to sin; it engenders vice by repetition of the same acts. This results in perverse inclinations which cloud conscience and corrupt the concrete judgment of good and evil. Thus sin tends to reproduce itself and reinforce itself, but it cannot destroy the moral sense at its root.””
Para. 1865, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994
The Seven Deadly Sins are really attitudes that underlie sins, whether mortal or venial, first identified by St. John Cassian (360 – 435) in his Conferences and refined by Pope St. Gregory the Great (540 – 604). They provide keys to understanding our faults and the actions that result, and a framework for self knowledge. If we understood how they factor into who we have become, we would understand much more about ourselves and our effect on others. The Seven Deadly Sins never occur as a list in the Bible, but occur many times individually.
Before even beginning a discussion of the Seven Deadly Sins, also known as “”capital sins,”” it may be useful to discuss a few differences among Christians on this subject. Some people feel it is better to take a more positive approach to faith and not dwell on sin. Others believe all sin is equally repugnant to God, and so any classification of sins is wrong. Still others just want to forget the whole thing since they are saved and God loves them and really doesn’t care about all this “”stuff.””
Inscribed in ancient times at the Oracle at Delphi: “”Know thyself.”” Self-knowledge follows closely behind the knowledge of God, and self-knowledge for anyone means knowledge of sin. “”My own heart shows me the way of the ungodly.”” Scripture says we are all sinners, and we don’t mind as long as the sins are nameless and faceless. When we name a sin found in ourselves (by Grace) it is as though we are confronted in the back alleys of our souls with furtive saboteurs and muggers who seek to prevent our union with God. The sudden self-revelation of a serious fault is one thing: the discovery of a deadly sin which we hate very much in others is worse. It is like finding out a spouse is unfaithful, or worse, that we have been blindly unfaithful to the Spouse of our soul.
The following pages on the deadly sins may lead to horrible discoveries. Bear in mind:
- Friends will almost never volunteer this information.
- If they do, we will not accept it.
- God forgives anything, even repeatedly, so do not be afraid.
A combination of good spiritual reading (nothing too recent), nearly constant prayer, and reflection on the repetitive patterns of life works well for naming our sins. Remarks made in job performance reviews and conversations with people who dislike us are especially revealing (Aristophanes). Our enemies usually lack the false charity to deny our sins. No wonder we are called to love them.
The human capacity for self-delusion is nearly limitless. We have all seen people claim great spirituality but do evil things and then ignore or rationalize them. Somehow we think we are immune to this phenomenon.
The Seven Deadly Sins – A List of Capital Sins
The table below lists The Seven Deadly Sins (vices) in the traditional order with the virtues against which they are sins. The history of this list goes back at least to Pope St. Gregory the Great and St. John Cassian, but while the list itself is not strictly biblical, the Bible proscribes all seven. If one or more of these doesn’t seem like a big sin to you, it almost certainly means you have already rationalized it. Work on that one first. By the way, there is no set list of virtues corresponding to these, what follows below reflect our choices.
If you need additional information on Dante’s views of these, it is after the table.
Deadly Sin * **
|Humility||Seeing ourselves as we are and not comparing ourselves to others is humility. Pride and vanity are competitive. If someone else’s pride really bothers you, you have a lot of pride.|
|Generosity||This is about more than money. Generosity means letting others get the credit or praise. It is giving without having expectations of the other person. Greed wants to get its “”fair share”” or a bit more.|
|Love||“”Love is patient, love is kindâ€¦”” Love actively seeks the good of others for their sake. Envy resents the good others receive or even might receive. Envy is almost indistinguishable from pride at times.|
|Kindness||Kindness means taking the tender approach, with patience and compassion. Anger is often our first reaction to the problems of others. Impatience with the faults of others is related to this.|
|Self control||Self control and self mastery prevent pleasure from killing the soul by suffocation. Legitimate pleasures are controlled in the same way an athlete’s muscles are: for maximum efficiency without damage. Lust is the self-destructive drive for pleasure out of proportion to its worth. Sex, power, or image can be used well, but they tend to go out of control.|
|Faith and Temperance||Temperance accepts the natural limits of pleasures and preserves this natural balance. This does not pertain only to food, but to entertainment and other legitimate goods, and even the company of others.|
|Zeal||Zeal is the energetic response of the heart to God’s commands. The other sins work together to deaden the spiritual senses so we first become slow to respond to God and then drift completely into the sleep of complacency.|
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MTV did a special in August 1993 on the Seven Deadly Sins which involved interviewing various well-known entertainers from the music and television industry. They pretty much all agreed these were not vices and the list was “”dumb.”” (Sigh) Oh well.
