Wednesday, 11 March 2009

How to sin.

A friend asked me which of the seven deadly sins I'd pick, if it was me, for a costuming project that she's doing as part of a course. Greed, gluttony, lust, sloth, pride, envy, wrath. Which would YOU pick, and why? I found it hard, and did what I usually do when asked to answer a question, which is unpick the semantics of the question in order to establish what it's really about. That led to Wikipedia, which has the following to say:

"Listed in the same order used by both Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century, and later by Dante Alighieri in his epic poem The Divine Comedy, the seven deadly sins are as follows: luxuria (extravagance, later lust), gula (gluttony), avaritia (greed), acedia (sloth), ira (wrath), invidia (envy), and superbia (pride). Each of the seven deadly sins has an opposite among the corresponding seven holy virtues (sometimes also referred to as the contrary virtues). In parallel order to the sins they oppose, the seven holy virtues are chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility."

I get hung up on the fact that 'greed' and 'gluttony' in ordinary English usage are very similar - gluttony is surely just a specific form of greed, why single it out as a particularly bad thing all its own? But the Latin for 'greed' is 'avaritia', so maybe we're talking about avarice which is much more specific and definitely different from gluttony. But both are to do with acquisitiveness - which is different from miserliness. The desire to spend money as opposed to hoarding it. The sin there is the stop-at-nothing attitude to acquiring possessions, no matter who gets walked over in the process.

I suppose in times gone past you could link lust in here, since the trading of humanity for sex was much more widespread than I think it is today. (Is that a naive thing for me to say? I don't know any figures on the sex trade over history.) But is the sin the commodification of human flesh, or the desire for corporeal (corporal? I need a dictionary. Or I should just use the word 'physical', but where would the fun be?) pleasure? I think only the first is atually wrong. There is no harm in pleasure or happiness, though I appreciate that those two things are different and that there's an argument that could be had there - about moderation, mostly. But the thing that is wrong is treating a person as a thing - which is different again from enjoying the other person's body. That surely is not a problem provided you treat one another as people and not objects without feelings. There's a Discworld reference there - Vimes I think in Night Watch defines crime as anything which involves treating people as things. It's interesting that 'lust' started off as 'extravagance', really - back to moderation. The Latin 'luxuria' has odd connections - to the word 'uxor' meaning 'wife', for example. I always found that rather uncomfortably telling about the Romans' attitude to women. Objectification or what?! You're only a 'luxury' men can afford to do without??

In gluttony, what is the sin? Enjoyment of food need not be wrong, nor should making oneself obese be of itself wrong. Is it greed at the expense of others, then? Taking food from the child's mouth? Probably. Or perhaps there's an element of over-eating and wantonly making oneself a burden on family and health systems, that is the sin. That is selfishness, and that is the sin. Gluttony, defined as excessive consumption of food, is not wrong for itself.

Envy and pride are interelated, too, though I think eparate from the greed family of vices. Pride is difficult - it can be a good thing to take a certain element of pride in what you achieve, it means you value it and will produce better work because of it. It is tempered I suppose by humility or a desire to improve further. Something about the knowledge that nothing is perfect. That's the element of religion, I suppose - nothing is perfect except what God makes. But there's the more human way of putting it which goes, 'You can please all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.' It is impossible to make something entirely satisfactory. But it is pride which makes the ordinary mortal try? The desire to prove one's ability, to be better than one's fellows, but balanced by self-knowledge enough to know when something could be improved.

Envy is probably the sin I can find least excuse for, possibly because it is the one I find in myself most often. It's a difficult one to unpick - not about wanting what someone else has. After all, what's the harm in that? It's what helps to drive us to improve our own lives. It's resenting them for it, or tormenting them for it, or taking it out on them. Decidedly unpleasant. In a society as acquisitive as our own, this is a moderately big deal. It drives people to over-spend, or not assess motivations for desires. One ends up acquiring without working out why, in a sort of competition, which results in owning a lot of tat you don't need and in having no greater quality of life. It is related to pride, I guess, but without any of the redeeming elements that might be found in the other sin.

Wrath and sloth seem to me to be more independent. Surely there are times when anger is justified? When it is a good thing? Angry against injustice, or angry with someone who lets you down - just enough so that they don't do it again. I guess it's linked to pride like that; in order to be angry with someone or something, you have to believe that your position is faultless, and that could leave you open to pride without self-knowledge, especially if you are blinded by high emotion. And I suppose there are correct ways of being angry, to the right levels. Like, it's never, ever right to kill (I'm talking about individuals not nations; I don't want to start the 'just war' debate just now...), so anger that leads to that kind of violence is definitely wrong. It's back to quantifying people. There is more to someone than their actions, whatever they are.

And sloth. It took me a long time to learn what the word meant when I was a child - I could only think of the animal. The Latin doesn't help unpick it, either. Is it just laziness? What's wrong with that, so long as you are no burden to other people? Not pulling your weight when part of a team is probably an element. Scrounging. Living off the rest of society. Is that it? It's still objectifying other people, I think - you are making yourself more important than everyone else is. Hypochondria is probably in here, too. It's all about self-knowledge.

In fact, it's ALL about self-knowledge and an assessment of your placement in society, I guess. Not being a burden on other people and being aware of yourself and how your actions affect those around you. So is there only one sin? I don't think there are seven, certainly. But in my quest to live a life I'm proud of (!), I find myself working to know myself better - to see myself the way other people see me and the way I see other people, so that I can avoid irritating them, or being a burden on them or on society in any way. In the course of that, I hope I'd avoid most of the bad sorts of the 'sins' above. There's nothing religious in that, but the framework of thinking about what's good and what's bad is interesting. Are these universal? Does every society in the world look to the same sort of vices and virtues? Yes and no. This fits back into the idea of guilt and what constitutes it - I remember a supervisor explaining to me the ancient Greek conception of guilt as something created by society for an individual - 'You've done something wrong because we SAW you' - versus a more Christian conception of guilt - 'I know I've done something wrong and am going to feel guilty about it no matter whether or not the rest of society knows or cares'. There's much more to that, but it's for another day. Enough for now...

1 comment:

  1. The suggestion that it's all to do with living in society seems to be behind the vatican's recent list of modern deadly sins
    1. Genetic modification
    2. Human experimentations
    3. Polluting the environment
    4. Social injustice
    5. Causing poverty
    6. Financial gluttony
    7. Taking drugs

    I don't agree with several of those, actually, but I think the point they're aiming towards is living well in a society, a community - which seems to be the conclusion you've come to, more or less. It's not eating yourself silly that's wrong, it's the effect that can have on people around you.

    Re the sex traffic - I think it's probably better now, but when it occurs it's far more destructive. I'd class being forced to marry for money as similar to trafficking, which clearly happened all the time.