Monday, September 8, 2008

Seven Deadly Sins


A number of years ago I visited London for a conference of the International Network of Street Papers. I was only there for a week, but made the most of it. Among the destinations were the British Museum, the Karl Marx Memorial Library on Clerkenwell Road — where from 1902-1903 Lenin worked on the Socialist newspaper Iskra (Russian for Spark) — and Oxford, where I sat at the very table where C.S. Lewis and J.R. Tolkien would drink warm beer and eruditely shoot the shit. While sitting at this table, I showed my friend Fiona, an anarchist friend I first met at UMass-Amherst, the gargoyle plaster casts I'd bought that day as my big splurge trip souvenirs. They replicated those I'd seen at Christ Church, and offered a medieval portrayal of The Seven Deadly Sins.

While the Bible has several listings of sins to avoid, these have surprisingly little correlation to the standard list of Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Anger, Envy, and Pride. The closest come from Proverbs and Galatians.

There are six things that the Lord hates,
seven that are an abomination to him:
haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked plans,
feet that hurry to run to evil,
a lying witness who testifies falsely,
and one who sows discord in a family.
Proverbs 6:16-19

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, murder, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Galatians 5:19-21

As a lapsed Catholic, I can still enumerate the seven deadly sins and their converse virtues with minimal prompting, and was blown away by the humor and aristry of their rendering as gargoyles. I was thinking about these today.

Lust (
luxuria)

I love this little guy, who appears to be getting off on some sort of Rabelaisian medieval porn. My own sense is that lust isn't such an issue unless it's obsessive, at which point it becomes a bit soul-destroying. Otherwise, one runs around chanting "Think pure thoughts, think pure thoughts" to oneself, and that's a bit freakish as well and leads nowhere good. The associate virtue is chastity, which, in and of itself, offers little to recommend.

Gluttony (gula)

Another of those moderation things. Gluttony is is, I think, about avoiding oneself by sating the senses. I feel shitty about my life, so I'll sit in front the the TV every night watching DVDs of Six Feet Under while eating a bowl of mixed nuts and chocolate chips. The thing I've noticed about the Deadlies is that they're all, in one way or another, about avoiding oneself. Associate virtue: temperance. If that means moderation, I'm for it. If it means being an uptight parody of a prohibitionist, not so much.

Greed (avaritia)

One of the first things that struck me about these gargoyles is how close greed looks to anger. There's an insight there, in that wanting too much for oneself often has its flip side of hating those who don't have enough. Greed and hate go together. The opposed virtue is charity, which isn't really enough. This guy, by the way, has pound signs for eyeballs.

Sloth (acedia)

What I love about sloth guy is how totally fucking bored he looks. Were I God, boredom would probably piss me off more than anything. My boredom threshold is set fairly low, but I do my best to avoid this one. With so much to marvel at, get worked up over, and love and create, life is just too short. The partner virtue, says the Catholics, is diligence, This, to me, seems pale. If life is about avoiding boredom, it's also about much more that the pursuance of "diligence."

Anger (ira)

Here I'd have to distinguish between righteous anger and just getting all pissy about stuff that one should rise above. One is focused and leads to actions which are good, and the other is dissipating, and, again, takes us away from understanding much about ourselves. When someone really pisses us off, I think, we should pay attention to that and ask what it says about ourselves. Associate virtue: patience. I like that.

Envy (invidia)

Look at this scheming asshole and tell me if this is someone you want to be around. Sadly, our whole consumer culture is based on the idea of other people having crap we'd rather have ourselves. Our life energy is better invested in, oh, say, saving the planet so our children don't have to live in a shithole, than in acquiring a hot car or huge flat screen TV. Associate virtue: kindness. I prefer compassion, which the Dalai Lama has defined as empathy plus responsibility.

Pride (superbia)

I love this guy as well, with his supercilious expression and hands folded in prayer, awash in the spiritual pride of being better than everyone else. He's the very portrait of self-involved uselessness. This, like the others, is about focusing on oneself to the exclusion of others, or, conversely, the faults of others as opposed to oneself. The Catholics say we should instead practice humility. I'm with them on this one.

5 comments:

"Uta" Urban said...

So those are the "7 deadlies" gargoyles you'd talked about. Ex-Protestant here. Got explicit definitions from the movie "Seven."

Great observations. Pretty fucking cool pics.

Sally said...

It seems hard for most people to talk about humility without displaying pride in their humbleness. They get this kind of icky look on their face, like "I am really humbled by the immensity of the universe/the talent that's displayed in this organization/the fact that you have awarded me this blahblahblah" when what they really mean is "You know and I know I'm really pretty great but I'm so great that I can afford to be self-effacing about it and pretend I inhabit the same world as the rest of you." Public humility is washing the feet of the poor, as long as it's only once a year. I guess that isn't the true face of humility, but it's what's most often seen. True humility would be McCain and whats-her-face admitting they were idiots and unfit to govern and dropping out of the race.

My companion is a lapsed Catholic. It pops up at the oddest times, like when he's claiming to be an atheist. The older he gets, the more often it pops up. I expect he'll give up and go confess one of these days and the priest will have to sit in that booth a lonnnnnnng time and will have one hell of a story to try to keep to himself.

Bridget Fox said...

Excellent post, loved the pictures and the insight that sin = selfishness.

Bridget

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