The Seven Deadly Sins - II. Sin and Violence

by Raghavan Iyer @ Theosophy Trust


THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS
II. Sin and Violence


  One of the most striking facts about sin and its division into seven cardinal forms is the general historical disarray and lack of agreement on this point. Perhaps the list of the seven deadly sins has been reasonably stable in the English language for the past three hundred years precisely because the topic has no longer been a focus of active cultural interest. Certainly, in the preceding sixteen hundred years the list varied immensely. Put in another way, despite the efforts of systematizers, there was no broadly accepted basis for an exhaustive classification of the sins, or of the virtues, for that matter. No doubt there is something arbitrary about any scheme of classification. For example, to say that all directions may be defined in terms of north, south, east and west is not to argue that they must be so defined. Yet from a certain perspective that is readily reached by most human beings, in relation to their idea of location on the earth, this seems an orderly and exhaustive scheme. Unlike the four cardinal directions, the seven deadly sins enjoyed no such widespread self-evidence. Even the division into seven seems to have been but a self-conscious effort to reflect the intellectual ways of classical antiquity, but without a compelling grasp of its logic.

  When Plato has Socrates refer, without argument, to the four cardinal virtues as Justice, Wisdom, Courage and Temperance, he does so with a definite basis for the division in mind. Each mode of arete or "excellence" exists as a quality or property of a human faculty, or relationship of faculties, which enables it to perform its natural function well. Thus, Wisdom is the virtue of the mind. Courage is the virtue of the spirited nature. Temperance is not the virtue of the appetitive nature, but rather its agreeable governance by the higher faculties. Justice is the principle that each faculty in man should perform the function which it is, by nature, suited to perform — nothing in excess or defect of this mean. Justice is thus the principle of virtue itself. This relationship between the system of psychology and the system of ethics is crucial to the Platonic view of man. It is more than an analogy. It is a primary basis for connecting human welfare and meanings with the broader activities of Nature, since the elements of the human psyche are inseparably derived from Nature, including its root ordering principle or logos and its fundamental moving causes or theci. Hence, human virtues and vices represent aspects of the art of living well or ill, which is founded upon a knowledge of the psyche in the kosmos. The same principles can be traced out in Orphic and Pythagorean thought, as well as in Buddhist philosophy. To put it in borrowed Christian terms, simply to draw out the contrast with Christian orthodoxy, because man is God moving as Nature, when man realizes God as himself he is the master of Nature.

  This is a view not easily accommodated to the Augustinian formula of the two cities and the burden of irredeemable sin. At the same time, there is in the Augustinian view a clear division of the human constitution into body and soul, and this serves the purposes of moral classification by giving a clear locus to sin. Since, contra Pelagius, no set of virtues can offset the alienation from God, the peccatum originale, represented by incarnation into the bodily nature, there is really no theoretical point to a classification of the moral faculties of the incarnated soul. Thus, there is equally no sound basis for a systematic classification of sins and vices. There is simply the chthonic mass of sin irredeemably divorced from the ordering influence of the Deity, and from which the soul must be plucked by the instrumentalities of grace and the sacraments. Hence, even if there is in the seven deadly sins an imitation of classical schemes of the virtues and vices, there is not the psychology to make this borrowing consistent over centuries. This, however, was not felt as a disadvantage. In fact, the absence of the niceties of Graeco-Roman philosophies could be understood as a more forthright and less effete coming to grips with the hydra-headed problem of sin.

  It is now clear that sin is quite different and much more intractable than any of the moral disorders contemplated in the classical world. The very shifts in the meanings of terms used to describe these disorders, as well as the fact of moral disorder itself, show it. The juridical and accusatory flavour of sin as guilt; the conversion of the mild and even pitiable hamartia, missing the mark, into a heavy moral pejorative; and the adoption of the relatively innocuous peccus, stumbling, to express the irredeemable moral fall of man, all suggest a hardening of moral categories and attitudes. Despite the absence of any such attitude on the part of Jesus in the New Testament, who only mentions sin as something to be forgiven or left behind, later writers lent sin monumental proportions, making it a prime focus of thought, speech, action, even meditative prayer, and above all, moral education. In fact, there seems to be a kind of violence brought into the notion of sin that was not part of the classical conception of moral failings or part of the Gospels. A comparison with Buddhism is helpful, wherein the monk is encouraged to meditate with courage and compassion upon the sufferings of birth, death, sickness and error. It would alter the entire aura of the Buddhist way of life to substitute "original sin" for "error". It would be almost as though one were to give up the hope of enlightenment and submerge the consciousness in a dark mass. The same point could be made by examining the Platonic notion of ignorance or the Hindu conception of avidya. It would be foolish to argue that these are categories shallow in their implications for moral life, but they do not convey the almost stifling sense of heaviness of sin. Perhaps it was the relative lightness or unburdened nature of a number of Eastern moral cultures that left morally serious Europeans, missionaries and laymen alike, with the impression that non-Europeans lacked a proper sense of morality. But then again, the average twelfth-century resident of Paris would probably have a similar complaint about the contemporary residents of London or Los Angeles.

