The Seven Deadly Sins:

A Short Introduction

Edited by Drew Friesen

By Jeff Reimer MA

    9 min. Read Time

Published December 1st, 2020

            The name is the first complication. The designation “seven deadly sins” is only the most recent of several titles. “Capital vices” and “capital sins,” for instance, both bear a more ancient and longstanding pedigree. And in a fun twist, the name seven deadly sins is typically used by Protestants, who by and large reject the distinction between venial and mortal sins, to which the word “deadly” in the name refers.
            The list of seven capital vices (as I shall elect to call them) has, moreover, undergone several permutations throughout the centuries. They originate from the fourth-century desert father Evagrius of Pontus. An aristocratic, philosophically minded theologian living among largely (though by no means exclusively) illiterate peasant monks in the desert, Evagrius gave theoretical and systematic articulation to ascetic life in the Egyptian wilderness, categorizing the various forms of temptation and distilling what he called “the eight thoughts,”[1] the often-unrecognized precursor to and fountainhead of one of Christianity’s most enduring moral legacies.
            Evagrius’s list included gluttony, lust, avarice, wrath, sadness, acedia, vainglory, and pride. This list passed into the West via John Cassian, a Latin-speaking—and, crucially, Latin-writing—Christian who spent time in the desert with the first monks. In two works, the Institutes[2] and the Conferences,[3] he summarized and elaborated on the desert tradition. These books were deeply influential in the Latin West; particularly because in his Rule,[4] Benedict identified them by name as essential reading for all monks. Cassian called Evagrius’s eight thoughts the capital vices.
            In the sixth century Pope Gregory the Great, writing for a non-monastic audience, did a little pruning and rearranging of the list, dropping pride (which he viewed as the taproot of all sin), adding envy, and incorporating acedia into sadness.[5] His list has remained basically standard in the West ever since. In the twelfth century, however, Hugh of St. Victor made one seemingly small change: he re-substituted acedia for sadness—a happy occurrence, for to have subsumed acedia, the “complex thought,”[6] as Evagrius called it, completely into sadness would have tragically vitiated our understanding of one of the most mercurial and vexing of the classic vices. He also called the list, for the first time, the seven capital sins. This is the fixed and definite form the list and its title took in the West, for it is this list and this title that was sitting in front of Thomas Aquinas (who thought it was Gregory’s) as he brought to bear upon it the force of his genius.
            The capital vices are identified as such not because they are the most frequent or worst possible sins but because they are the source of all other sins. There is also a structure to them (I’m using Aquinas’s list): gluttony, lust, and avarice are sins of a carnal, animal, or material nature; while envy, vainglory, and wrath are of an immaterial, rational, or spiritual nature.[7] Acedia lies at the juncture of our animal and rational natures, as Evagrius calls them, and thus acedia incorporates aspects of both forms of sin (which is why Evagrius called it the complex thought).
            In the modern West when mention is made of the seven deadly sins it is largely to misunderstand them, thus inadvertently but inevitably promoting further moral confusion. The Christian condemnation of lust, for example, is assumed to entail a rejection of all sex, and the embrace of sexual desire in all its forms is taken to be a liberation of the body rather than its willing enslavement to a sinful passion. Envy and avarice foster economic growth, and we thereby celebrate greed. Sloth becomes leisure. Gluttons are gourmands. The purportedly high stakes of social (media) discourse justify vainglory and wrath.
            If we do recognize vice we psychologize it, both immanentizing sin and trivializing it in one deft motion. Thus gluttony is reduced to obesity and treated as a disease. Wrath is quieted by anger management; pride, amended by a proper sense of self-esteem.
If I seem a little dyspeptic it might be because I’m indulging in schadenfreude—a subspecies of envy—at observing the moral chaos of our culture. So let me turn the coin over and look at the other side: virtue.
            It’s impossible to talk about vice without talking about virtue—or it should be. Medieval folks in the West loved them some lists of seven: seven penitential psalms,[8] seven works of mercy,[9] seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, seven beatitudes (the eighth sums the rest up, Augustine said, in a forgivable fudge),[10] so it’s no surprise we get seven capital vices and seven virtues. The four classical virtues were inherited from Plato and Aristotle,[11] or even before. They are prudence, courage, temperance, and fortitude. Prudence is a woefully under-understood concept, even among most Christians. We unfortunately draw “prude” and “prudery”—words with exclusively pejorative connotations in English—from prudence. But the virtue of prudence is a deeply rich and nuanced idea. One definition of it is “practical wisdom,” which is good, but even this falls a little flat. My favorite is “acceptance of reality.” All the other classical virtues flow from our ability to accept reality as it discloses itself to us and to act in accordance with it. Prudence is thus not the ham-fisted moral priggishness we often take it to be but the mother of the virtues.
            The classical virtues are elevated and perfected by the three theological virtues—faith, hope, and love—which are drawn from Paul’s paean to love in 1 Corinthians 13. These virtues, revealed to us in their fullness through the incarnation of Christ, give to the classical virtues their true depth and definitive shape.
            But what is a virtue? Virtues are by definition not innate but are acquired through practice. As Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung communicates, virtues are acquired moral habits.[12] A virtue is thus a learned excellence of character; in scholastic terminology, a habitual disposition to the good. An action done from virtue must therefore be an extension of who we are, our character, rather than something we do simply because we know it to be right or virtuous (though this is of course still good). Aristotle famously distinguished between acting from virtue and acting according to virtue.[13] For instance, if I struggle mightily to get up in the wee hours of the day to say morning prayers even though I would much rather be sleeping, I might be acting heroically, but I am acting according to virtue, not from it. If I get up for my morning prayers one hundred days in a row and on the hundred and first jump out of bed eager to lose myself in the presence of God—voilà, I have developed a virtue (probably more than one) and acted from it. Virtue is thus a process that works from the outside in, a sort of moral muscle memory. An action must be performed repeatedly before it becomes natural.
            Take the inverse of all this and you have vice—a habitual disposition to the corruptive or the destructive. I hesitate to say evil, though vice is certainly evil. But there’s an interesting distinction between vice and sin. Vices are always sinful, but a sin is not necessarily a vice. A sin is a sin every time you commit it, whether once or a thousand times. Covet once and you’ve overturned a moral imperative. You may never have coveted before, and you may never covet again, but it was sinful that one time even so. The action that constitutes a vice, however, need not be a sin. I, for example, enjoy playing a game of Tetris of an evening. I do not believe this to be intrinsically sinful. If I neglect my family and my job, however, in the dark cave of my basement playing game after game of Tetris slack-jawed and bleary-eyed, leave the cat unfed, the laundry unfolded, forgo sleep; behold, I have slid into a vice (probably more than one). An action becomes a habit, becomes a vice, becomes a sin.
            What vice and virtue have in common is that they are actions performed in pursuit of the good, or at least of a perceived good. A vice is a vice because it takes a good as ultimate that is not, or because it seeks the good in the wrong way. As Konyndyk DeYoung again says, “When good things are wrongly pursued, sin happens.”[14] Virtue, by contrast, pursues the true good in the right way.How can the virtue and vice tradition lead us to holiness? 