(Details: The MTV title was “”Seven Deadly Sins: An MTV News Special Report””; PBS showed it as “”Alive TV.”” First aired on MTV on August 11, 1993. PBS first aired it on August 20, 1993. If you have a copy, please
Additional information (based on requests from readers):
Which one of the Seven Deadly Sins is most popular?
|Of the seven deadly sins, this ONE is my biggest failing:|
The Seven Deadly Sins never occur as a formal list in the Bible. Some people say they can all be found in Matthew’s Gospel (chapters 5 through 7), but they are not in a simple list there. Others submit Proverbs 6:16-19, but this is a different list, covering pride, lies, murder, evil plans, swiftness in sin, lies again, causing conflict. Clearly not the same.
These sins were identified as a group around the same time as the Bible was being translated into a single language. Rather than these sins being identified in a single place in the Bible, they are found all through it, from Genesis to Revelation. The letters of the New Testament mention all of these, and many others as well. The Catechism has many Scriptural references in the section that lists the “”Seven Deadly Sins.”” It is well to remember that the Scriptures come from the Jewish and Christian Churches, not the other way around. In both cases, faith preceded the writing.
Lent is a special time of self-examination and thought about how we live. More on Lent.
Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321) was a Catholic layman who wrote “”The Divine Comedy,”” which is really three epic poems in Italian: “”Inferno,”” “”Purgatorio,”” and “”Paradiso,”” which are about Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven/Paradise, respectively. In “”Purgatorio,”” Dante places each of the seven sins on a level, with the higher levels closer to Paradise and the lower ones closer to Hell. The numbers in parentheses, in the above table, indicate the level where they are found in “”Purgatorio.”” Dante considers these sins as offenses against love, and groups them accordingly:
Perverted Love: Pride, Envy, Wrath/Anger
Insufficient Love: Sloth
Excessive Love of Earthly Goods: Avarice/Greed, Gluttony, Lust
Dante seems to have had a well-formed conscience. His emphasis on love, in the sense of Christian charity, is impressive. That is not to claim some sort of sainthood, but his ideas were very much in keeping with the teaching of the Catholic Church at a time when the practice of the clergy often fell short of the doctrine.
The Dao – A little article considering the The Seven Deadly Sins from a somewhat Daoist perspective.
St. Thomas Aquinas
The Reverend Barthlolomew de la Torre, O.P. wrote the following on August 22, 2003:
“”Thank you for your excellent web page on the Seven Deadly Sins. A principal classical text not to be omitted is that of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae.
Pax et fides.
Fr. Bartholomew de la Torre, O.P.
St. Dominic dedicated himself to promoting “”pax et fides””, “”peace and faith””, because without peace, the faith cannot flourish, and he described himself as pursuing this goal by “”singing and gentleness, preaching, imploring and weeping”” (cf. M.-H. Vicaire, O.P., St. Dominic and His Times, pp. 62 and nt. 7, 146, 147 and nt. 80).””
Thank you so much for providing the link! For those unacquainted with Catholic orders, O.P. indicates the “”Ordo Praedicatorum”” (Latin) or “”Order of Preachers””, otherwise known as the Dominicans, founded by St. Dominic. St. Thomas Aquinas joined the Dominicans in 1244. It is worth noting that St. Dominic’s approach to heresy (false teaching), was to teach and debate, rather than take up arms. The text linked above shows how St. Thomas Aquinas argued various points about Pride and the other Seven Deadly Sins. It is worth reading it all, but is of a style rarely seen. It takes patience.
Bishop Sheen spoke on a television show, Life is Worth Living, in the U.S. from 1951 to 1957, and the “”Bishop Sheen Program”” from 1961 to 1968. He wrote 96 books and a very large number of articles and columns, including entries in encyclopedias. In his book, The Seven Capital Sins (albaâ€“house.com), he made a connection between the Seven Deadly Sins and the last words of Jesus on the Cross. These assignments are listed here in the order set by Bishop Sheen in addresses from February 26 to April 7, 1939. The connection is not always obvious, so the book is highly recommended for further reading.
Words from the Cross
|Wrath/Anger||“”Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.””|
|Envy||“”This day you shall be with me in Paradise.””|
|Lust||“”Woman, behold your son… son, behold your mother.””|
|Pride||“”My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?””|
|Sloth||“”It is finished.””|
|Avarice/Greed||“”Father, into Your hands I commend My spirit.””|
C.S. Lewis might well be considered a modern-day Dante. Try reading “”The Great Divorce,”” a short little book, and compare it to “”The Divine Comedy.”” Lewis, as a professor of medieval literature, would have been familiar with Dante’s work.
