The pages of sin

The pages of sin

Dan Cryer


Seven Deadly Sins? Simply to mention the phrase is to send eyebrows-raised Unitarian Universalists scurrying in the opposite direction, covering their ears at the very idea. How retro! How impossibly orthodox! It's all so creed, not deed!

From our enlightened perspective, we tend to regard sin as at best an overrated concept, at worst a guilt-producing toxin that poisons the well of human relationships. So why even bother discussing the Seven Deadly Sins?

The simplest answer is because they're there, because they've dominated Western ethical thought for centuries. If we needed any reminder of sin's reality, the terrorists of 9/11 certainly provided it. And as I write this essay, Broadway diva Audra McDonald is performing a new song cycle on the Seven Deadly Sins at Carnegie Hall, underscoring the subject's topicality once again.

Not that we have to consider the sins literally, mind you, much less think of them as portals to eternal damnation. But paying them a modicum of attention, even respect, might just pay off in unexpected ways.

That's precisely what prompted the New York Public Library and Oxford University Press to commission a series of lectures that would then be expanded into books. Four of them have been published so far: Greed by Phyllis Tickle, Envy by Joseph Epstein, Gluttony by Francine Prose, and Lust by Simon Blackburn.

Each of these slim volumes is no more than 150 pages. With one exception, they are remarkably readable and insightful, strikingly illustrated, and eminently worthy of Unitarian Universalist respect.

None of these books is a work of theology; rather they are broad-ranging, delightfully discursive forays across realms of religion, philosophy, literature, art, and more. Each, however, has a slightly different agenda. Blackburn, a British philosopher and humanist, unabashedly aims to “rescue lust from its detractors.” Epstein, an essayist and former editor of The American Scholar, argues that our notions of envy haven't evolved much beyond the biblical coveting of “thy neighbor's house.” But Prose, a novelist, chronicles change: how gluttony's sinfulness has become thoroughly secularized, an addiction fueled by the sometimes conflicting “needs of the body and the hungers of the spirit.”

Greed is the forgettable volume, an opportunity squandered. Tickle's editors apparently failed to inform the PBS-NPR commentator on religion that she had more than fifty pages to tell her story; her endnotes, at thirty-one pages, are nearly as long as the essay itself. They also neglected to nudge her into getting on with the show. As it is, she wastes so much space on broad cultural overview, rhetorical throat-clearing, and asides “Having become over the years a great admirer of the conversational aside, I have indulged myself” that she has precious little to say about greed itself.

So let's turn our attention to lust.

Blackburn defines lust as “the active and excited desire for the pleasures of sexual activity.” Before taking on such Christian naysayers as Augustine and Aquinas, he reminds us that the demonization of lust arose much earlier, among the ancient Greeks. As a model for the soul, for example, Plato used a charioteer with two horses. The black horse represented lust, that willful and shameless beast, while the white one stood for reason and self-control. The lesson, Blackburn writes, was clear: “Lust is fine in its place, but is to be looked on with shame and horror outside that place.”

Still, it was the church fathers who put the complete package together, defining sex itself—not the excesses of lust—as part of our “animal nature” that needed to be transcended by the good Christian. Augustinian thought produced a hierarchy of sexual activity: It deemed chastity the most godly state, followed down a slippery slope by marriage without sex, marriage with sex for procreation only, and so on into iniquity. Aquinas, who united Christian belief with Aristotelian rationality, wrote off even marital sex in terms each more repulsive than the other, equating it with filth, stain, foulness, vileness.

Blackburn champions an opposing model from an unlikely source. Thomas Hobbes, despite his gloomy estimate of human life as “nasty, brutish and short,” wrote of sexual congress in surprisingly positive and modern terms. Mutuality, consideration of the other, and tender affection were the keys to what Blackburn summarizes as “Hobbesian unity”:

I desire you, and desire your desire for me. I hope that you desire my desire for your desire, and if things are going well, you do. There are no cross-purposes, hidden agendas, mistakes, or deceptions. Lust here is like making music together, a joint symphony of pleasure and response.

Blackburn's contemporary foes include homophobes, who reserve sexual ecstasy for heterosexuals only, and the most rigid feminists, who fence off legitimate sex with so many restrictions that they take the fun out of it. The ancient Greeks, he argues, knew better than the former; the latter underestimate the value of playfulness in human happiness.

Along the way, Blackburn dialogues with the likes of Stoics, Shakespeare, and Sartre. Yet he wears his learning lightly, and his prose is always crystal clear. He is a sprightly, agile guide, well worth following.

Of the Seven Deadly Sins, according to Joseph Epstein, only envy is no fun at all. It's the dirty little secret of contemporary transgression. Sinning in bed or at table might even prompt a bit of bragging. But owning up to envy puts you in an especially petty, spiteful, secretive little club. Who would knowingly join?

Envy, Epstein says, “asks one leading question: What about me? Why does he or she have beauty, talent, wealth, power, the world's love? . . . Why not me?” Hard-core envy isn't aimed at the rich and famous but at those only slightly better off. As H.L. Mencken once observed, contentment in America is making $10 more a month than your brother-in-law.

