The seven capital sins in modern reality
The seven deadly sins given a modern make-over, M.H traces their origins and points to some fascinating modern parallels with some surprising conclusions.
The poet Dante (1265-1321) stands between our time and that of Pope Gregory The Great (540-604). It was Gregory who first publicly formulated the Seven Deadly Sins, as we know them today. They underpin the construction of the infernal circles in Dante’s Divine Comedy. While the Bible was being translated into its first official Latin editions, Pope Gregory compiled the Seven Deadly Sins from a list of monastic guidelines. Monks were alerted to these seven tendencies within themselves, before they became dominant habits and stifled spiritual growth. From the pulpit, the laity was encouraged to make a similar effort, especially during the forty days of Lent, which recalled Christ’s period of fasting in the wilderness.
The list retains its hold on the imagination due to the significance of the number seven in different cultures down the ages. Although people may struggle to remember each sin, they stick in the mind as a group. Seven resonates with echoes of occult knowledge and eternal mystery, from the days of the week to the orifices of the body. A digression about the symbolic importance of the magic number would fill a fat book. I won’t dig a hellish pit like Dante, but go in the opposite direction, meeting the Sins on the way up.
New religions cannibalise their predecessors. They assemble a Frankenstein’s monster from extraneous parts and hope the stitches are not too obvious. Any bits that do not fit are discarded or demonised. The gods of exotic mystery sects were attached to the Saviour of the New Testament. The Holy Communion smelled of Demeter’s corn and the wine of Dionysius. Egyptian Isis transformed the peripheral figure of Jesus’ mother into a virtual goddess. Persian Mithras, the god of light, shone from Christ’s halo. The Old Hebrew myths were combed for useful references, to incorporate the tribal storm god Jehovah as the Father in the Holy Trinity. The Pagan cults, with their private initiation ceremonies, claimed to know the secrets of the universe and offered the prospect of immortality. Devotees entered the ancient temples in the homeland of Mithras by ascending seven steps. Menacing statues of winged monsters flanked each step. Inside, a sculpture of a bright young man stabbing a bull represented the god.
We can regard the Seven Sins as bestial traits, which may be necessary for survival in nature, but which must be held in check. They are the inner demons or life forces. If any one becomes dominant, the imbalance encourages the growth of the remaining six demons in the crew. The soul rots away to leave only the animal. Without insight or conscience, we are in a world of competing sociopaths, more viciously inventive than animals. The resulting cruelty and indifference creates hell on earth. Heaven is nothing more than the recognition and avoidance of this hell. It is, according to Jesus, spread out before us, but we cannot appreciate it. The demonic Carnival clouds our vision.
The seven temple steps and the god killing the animal can provide a symbolic stage for the Seven Deadly Sins. Traditionally, the Deadly Sins follow a sequence from one to seven, in order of importance. I will take them in reverse order, starting with Sloth at seven, up to Pride, at number one, which crowns them all.
Originally, Sloth was associated with melancholic depression, leading to fatalistic lassitude. It might culminate in suicide, death being preferable to making any effort. In the monastic context, Sloth implied a sin of ingratitude to the Creator for the gift of life. Malingerers became a burden to others. This made sense in a religious community with shared values. In a commercial environment, with obscene salaries at the top and minimum wages at the bottom, defining Sloth is much more problematic. Under slavery, Sloth can appear as passive resistance or common sense. On a personal level, Jesus’ Parable of the Talents chimes in with Marx’s “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” For Dante, Sloth is the sin of insufficient love. For Jesus it is a sign of spiritual poverty, a cowardly refusal to engage. He is not going to bother with snoring idlers. Like depression, Sloth breeds a lack of appreciation, both for material resources and individual gifts. The Sin lies in ignorance of one’s own potential, a kind of wilful self-sabotage, leading to the miserable half-life of the couch potato, dozing fitfully as the blizzard of consumerism flickers across the television screen. Time to slap enough Anger into the slug’s cheeks to make it crawl onto the next step.