Narnia and the Seven Deadly Sins – Dr. Don W. King, Department of English, Montreat College
Donna Hatsuko Reedy wrote the following on May 18, 2000:
“”I enjoyed your site; it’s quite informative. Just wanted to add another text to your reading list: Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. The entire play revolves around issues of salvation, and there’s this great scene in which the seven deadly sins are paraded for Faustus. It’ll make a great addition to your already well-supported site.””
Thank you for the suggestion! I’ve put a link to the on-line text here for our readers.
The Tragical History of D. Faustus
Alan Sickler wrote the following on April 26, 2000:
“”I was reading your page on the “”Seven Deadly”” sins and thoroughly enjoyed your definitions of the sins; even better though was the literary occurrences of this that you outlined. However, I was perplexed as to why you failed to mention Spenser’s “”The Faerie Queene””; This work is one of the greatest Middle English / Renaissance pieces ever written, and it is maybe the greatest occurance of the seven deadly sins. I forget which book they are in, but Spenser characterizes each deadly sin as a person – using physiognomy tradition to visualize the vices, and he even models this parade of sins after the pilgrims in Chaucer’s “”Canterbury Tales””. Gluttony rides a fat pig which is symbolic of his nature and etc etc. I don’t know if you’ve read the Faerie Queen or not, but its maybe the most vital occurance of the seven deadly sins – a must read for an enthusist like yourself. Thanks for your time – I enjoyed your site thoroughly.””
I will read it soon, but for now I’ve posted your kind and helpful comments, as well as a link to a Spenser site and “”The Faerie Queene.””
From another kind visitor:
I read through some of your sources for articulations of the 7 deadly sins. One of which was Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. The scenario where the 7 Deadly sins are shown is FQ I.IV.1-37 (that’s FQ Book 1, Canto 4, stanzas 1-37). Thought you might appreciate this.
–Scott M. Williams>
Thomas Merton wrote a prayer to ask for help against the Seven Deadly Sins. It is found on page 44 of “”New Seeds of Contemplation.”” Much of his focus is on the illusions we have about ourselves, and how to let God clear these away.
In the play: Getting Away With Murder (or The Doctor is Out), Patrick Phenicie says the following characters appear to represent the seven deadly sins. Here are the characters and sins:
As you may have noticed, the names seem to form anagrams of the sins (or contain the anagram; some are obvious, some are less so). Patrick and I were unable to figure out how the name “”Laimorgos”” fits into Sonheim’s naming scheme, but Christopher Sabatowich has an idea: Vassili Laimorgos can be rearranged (with some letters omitted) to form the word “”smï¿½rgï¿½s,”” which is Norse/Swedish for “”bread and butter,”” as in “”smorgasbord.”” In English, “”smorgasbord”” can be applied as a “”varied collection”” of anything, and Gluttony does not apply (exclusively) to food.
T. Nickson writes: “”Vassili Laimorgos is a Greek Name – Vassili links with the Greek word for King and Laimorgos translates literally as Glutton. Sondheim was being clever!””
George Balanchine (Dance)
CiCi Houston writes: I found this website very useful for a current project I am working on. Perhaps it would be of interest to your readers to hear how this list has crept into the arts. The New York City Ballet had a production entitled “”Seven Deadly Sins.”” It was originally choreographed by George Balanchine in Europe around 1933 for Tilly Losch. He restaged it in the late 50’s for Allegra Kent, and in both productions Lotte Lenya participated. The ballet focused on Anna 1 and Anna 2. Lotte (1) was the talking half, and would order around Allegra (2), the silent but dancing half. 1 would make 2 commit the sins, or set double standards. For instance, one famous picture of the ballet shows Lotte with an ice cream cone (a clever disguise for the microphone she sang into) pointing a finger at Allegra, who is on the floor pushing herself through a series of stretches and exercises under Lotte’s rule. I’m sure there is much more information than what I have access to, but I’m sure that readers interested in this will enjoy gaining the extra knowledge on a rather hidden piece of work (it was never restaged since Allegra last performed it), whether they approve of the concept or not.
Thanks again for the useful website – CiCi Houston
Thank you, CiCi!
Other Helps Toward Virtue and Peace
The Seven Deadly Sins and Wu Wei
Please don’t send corrections for the spelling of “”Tao””. Yes, it could be “”Dao””. There is a certain humour in the controversy.