  If we turn to the particular deadly sins, several curious points emerge. For example, pride, which heads some orthodox lists and is omitted from others, is now more admired as a virtue than a vice. This is because nobody thinks, anymore, of the terrible fall of Adam and Eve from grace when they speak of "pride of accomplishment", "proud parents" or the like. Nor are they thinking of the Greek hubris. Generally, like most of the seven deadly sins, pride is today simply one among a host of psychological or behavioural states which are relatively acceptable or unacceptable, depending upon circumstances. It is simply difficult to put oneself in Lucifer's putative position and get a sense of what awful thing the medieval mind saw in him. Worse yet, from an orthodox standpoint, the Renaissance restored a portion of the classical admiration for Lucifer-Prometheus, so that the supposed arch-villain of pride is converted into a folk hero of sorts against the violent depredations and tortures of the Inquisition. To say that a heretic was "proud as Lucifer" became a compliment among individuals committed to the spread of light and learning in the Renaissance. Since the word "pride" itself had originally meant "valiant", "loyal" and "notable", one wonders whether the entire history of pride as a deadly sin is actually a history of the removal from power of various prominent nobles who opposed the social and political advance of the Church. The saying "Pride cometh before a fall" may have been used more as a political verbum sapienti than as a principle in moral philosophy. The issue of pride is still complex, as the Shelleys show — Mary pointing to the darker side in Frankenstein and Percy to the brighter in Prometheus Unbound. Victor Frankenstein, like Faust, seems more a case of hubris than of Adamic disobedience. There is no one for Victor to disobey. Yet he does display an arrogant disregard for other men and even Nature, releasing violent forces beyond his control. His pride has become an accepted token of the new hubris and the threat of violent doom it wantonly imposes on masses of human beings.

  Covetousness too has undergone a sea change in the modern era. As a term, it has largely died out, to be replaced by "avarice" and more commonly by "greed". Where the original term pointed to a psychological state of being smoked out by the boiling of one's desires, modern attention, as in so many things, has moved to the correlative exterior object. Greed is defined in relation to material possessions, not interior ferment. Desire is generally accepted as necessary, and seen as requiring not elimination but equitable management in relation to resources and expectations. There is support in the New Testament for this concern with equity in relation to covetousness, though usually the term connotes an unregulated appetite. The contemporary Gandhian maxim that the world has enough for man's need, but not his greed, points to the significance of old-fashioned covetousness. It was also Gandhi who said that poverty, the consequence of some people taking more than their share of the commonwealth, was the worst form of violence. It may be some time, however, before mental and spiritual poverty and dispossession are recognized along with their corresponding modes of violence, owing to our contemporary concentration on externals, itself a symptom of inner poverty. The violent attempts of the have-too-muches to dominate and enslave the have-not-enoughs is central to covetousness in any age. Psychologically, it is a failure of self-government of the appetites by humanity, a loss of Platonic temperance or sophrosyne, resulting in a self-destructive civil war.

  Of all the seven deadly sins, lust seems to be the one most widely rejected today as a failing, and therefore most commonly embraced in practice. The theory of repression is set forth as a proof of the unhealthiness and impossibility of overcoming lust. Hence lust is generally held to be a mistaken and outmoded category, representative of an era of ignorance about human nature. The fact that lust was not originally restricted to the sphere of sexuality, but applied to the entire field of pleasure and pain, is now ignored. It began to be ignored, though for different reasons, from the time of Augustine. Thus, the classical meaning of lust is considerably narrowed in orthodox thought, even as compared with its meaning in the New Testament. Actually, Mill and Bentham could be seen as restorers of the full conception of lust, except that they came to praise pleasure, not to overcome it. Even Mill, however, speaks of higher pleasures, suggesting that physical pleasures represent a kind of inferior good. But in the democracy of the contemporary psyche, it is difficult to make the case against any pleasure that seeks its day, and even pains vie for equal consideration. The notion that attraction and aversion have some end beyond themselves is difficult to grasp, and the discussion of them is often pitched at the most vulgar level, in the name of honesty and accuracy. This sort of relentless reductionism of the motives of the psyche is itself a kind of violence, a lusting in one's lusts, so to speak. The relationship between overcharged sexuality and explosive violence is all too familiar in our time.