However dour the subject, the author manages to transform it into a great deal of fun. For one thing, he's one of the country's most accomplished essayists. Clarity, grace, and wit are the touchstones of his prose. For another, he can draw on a glittering treasure trove of quotations. Envy, it seems, is catnip to the aphorist. Here is La Rochefoucauld: “In the misfortune of our best friends, we always find something that is not displeasing to us.” Closer to home, there's Gore Vidal: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” So much for friendship. Ugly stuff, indeed, but awfully funny, too, if taken in the right spirit.

What also makes Epstein so readable is that he's not afraid to tell on himself. He's as guilty as any of us, and he's not about to pretend otherwise. A televised Simon and Garfunkle concert in New York's Central Park prompts this confession:

Although I write no songs, have a poor singing voice, and play no instrument, none of this stopped me from mocking Paul Simon's wretched hairpiece or the thinness of his sensitive little songs, when what I was really thinking was: Why does this guy command the attention of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers . . . and why isn't the same adoration accorded me? Utterly daft, of course, but there it is.

We've all been there. But who among us has the guts to admit, as Epstein does, to wishing ill of someone diagnosed with cancer? In this case, it was an acclaimed literary critic whom he despised as an outright fraud. No, he wasn't shooing the man into his grave, but he had to acknowledge that comeuppance on such a cosmic level gave him a certain grim satisfaction. This—and La Rochefoucauld above—are stark instances of what the Germans labeled Schadenfreude, delight in another's failure or defeat. You could also call it envy to the nth degree, the most egregious sort. Epstein distinguishes this temporary feeling from ressentiment, from the French, a general condition that dominates and defines one's personality or character. This creates the embittered, muttering, not quite insane types who wallow in negative thoughts. Not often found in real life, they have their fictional embodiment in Dickens' Uriah Heep and Melville's Claggart, that nemesis of the pure-of-heart Billy Budd.

In the bigger picture, envy has a powerful, even essential, social role. Capitalism, Epstein notes, is almost inconceivable without it. And what is advertising but “a vast and intricate envy-creating machine”? Capitalism's ideological foe, Marxism, may see itself as “a plan of revenge for the envious,” but no society ostensibly run on Marxist principles has managed to avoid the affliction. Some are always more equal than others.

Which points to the conclusion that envy is a part of human nature. The ancient Greeks thought so. We moderns are more skeptical. What exactly is human nature? Is there such a thing at all? In the meantime, Epstein says, one thing is certain. Envy is “a great waste of mental energy.” And he should know.

Overeating may puff up your waistline and endanger your health, but how in the world, wonders Francine Prose, did it get labeled a sin? Blame it on Gregory the Great, the sixth-century pope responsible for formulating the traditional seven: Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Anger, and Sloth. These were held to be the severest offenses and the root of all others.

Gluttony's crime, Prose explains, was its worship of the senses at the expense of holier matters. The pleasures of the body substituted, in effect, for the worship of God. What's more, it was an indulgence that paved the way to sexual debauchery. This is more understandable if we keep in mind that the traditional idea of gluttony included not only excessive eating but imbibing too much alcohol.

Warnings about the dire consequences of gluttony, Prose points out, increased with a rise in Christian monasticism and the growing prominence of the idea that the body was to be denied, despised, and mortified. The miserable after-death destiny awaiting those who overindulged was reflected in art. Hieronymus Bosch offered them up as food for demons in The Last Judgment. In Inferno, Dante made them shiver in the snow, kept away from shelter by the terrible three-headed dog Cerberus.

Nowadays, Prose notes, the obese face a sort of hell on earth—“the pity, contempt, and distaste of one's fellow mortals.” If fear of the afterlife no longer has power to sway behavior, the possibility of premature death brought on by “immoderation, excess, and slovenly self-indulgence” sometimes does.

Some obesity may be explained by genetic malfunction. More often we turn to psychology for answers, interpreting the reach for the glazed doughnut as a “displaced response to something that happens outside ourselves, something that was done to us.” Ironically, in the endless search for the perfect diet, in the twelve-step programs to shed unwanted pounds, the language of moral culpability has reappeared: “I was bad last week. . . . That pie was sinfully delicious.”

What's overlooked in these litanies of self-recrimination, Prose suggests, is any acknowledgment of the genuine pleasures of the table. The late M.F.K. Fisher serves as Prose's impish mentor in this regard. That grande dame of gourmands was unstinting in her passion for splendid food and wine: “As often as possible, when a really beautiful bottle is before me, I drink all I can of it, even when I know I have had more than I want physically. That is gluttonous. But I think to myself, when again will I have this taste on my tongue. Where else in the world is there just such wine as this. . . .”

If this be gluttony, Prose insists, she's all for it. This is nothing less than “the life force—the appetite—asserting itself.”

If all this whets your, uh, appetite for more wicked pleasures, bear in mind that three more Oxford volumes are forthcoming. Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman will examine anger; social critic Michael Eric Dyson, pride. Playwright Wendy Wasserstein will take on sloth—if she ever gets around to it.

Related Resources

  • Greed.Phyllis Tickle. The Seven Deadly Sins. Oxford, 2004. (
  • Envy.Joseph Epstein. The Seven Deadly Sins. Oxford, 2003. (
  • Lust.Simon Blackburn. The Seven Deadly Sins. Oxford, 2003. (
  • Gluttony.Francine Prose. The Seven Deadly Sins. Oxford, 2003. (