If Sloth is a kind of self-neglect, Anger is often its answer. Anger ranges from seething resentment to blind rage, when “the red mist descends.” The mad courage of a cornered rat cannot distinguish friend from foe. Self-awareness has gone through the smashed television screen. Suppressed, misdirected anger triggers sudden explosions, which erupt out of nowhere. We get the habitual bully’s shouting, road rage and supermarket rage, even “rage rage”. Everybody has red buttons and pet hates; the Temple’s moneychangers were the last straw for Jesus. It took the priests by surprise, convincing them to remove him. The adrenalin rush breaks through the barrier of reason, but calm deliberation is the only way to defuse both the long-term corrosion and the immediate violence. Some people get addicted to the rush. Battle-hardened soldiers, trading in organised murder, avoid gung-ho maniacs because they will get everybody pointlessly killed. Opportunistic manipulators can harness a population’s wider anger and lead them straight to hell before they realise what is happening. The angrier and blinder the maddened mobs are, the better. For the most spectacular results at the sharp end, add alcohol, amphetamines, cocaine, the Wrath of God and – POW! Rock ‘n’ roll! Meanwhile, other causes for anger go unnoticed, especially the manipulator’s self-serving shenanigans. Anger is exhausting. You wake up among the ruins, with the “munchies” gnawing at your guts and the bloated bulk of Gluttony blocking the stairway.
I once asked an obese African American why he thought he had piled on so much weight. He patted his belly and said, “Oh, that? That’s rage. That has prevented some murders.” A fat Italian woman reflected, “I can see what he means. We swallow all our rage, fear and frustration to fill the void inside us; the conviction that we are worthless.” The devil that promotes Gluttony will never appear as a flabby diabetic suffering from a heart condition. McDonalds and Coca Cola sponsor the Olympics, preferably watched on TV, guzzling a variety of snacks. Legal and illegal drugs promise instant, short-term, relief. Meanwhile, at every stage, money is made, hand over fist, behind the smokescreen of advertising, acting as Gluttony’s pimp. Nearly half the food in developed countries is thrown away. Corpses of cartel casualties lie among the rotting waste in Mexican rubbish tips. Our bulimic system vomits while the bankers launder the profits. The workers who harvest both food and drugs are the lowest paid. A healthy dose of Anger, at being reduced to that degraded creature, “the consumer”, might be the beginning of an escape from the vicious circle of an expanding waistline. Fat chance! The devils ramming the ‘Gluttonomy’ down the world’s throat insist that we need more GROWTH! Before I know it, a skinny figure with sharp fingernails, called Envy, pulls me onto the next step, claiming to know how I feel.
Wouldn’t it be great if the rich finally got their come-uppance? Isn’t this what feeds the tabloids? Build ‘em up and knock ‘em down? Envy certainly fuels capitalism, which renders conservative condemnation of egalitarian policies as “The Politics Of Envy” not only hypocritical but also ridiculous. Money bestows power, and an obnoxious sense of entitlement, that is begging to be brought crashing to its knees. However, revolutionaries would be well advised to search their own souls for traces of Envy before they set up the guillotines. Happiness is the best revenge. The mansions, designer clothes, private jets, celebrity status and entourages of flunkies cannot deliver it. Nor can a desire to be somebody else, dreaming about winning the lottery, while the good things within you, or right under your nose, remain invisible. “Not Solomon in all his glory was arrayed like one of these,” says Jesus, picking a flower. Racks of weekly magazines encourage Envy and its close relative, Schadenfreude. The rich are hideous because they believe those things matter so much that they want to fence them off and enjoy them beyond the reach of the envious masses. They will start wars for fear of losing them. However, Envy usually works on a pettier level, such as sibling rivalry or peer pressure in everyday situations. It is like a visual impairment, a hungry stare, wanting to devour the distorted image in front of it, to fill the vacuum within. If it cannot do any damage, it gnaws its own flesh, “consumed with Envy”. Here I am, sweeping the last traces of Envy off the marble staircase, when I notice the High Priest’s young wife batting her eyelashes at me on the next step. I can see right up her skirt.
The early Christians, under the influence of Saint Paul, anticipated Christ’s imminent return. The End of the World made further reproduction, and the sex drive, redundant. Even under those circumstances, this attitude revealed astonishing ignorance about human nature. We are so hard-wired for the survival of our species that the threat of death activates our libido. Remember the Cold War’s three-minute-warning fantasies? During the following centuries after Saint Paul, both Catholics and Protestants drummed feelings of guilt and shame about Lust into their children. Female pleasure was not even considered, except as a symptom of lunacy or diabolic possession, until quite recently. In England, while gay males were criminalised, lesbians did not officially exist. Clerical patriarchs divided women into virgins and whores. Primitive, ultra-conservative societies continue to practise “honour killing” and genital mutilation to keep their daughters in line. Men are debased to dogs sniffing raw meat, so the girls must cover themselves up. The Temple authorities tested Jesus by dragging a woman they claimed had been caught in the act of adultery before him, intending to stone her, Taliban-style. He saw through their attempt to trap him and the hypocrisy of their eagerness to punish her. He knew that 100% of males masturbated with accompanying fantasies, so he put their lustful thoughts on the same level as physical actions, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” He went deeper, “If thine eye offends thee, pluck it out.” As for that busy right hand, cut it off. Now, leave me alone with your nonsense. As for the woman, “Go and sin no more.” Lust? Big deal. None of us would be here without it. People who have a problem with Lust are obsessed with it, and the first to moralise about what others are doing. A Zen Buddhist story tells of two monks on a journey, one carries a stranded nun across a stream. After a few more miles, the other one brings the subject up. The first monk replies, “I left that nun on the riverbank hours ago. You are still carrying her.” Let’s leave her on the stairs. Look, Gordon Gekko wants to help us invest our money on the next step. He’s just had a hot tip from Fred The Shred concerning the Vatican Bank and Credit Suisse.