  One might expect a straightforward relationship between anger and violence. The origin of the term points to the constriction and tightening of the psyche. Anger is the buildup of internal pressure before a volcanic eruption. The terms angst and "anxiety" are readily connected to these phenomena. What are less familiar or accepted are the subtler aspects of this contraction or constriction of the nature called anger. Franz Anton Mesmer diagnosed a variety of illnesses directly in terms of such a contraction, while an earlier era bore witness to the unhealthy effects of a choleric disposition. Despite these ideas, which support a fairly continuous judgement in history that anger ought to be dispensed with, there is nevertheless a school of thought which holds that anger is acceptable, if only it is released regularly. Like steam in a boiler, it can do a lot of work, but when it is not put to work, it can accumulate to dangerous levels. In this view, the violence associated with outbursts of anger is not to be held against anger itself, but is seen as the unregulated letting off of otherwise valuable steam. This notion then gives rise to a theory of creativity based upon anxiety, tension and conflict, in effect a refined anger. This outlook is further complicated by the dual meaning of the term animus, which is vital energy on the one hand but the basis of animosity on the other. To have a strong animus is to have great energy, but also to run a great risk of anger and conflict. Hence the contemporary confusion of aggressiveness, assertiveness and fighting with individuation. Perhaps neither anger as a sin nor anger as a modern psychological fact really gets at the core of the phenomenon. The nature and qualities of the energies themselves which flow through the individual and which are reflected in anger must, however, be considered. Since energy, whether physical or psychological, remains a morally neutral category, it is helpful to turn to the Sankhya conception of the three gunas sattva, "light", rajas, "restlessness", and tamas, "darkness". These three pervade all Nature, including man, and give a definite inherent moral quality to all thought, feeling and action. There may be certain types of psychic energy that are inherently violent in their expression, or inevitably explosive when mixed, no matter how one proposes to handle the relief valves, whether individual or collective.

  If anger has to do with violent outbursts, perhaps gluttony may be thought of as a contrasting state of unregulated, even violent, intake. As with many of the other deadly sins, both orthodoxy and modernity seem to have narrowed the associated ancient connotations of the term. Gullibility, the etymological cousin of gluttony, conveys a wider scope and suggests a general lack of discrimination. The image of a fish snapping at the bait and thereby becoming caught has at least as broad a moral application as that of a pig feeding at a trough. There is an obvious relationship between gluttony and inability to follow ascetic discipline — whether in relation to the mind, the heart or the body. The single reference to gluttony in the New Testament is the ironic reference of Jesus to himself, when he drew a contrast to the sternly ascetic John the Baptist. In a similar vein, Gandhi made control of the palate a prerequisite to brahmacharya, chastity at every level or the devotion of one's entire being to the realization of Brahman. Anyone who has ever attempted to learn, whether about a specific situation or a general idea, has seen the need to narrow the focus of attention, concentrate on essentials, and not snap at everything that comes by. To be a glutton is to fill oneself with inessentials and overwhelm one's power of assimilation, thus doing a good deal of violence to one's constitution.

  Envy, on the other hand, is the will to do harm, evil or violence to others. This sin has been almost entirely misunderstood by modernity. It is evident from the original meaning of the term that it is equivalent to the evil eye, an unfortunate but prevalent fact of life, according to many ancient and traditional cultures. Plato, like Patanjali, suggested that there are emanations of the eye involved in vision, along with the reception of external influences. Paracelsus, Mesmer and a host of others elaborated the same point. Indeed, the whole history of healing seems to give direct or grudging acceptance to the power of unspecifiable influences flowing from the physician to the patient. Envy is the other side of the coin. Christian theology early adopted the view that healing was a supernatural and miraculous process, involving divine intervention. It also rejected the notion of the malevolence of envy, attributing its force to possession by the devil. As the entire notion of sin has declined, and hence interest in the devil, the notion of envy has shifted from the idea of active ill-will to the idea of a desire to usurp the possessions of others. Thus, envy is now understood as a desire to have things that belong to others — whether material goods or more abstract ones — and is often conflated with covetousness or greed. This displacement of envy from the other person to their possessions and properties masks the nature of the violence implicit in the older conception. In fact, envy would appear to be the deadly sin most directly connected with violence in the sense of a conscious volition or will to do harm, injury and murder to another. In Gandhian terms, envy comes closer than even anger to pure himsa. The contemporary impression that envy has to do with objects, not persons, and that it is a form of desire for some good, masks its vicious and unjustifiable antecedents. From a classical perspective it would be a serious error to dismiss envy as an innocent but understandable disappointment of bourgeois expectations regarding denied access to economic goods.

