Seven Deadly Sins
Pride, Envy, Avarice, Wrath, Lust, Gluttony, and Sloth are the seven deadly sins that popes, saints, preachers, artists, writers, dramatists, and musicians have urged Christian believers to avoid at all costs. Life can be placed at risk by indulging in these sins; for example, those whose arrogant pride invites disaster, the gluttons who eat their way to the grave, or the violently wrathful who are executed according to the laws of the land. Far more significant, though, are the consequences of sin for the fate of the soul. The corruption of the soul through sinful thoughts and actions literally dis-graces the perpetrator during his or her sojourn on the earth. Having fallen out of grace with God during life, the person is in peril of damnation after death. The sins are "deadly," then, primarily in their effect on the soul as divine judgment offers salvation or hurls it to damnation.
What became crystallized as the seven deadly sins does not appear as such in the Bible, although the Old and the New Testaments identify attitudes and behaviors that violate the principles of a righteous life. Theologians compiled lists of the most serious sins as they attempted to instruct monks, priests, and laities on the requirements for a virtuous Christian life. The earliest influential list identified eight sins that were obstacles to perfection. John Cassian, a fifth-century monk and spiritual leader, specified several sins that later became part of the standard list: pride, gluttony, covetousness (envy), anger (wrath), and ennui (sloth). Two other items on his list—impurity and vanity—are related to lust and pride, and "dejection" was folded into sloth, although not until the seventeenth century.
The standard list of seven deadly sins was established by Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century. He maintained that pride breeds all the other sins, and is therefore the most serious offense. St. Thomas Aquinas, author of the landmark thirteenth-century Summa Theologica, reaffirmed that pride (or "vainglory") is rebellion against the authority of God. Aquinas reasoned that some sinful acts are venial rather than deadly: They arise from the temptations of everyday life and have the effect of weakening the bonds of trust and fellowship among people. Lust, for example, threatens the crucial relationship between parents and children. Such actions become elevated to deadly sins when they arise from the spiritual failing of pride and therefore threaten the soul's acceptance into the kingdom of God.
Many ideas and images became associated with each of the deadly sins over the centuries. The particular associations varied, but specific punishments often were considered to await the perpetrator. In all instances the sinner is assumed to be alive in some form after death in order to experience the agony and despair.
- • Pride=Broken on the wheel
- • Envy=Encased in freezing water
- • Avarice (Greed)=Boiled in oil
- • Wrath (Anger)=Torn apart, limb from limb
- • Lust=Roasted by fire and brimstone
- • Gluttony=Forced to eat rats, snakes, spiders, and toads
- • Sloth (Apathy)=Thrown into snake pits
Set against the deadly sins were the heavenly virtues, also seven in number. The first three of these virtues have remained the most widely mentioned: faith, hope, and charity. The others are fortitude, justice, temperance, and prudence. Attempts have been made to match these virtues against the sins, but it is difficult to discern a oneon-one correlation.
Influence of the Seven Deadly Sins
The medieval world was conceived largely in religious terms, and lives were to be governed by rules derived from divine authority. Morality and
Geoffrey Chaucer's fourteenth-century Canterbury Tales, Dante Alghieri's fourteenth-century Divine Comedy, Edmund Spenser's sixteenth-century The Fairie Queen, and Christopher Marlowe's sixteenth-century Tragical History of Doctor Faustus all feature depictions of the seven deadly sins that remained influential long after their periods of creation. When Hieronymus Bosch introduced his unique and startling visual representation of the seven deadly sins in the fifteenth century, it was with a revisionist twist. The sins were converted from theological abstractions to the follies of everyday people in their everyday lives—with a bracing addition of dark humor.
As the medieval mindset gave way to the modern there was more attention given to naturalistic explanations for events (i.e., disease, famine, and earthquake) and to human actions. The concept of sin would come under increasing pressure from rival explanations, many with psychological and sociological orientations. Nevertheless, the seven deadly sins have continued to appeal to the artistic imagination and to engage the attention of people who, in times very different from Pope Gregory's, are still attempting to negotiate their way between temptation and virtue. Examples of contemporary or near-contemporary contributions include The Seven Deadly Sins (1933), set as a musical theater piece by the twentieth-century composer Kurt Weill (best known for The Threepenny Opera (1933)), and the motion picture Seven (1995), starring Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Spacey. The survival of this concept has also included numerous examples of accommodation to technology and consumerism.
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1947.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1948.
De Tolnay, Charles. Hieronymus Bosch. New York: Artabus, 1966.
Fairlie, Henry. The Seven Deadly Sins Today. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983.
Marlowe, Christopher. Doctor Faustus. New York: Signet, 2001.
Menninger, Karl. Whatever Became of Sin? New York: Hawthorne, 1973.
Schimmel, Solomon. The Seven Deadly Sins: Jewish, Christian, and Classical Reflections on Human Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Spenser, Edmund. The Fairie Queen. New York: Longman, 2001.