The History and Meaning of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Dante’s descent into hell was paved with nine sins — not seven. And the Greeks had eight.

Bruegel’s painting of the Seven Deadly Sins Public Domain

The History of the Seven Deadly Sins

Evagrius Ponticus was born to a Christian family in the Roman province of Helenopontus (somewhere in Turkey) in 345AD. He became a well known writer and teacher, and towards the end of his life, he moved to a monastery in the Egyptian Desert and became an ascetic monk. He identificed the seven vices that were father to other sins, and these teachings were taken to Europe by his pupil, John Cassain. While Evagrius Ponticus wrote them in Greek, John Cassain wrote them in Latin.

What are the Seven Deadly Sins?

The seven deadly sins were pride, greed, wrath (anger), envy (jealousy) lust (desire), gluttony, and sloth, While greed and gluttony appear to be similar vices, they are slightly different. Greed is the constant desire for more things in order to satisfy status and power. Gluttony is the over-consumption of things when it means that the poor do without those things. It’s also interesting that, originally, there were eight deadly sins. The one not mentioned in traditional Christianity is vainglory. Also, for some reason, the church replace despair and despondency (depression) with jealousy/envy.

These Seven Traits of Character are Seen as Evil

Each of the character traits and behaviours mentioned in the seven deadly sins cause destruction and harm to others. They are considered to be part of the dark side — evil in spirit. Evil can loosely be defined as the outcome of actions and words that destroy, cause pain, discomfort, misery, or anything negative to other people’s well being. It is, of course, not an absolute definition because sometimes people hurt as a result of car accidents, diseases, etc., none of which was purposely inflicted on people. Evil would therefore encompass the purposeful destruction of someone or something either to inflict pain or to gain something by the action.

Pride

In the modern world, taking pride in one’s work is seen as a positive. In terms of being one of the seven greatly sins, it refers to the vanity and hubris that can accompany pride.

Even when pride is merely a satisfaction taken in one’s worn work, It can lead to an attitude of superiority to others, and that can lead to there being different classes of people. That, in turn, can lead to genocide and eugenics.

When people believe that they are better than they are, they can undertake tasks that they are not qualified for, and this can harm many others.

Greed

Most people would agree that greed drives many in our modern world. To be greedy means to want more even when one has enough. So, for instance, if we already have a house, we may long for a better house in a suburb that has a higher status. That is greed. Or perhaps we already have a car or a smart phone or an important job. However, it doesn’t satisfy us because we want a higher status car, the latest smart phone, or a job with more money or a higher status. Those are all examples of greed.

Greed means wanting things simply because those things increase our importance or status in society. When we want food because we are hungry, that is not greed. When we want a car because we need it to transport us to work every day, that is not greed. When we want a nicer car, because we will receive admiration and be admitted to a higher status, that is greed.

Greed can lead to belittling others because we want to be ahead of them. We can bully and harm others because our desperation to have more than we do means we don’t care what we do to others in our effort to obtain those things.

A good definition of greed is that it is placing ultimate value in possessions and finding identity in them. Often it takes a visit to a developing world slum, or to receive a visitor from the developing world to open our eyes. If we are reluctant to open our homes, uneasy about lending things we own to other people, or over-sensitive if things we possess get lost or damaged, then we are probably slaves to greed. Source.

Wrath (anger)

When we are angry at someone for doing something unfair or hateful to us, it’s difficult to see this as a deadly character trait. So there is the phrase ‘righteous anger’ that justifies to some extent that there are certain situations in which anger is acceptable.

Yet anger can lead to many destructive emotions and actions — resentment, depression, wars, hatred, and murder. Resentment can fester for years and lead to bitterness. What causes young people to take up guns and go shoot students at schools? It is a festering anger that has eventually built up to hatred, a hatred so extreme that it leads to murder.

An interesting observation is that in women anger tends to lead to depression while in men in tends to lead to violence.