  Turning finally to sloth, it is in its ancient antecedents certainly the most elusive of the seven deadly sins. Sloth itself seems to be almost an aboriginal Teutonic conception. As such, it was rejected by Latin writers who, like Aquinas, preferred the term acedia, a neologism from the Greek invented for the purpose. But the term akedos clearly represents, at least in Greek, an absence of anxiety, and is thus akin to the absence of anger. Thus there seems to be a dilemma: one must choose between anger and sloth. Later criticism of the idea of religious tolerance as being a form of sloth suggests that there should be righteous anger directed towards wickedness. The Hamlet problem persists in a variety of forms. It has to do with the ability to release the will, and this is perhaps the essence of sloth. On the other side, the Teutonic notion of that which is slow, dull and blunted also conveys an image of the depotentiated will. If it is correct that the old Teutonic "sloth" is akin to the Greek laios, or left, this would connect sloth with classical conceptions of impurity and pollution of the will. This was a powerful idea in the ancient world, but since it has to do with the capacity to invoke divine potencies, it is not a theme upon which Christian orthodoxy encouraged speculation. Hildegard's vision of sloth as lacking a spine is very suggestive to anyone familiar with Patanjali's Yoga Sutra. Perhaps the old Celts and Teutons retained an awareness of certain rites and ceremonies which could not be performed if the proper will was lacking in the officiant. From the standpoint of orthodox Christian theory, however, the sacraments could be performed by any officiant properly vested by a consecrated bishop. The success of the ceremony did not depend on the will of the officiant, but was ordained from without. Naturally, the priest was expected to live a pure life and could be defrocked, but so long as he remained a priest in name, all sacraments conducted by him were held to have succeeded. There is here a considerable question of the source and polarity of the forces that are supposed to act through the officiant. In the ancient view, they flow from the inner divinity of the man. In the orthodox view, they are called from without. Unfortunately, this debate has become almost meaningless to modern thought, though there are remnants of the idea in the contrasts of dependency and self-reliance, slavery and freedom, cowardice and strength.

  Put more philosophically, the issue of sloth would have to do with reliance upon the external, the material and the manifest, amounting to a resignation of initiative, will and power of choice. This is much more than laziness. In fact, it is a kind of killing oneself, and in classical terms, it is making oneself the focus of misfortune which can, when given an opening, wreak terrible devastation upon human society and well-being. In this sense, sloth is the deadly sin most allied to the Homeric conception of a violation of that which is hieros or holy. The interleaved Greek concepts of akrasia, "a bad mixture", akrateia, "incontinence", akrates, "impotence" and akratos, "unmixed" or "pure", may be allied with this idea of sloth as an inversion (anatrope) and atrophy (atrophos) of the will. This is an even more morally vital consideration than the Aristotelian akrasia or "weakness of will". Jesus declared that the Kingdom of Heaven must be taken by storm, and Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor disdainfully remarked that heaven is certainly not for a flock of servile geese.

  If many classical conceptions of human moral nature are preserved in the notion of sin and the set of seven deadly sins, others no less important are ignored or reversed. The passage of time has witnessed an erosion of the concept of sin itself. The modern estimate of moral defects and misdeeds is nowhere near as harsh and judgemental as the medieval assessment, nor is it so pessimistic. At the same time, it is much less theoretic and thoughtful, having little or no access to ontology, and hence no secure psychology. Perhaps some of the nostalgia moralists feel for the certainties of sin arise from a recognition that the moral problems of the twentieth century cannot be solved in a way that is psychologically or metaphysically cheap.

  Gandhi, the exemplar in this century who has, more than any other, confronted the gravity of human moral failings in a profound and powerful fashion, found it necessary to elaborate out of Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian sources, not to mention a great array of secular reformers and theorists, a whole new metaphysic of Truth, enacted and embodied through the master virtue of non-violence. One might expect that the corresponding master vice or sin in such a view would be violence, but it is not. The besetting sin of humanity and civilization is not violence but untruth. Violence is the universal expression of untruth, and all the more specific moral failings of mankind are ultimately traceable to it. Here Gandhi is in agreement with Jesus, who affirmed that knowledge of truth will make men spiritually free. Plato and Shankara taught the same view, attributing moral error to ignorance or avidya. The obvious judgemental and retributive concern with sin and its varieties during a large portion of the history of Christian orthodoxy is quite distant from these more compassionate conceptions. In fact, seen from a modern perspective, the net result of European involvement in the concept of sin was a tremendous release of violence in the name of religion. While the future may well require a degree of moral self-consciousness considerably higher than present slothful attitudes, it would be unfortunate, and fortunately unlikely, to resuscitate the seven deadly sins in all their medieval splendour. It is also unlikely that there will be a return to classical modes of culture. Instead, and this is perhaps the lesson to be learnt through twenty centuries of experience of sin, perhaps there will finally be an appreciation of the proposition "Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgement you pronounce, you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get." How could it be any other way in a universe of Law?

Hermes, December 1985
by Raghavan Iyer