A rough translation of “”The Tao”” is “”The Way,”” and this philosophy/religion appears to have originated in China between 500 B.C. and 200 A.D. The broad dating is due to disagreements. It is attributed to Lao Tsu. For now, let us not debate the origins and distortions of Taoism. We will look at one aspect, wu wei, and consider Gregory’s list of seven deadly sins (attitudes) from this perspective.
Translations of philosophy from ancient languages to modern often pose a problem. Wu wei can be translated as “”no purpose””, but the complete phrase is “”wu wei and not wu wei.”” Some translate the whole phrase as “”do not act, yet act.”” Huston Smith’s translation: “”Don’t waste energy.”” Some translate it as avoiding purposeful action, others as avoiding unnatural, affected actions.
Dante will be our guide, as we will use his sequence for the Seven Deadly Sins, starting with the least hellish attitudes and working our way toward the worst. Think of it as a conversation between Dante, Gregory and Lao Tsu.
1) Lust – From a Catholic perspective, Lust is the desire for pleasure run amok. Most people, reasonably, think of the drive for sexual pleasure as Lust. Quite literally, sex outside of marriage is useless activity. In marriage, sex can be a useful activity, bringing new life and strengthening the bond between husband and wife. In marriage, the couple has decades to pursue sexual closeness at a leisurely pace, without striving or artifice. Outside marriage, sex is a source of conflict, proof of power or beauty, commodity to be bought or sold, marketing tool or agent of death. The drive for illicit sex fuels a multi-billion dollar sex industry while human beings starve and kill each other. Men go to great lengths for sex, and women spend time and money to be more attractive to these men. What a waste of energy. And those who often succeed in these pointless pursuits find no happiness, just a desire for a different partner or experience.
2) Gluttony – Although it applies to food, let us consider the consumption of anything past the point of usefulness. Clearly, this is wasted energy. People eat more than they need, drive bigger cars than necessary, waste electricity on all manner of useless trinkets and have more shoes than they truly need. All of this while so many starve. Sadly, the world economy might collapse if people only consumed what they must. Not every treat is useless, though. Parties and desserts serve a worthy purpose, but lose their charm when commonplace. Gluttony is like a musical piece played entirely loud, with no soft passages.
3) Wrath/Anger – There is a kind of useful anger, as demonstrated by Christ in the Cleansing of the Temple, but most anger is a waste of energy. Shaking a fist at drivers who displease us, yelling at children for being children, resentment because someone didn’t do as we might have liked, these are all a waste of energy. People say, “”No, it feels better to express it.”” Maybe, or maybe not. Expressed anger causes stress for others and is not calming to the one who expresses it. It would be better to consider the “”Serenity Prayer,”” and accept what we cannot change.
4) Sloth/Laziness – This is a funny one, because some might consider wu wei laziness. But only taking effective action is taking action and far from laziness. And laziness is a kind of action, too. It can be difficult to do nothing, especially when others require our assistance. Children ask their lazy parents for a cup of water. Customers have a question about a product. The boss wants that report. Zeal does not seem wu wei, but it is. Not the foolish “”zeal”” of zealots, idealogues who “”having lost sight of their goal, redouble their efforts,”” but focused and effective action, and no more or less than necessary.
5) Avarice/Greed – Like Gluttony, this is about desiring to possess more than is useful. No matter how much is acquired, it is never enough, and there is no real enjoyment, only the fear of loss. This useless striving can never result in happiness, and is truly a useless activity.
6) Envy – In the first place, we can never have what is possessed by another. Possession is a matter of both what we have and who we are. This is why the same object may bring happiness to one person but grief to another. So to desire what another has is foolish because it will not be the same for us. Riches, fame, or power wielded well by one may destroy another, so wearing out our souls in envy is a waste of effort.
7) Pride – And so we come to the biggest waste of all. In the poem, “”Ozymandias,”” we hear the boasting of a mighty king long since dead. Death is indeed the great equalizer, coming to the great and small, and none avoid it. Ants and corporate giants both die, but for us there is also judgment. All pride is a waste because our view of ourselves matters not at all in the end, when our lives are revealed for all to see. All pretense, all show, all vain posturing is gone, and there is none but the self remaining, naked before its Maker. Far better to live in truth, simply and without spin or image. This is humility, prized by many but understood by few.
This article does not attempt to explain either Taoism or Christianity, but rather provide something to think about. More on Taoism and wu wei can be found through search engines, and more articles like this one abound on this site.