“Blood in the water!” was the battle cry at Goldman Sachs when the shares crashed. Vulture funds and asset strippers licked their lips. With the bankrupt governments chasing their tails, nothing could stop the feeding frenzy. Who needed Fascist Storm Troopers, when the lawyers and the police had already crushed the labour unions and the unemployed? And now we are in it up to our necks. “It’s no use protesting”, say the treasurers, “you can’t defy the law of economic gravity”. As if it were a natural system and not an artificially rigged game. The cheats, who made sure they could not lose long ago, hold out their hats for all the money in the house because they say it will collapse without them. As for the “trickle down” effect, the only trickle from the tight-fisted billionaires you will feel is their piss on your head. A little earlier, we saw rich leaders and champions of private enterprise kneel in prayer to Jesus before launching an illegal war of plunder. Could this be the same Jesus who cursed warmongers and condemned the wealthy? It’s the economy, stupid! In order to win elections, you must raise a huge campaign fund and pander to the voter’s greed. When that fails, threaten them with destruction. It is all good for the arms trade. Every aspect of life must be subordinated to the profit motive, until money is no longer a means of exchange but an end in itself, the be-all and end-all, with no other priorities. It wouldn’t be so nauseating if it wasn’t all cloaked in the language of freedom and altruism, backed up by mountains of fashionable toys and prestigious events. The directors do not draw salaries anymore. The CEOs award themselves ridiculous amounts of “compensation”, the poor darlings, as if they were the victims of a crime. But do you feel rich inside? Or does it all make you long to be lazy, angry, gluttonous, envious and greedy, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing? “Of course it does,” says the preening figure on the final step, “Because I’m worth it.”
The Sin of Pride goes beyond healthy self-assertion and gratitude for human potential. We are on the top step now, with the aristocracy of Sin, where Lucifer, the Morning Star, dares to challenge the coming Light of Day, which will rub every last trace of his puny existence from the heavens in a new dawn. The essence of Pride is a hollow boast, an inflation of the Unconquerable Will of Nietzschean Supermen, to justify the rape of Mother Earth, with all her human and natural resources, so that the other six Sins can indulge themselves to their hearts’ content. All other lies radiate from this Big Lie, the Father of Lies, who must appear as attractive and powerful as possible. So Jesus warns against false prophets, some of who speak in His Name, others in the name of The People, The Will of God, Free Market Forces, Progress, Manifest Destiny, World Revolution, Racial Purity, and any number of mutations of the above that serve their purpose. Others, perhaps more honestly, do not need an ideology. It is just dog-eat dog. Better to be top dog. Take the best and fuck the rest. “No,” says Jesus. “For what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” Do dogs have souls to begin with? Well, you can always polish your outward appearance, and take Pride in your status, to compensate for the absence of a soul. On the outside, we may see through the lies that varnish the ugly truth, but we have to survive. It is the old pimp’s excuse: “I got kids. Anyway, what difference does it make? If I don’t do it, somebody else will.” So, participate in the charade and receive the Yes-man’s reward. Soon, the mask is stuck to the face. It hurts to try and prise it off. Then, your resentment can express itself by reminding your subordinates of your pre-eminence at all times, and that let the mask of Pride shine brightly. If it goes to your head, your sense of entitlement might make you think you deserve it and everyone adores you. Remove the props and it all falls apart, sometimes before it reaches the graveyard.
The grimacing gargoyles have not frightened me away. I can enter the Inner Sanctum at the top now, hoping to find Jesus in the bright, beautifully decorated space above. Oh, look; he has left a note on the altar. “Change of venue. You can find me in the pub where all the tax collectors, thieves and whores drink. Temples give me the creeps.”