Envy (Jealousy)

There is a slight difference in meaning between envy and jealousy, but few make that distinction. The words are used to mean the same thing — wanting what someone else has.

Would you belive that feeling inadequate is the outcome of comparing ourselives with others, then wanting what they have? Feelings of inadequacy often result from a festering, jealousy of others hidden deep within ourselves.

Envy is not pretty. It leads to malice and murder. Office politics often has its roots in some resenting the success of others.

People can be jealous of third parties in relationships, the possessions of others, or even the achievements of others.

Wanting what others have can lead to cheating, lying, stealing, murders, and wars.

To feel envy, three conditions need to be met. First, we must be confronted with a person (or persons) with something — a possession, quality, or achievement — that has eluded us. Second, we must desire that something for ourselves. And third, we must be personally pained by the associated emotion or emotions. I say ‘personally pained’ because it is this personal dimension that separates envy from more detached feelings such as outrage or injustice. Source.

Lust (desire)

Another word for lust is lechery. It is strictly sexual, and it means to be devoured by passion strickly as a physical appetite rather than combined with a love for the person.

Lust can lead to sexual assault and rape in its more intense manifestations. But it also expresses itself in a sort of sexual addiction where people can sleep around with different partners because their sexual appetite drives them. They would lie to the other person, leading them on to believe that there is some affection attached, when it is simply using the other person.

The term ‘sexual object’ would probably explain what someone feels like when they have been used to satisfy someone’s lust.

Lust is defined as immoral because its object or action of affection is improperly ordered according to natural law and/or the appetite for the particular object (eg sexual desire) is governing the person’s intellect and will rather than the intellect and will governing the appetite for that object. Source.

Gluttony

Gluttony is different to greed. It’s when people can consume, buy, eat, get things without ever wanting to stop. They keep consuming simply for the sake of consuming. Their appetite is unending. They want more and more money. They want more and more food. They want more and more attention, achievement, wealth, and more. Gluttony is an unending consumption of anything.

Obesity can be seen as the result of gluttony — initially, anyway. Afterwards, the body takes over, and it is hell on earth to stop eating. It has become an addiction.

The reason that gluttony is a deadly character trait is that it means someone is consuming resources that others need. So, essentially, when we accuse billionaires of greed, we may well be right. However, they would also be guilty of gluttony.

The word “sloth” is a translation of the Latin term acedia and means “without care”. Spiritually, acedia first referred to an affliction to women, religious persons, especially monks, wherein they became indifferent to their duties and obligations to God. Sloth has also been defined as a failure to do things that one should do, though the understanding of the sin in antiquity was that this laziness or lack of work was simply a symptom of the vice of apathy or indifference, particularly an apathy or boredom with God. Source.

Sloth

The word used in Latin was Acedia, and the meaning of the word is ‘without care.’ It was considered a sin because the person indulging in it had lost interest in his religious duties. Modern translations and interpretations have converted the meaning of the word to laziness. This has resulted in much debate, as this was not the meaning meant by the authors of the seven deadly sins.

Dante’s Inferno

Dante Alighieri wrote a poem called ‘The Inferno.’ In it, he journeyed through hell with the Roman poet, Virgil, at his side. Hell is comprised of nine circles, and each circle is a sin. Instead of the seven deadly sins of the Catholic church, though, Alighieri’s journey through hell mentions nine. They are limbo, lust, gluttony, greed, wrath, heresy, violence, fraud, and treachery.

So while we are all familiar with the concept of the seven deadly sins, there are those who spoke of eight and others who spoke of nine.

Strength of Character

In years gone by, before happiness and success became the basis on which people were admired, it was strength of character that was highly sought after and much admired. In order to achieve strength of character, the practice of moral fiber meant that the seven deadly sins were to be avoided at all costs.

Today they are not much more than a legacy of history.

Global citizen. Author. Thinker. Polymath. Climate change. Progressive. Loves photography, beauty, dancing, and believes benevolence is a survival mechanism.

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