Three Suggestions

            First, knowing ourselves and our proclivity to particular sins—and naming them rightly (prudence!)—can only lead us to a more accurate assessment of ourselves. A familiarity with the proper taxonomy of sin handed down to us through the tradition of the church will enhance our self-examination and our practice of confession, both to others and to God.
            Second, knowledge of the capital vices leads us to a more productive spiritual discipline. The spiritual masters of old—from Evagrius to Aquinas, and many both before and beyond—prescribe specific remedies for certain sinful or even demonic afflictions: prayer, psalmody, work, acts of service, and so on. All of these are always good, but some are better suited than others at driving away the particular attacks of the evil one.
            Third, the virtue and vice tradition can assist us in making sense of some of the paradoxes of our culture. Why is it that the United States is the fattest nation in history and also the most obsessed with fitness? The vice of gluttony might have something to tell us (as would vainglory no doubt). Why are we a nation of workaholics that is nevertheless obsessed with our leisure hours? Acedia or sloth, I believe, can reveal to us why these are not in fact contradictory impulses but expressions of the same vice. And why do we celebrate our sexual liberation while at the same time drafting labyrinthine sets of rules for outlining consent in sexual encounters among the liberated? The vice of lust, absent any notion of the virtue of temperance, or chastity, gives the lie to our casual modern sense of deliverance from our so-called sexual anxiety.
            The vices and virtues as understood by the ancients might, if we are willing to listen, have much to teach us—might, if we have ears to hear, startle us with their relevance and draw us with their beauty into the realms of holiness.

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Footnotes:

            [1] See: Robert E. Sinkewicz, Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus (UK: OUP Oxford, 2006); W. Harmless, R.R. Fitzgerald, "The Sapphire Light of the Mind: The Skemmata of Evagrius Ponticus" Theological Studies 6 (2001), 498–529.
            [2] See: John Cassian, Institutes (Online, New Advent, 1894), Accessed Nov. 27, 20: https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3507.htm
            [3] See: John Cassian, Conferences (Online, New Advent, 1894), Accessed Nov. 27, 20: https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3508.htm
            [4] See: George Cyprian Alston, "Rule of St. Benedict" In The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol 2. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907, Online) Accessed Nov. 27, 20: https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02436a.htm
            [5] Pope Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, vol. III, Book XXXI, xlv, 87, Accessed Nov. 27, 20: xlvwww.lectionarycentral.com/gregorymoralia/book31.html
            [6] Sinkewicz, Evagrius, 251. 
            [7] Aquinas, Summa Theologica, q.84, a.4 (Online). Accessed Nov. 27, 20: https://www.newadvent.org/summa/2084.htm
            [8] See: "The Book of Psalms" (Online). Accessed Nov. 27, 20: biblescripture.net/Psalms.html
            [9] J. Delany, "Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy" In The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911). Accessed Nov. 27, 2020: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10198d.htm
            [10] Augustine of Hippo. Sermons on the New Testament Sermon IX/8. Online. Accessed Nov 27, 2020: https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/160309.htm.
            [11] Plato, The Republic of Plato, translated into English with Introduction, Analysis, Marginal Analysis, and Index, by B. Jowett, M.A. The Third Edition revised and corrected throughout (Oxford: Clarendon Pres, 1888), 427e. Accessed Nov. 27, 20: https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/jowett-the-republic-1888-ed
            [12] Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, "Aquinas's Virtues of Acknowledged Dependence: A New Measure of Greatness," Faith and Philosophy: Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers, Vol. 21: Iss. 2 , Article 5 (2004). DOI: 10.5840/faithphil20042125
            [13] Aristotle, "Books I-V" in Nicomachean Ethics, translated by W.D. Ross (MIT, Online). Accessed Nov. 27, 20: classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html
            [14] Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies (Ada, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2009, EBOOK) Chap. 2.

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