Seven deadly sins

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Seven Deadly Sins

Pride, Envy, Avarice, Wrath, Lust, Gluttony, and Sloth are the seven deadly sins that popes, saints, preachers, artists, writers, dramatists, and musicians have urged Christian believers to avoid at all costs. Life can be placed at risk by indulging in these sins; for example, those whose arrogant pride invites disaster, the gluttons who eat their way to the grave, or the violently wrathful who are executed according to the laws of the land. Far more significant, though, are the consequences of sin for the fate of the soul. The corruption of the soul through sinful thoughts and actions literally dis-graces the perpetrator during his or her sojourn on the earth. Having fallen out of grace with God during life, the person is in peril of damnation after death. The sins are "deadly," then, primarily in their effect on the soul as divine judgment offers salvation or hurls it to damnation.

Historical Perspective

What became crystallized as the seven deadly sins does not appear as such in the Bible, although the Old and the New Testaments identify attitudes and behaviors that violate the principles of a righteous life. Theologians compiled lists of the most serious sins as they attempted to instruct monks, priests, and laities on the requirements for a virtuous Christian life. The earliest influential list identified eight sins that were obstacles to perfection. John Cassian, a fifth-century monk and spiritual leader, specified several sins that later became part of the standard list: pride, gluttony, covetousness (envy), anger (wrath), and ennui (sloth). Two other items on his listimpurity and vanityare related to lust and pride, and "dejection" was folded into sloth, although not until the seventeenth century.

The standard list of seven deadly sins was established by Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century. He maintained that pride breeds all the other sins, and is therefore the most serious offense. St. Thomas Aquinas, author of the landmark thirteenth-century Summa Theologica, reaffirmed that pride (or "vainglory") is rebellion against the authority of God. Aquinas reasoned that some sinful acts are venial rather than deadly: They arise from the temptations of everyday life and have the effect of weakening the bonds of trust and fellowship among people. Lust, for example, threatens the crucial relationship between parents and children. Such actions become elevated to deadly sins when they arise from the spiritual failing of pride and therefore threaten the soul's acceptance into the kingdom of God.

Many ideas and images became associated with each of the deadly sins over the centuries. The particular associations varied, but specific punishments often were considered to await the perpetrator. In all instances the sinner is assumed to be alive in some form after death in order to experience the agony and despair.

  • Pride=Broken on the wheel
  • Envy=Encased in freezing water
  • Avarice (Greed)=Boiled in oil
  • Wrath (Anger)=Torn apart, limb from limb
  • Lust=Roasted by fire and brimstone
  • Gluttony=Forced to eat rats, snakes, spiders, and toads
  • Sloth (Apathy)=Thrown into snake pits

Set against the deadly sins were the heavenly virtues, also seven in number. The first three of these virtues have remained the most widely mentioned: faith, hope, and charity. The others are fortitude, justice, temperance, and prudence. Attempts have been made to match these virtues against the sins, but it is difficult to discern a oneon-one correlation.

Influence of the Seven Deadly Sins

The medieval world was conceived largely in religious terms, and lives were to be governed by rules derived from divine authority. Morality and order in human affairs required constant and vigorous attention, then as now. The seven deadly sins and their punishments offered a striking set of cautions, while other teachings, such as the seven heavenly virtues, limned the positive path. Creative artists in all the media contributed much to the message, some of their work becoming enduring masterpieces of Western culture.

Geoffrey Chaucer's fourteenth-century Canterbury Tales, Dante Alghieri's fourteenth-century Divine Comedy, Edmund Spenser's sixteenth-century The Fairie Queen, and Christopher Marlowe's sixteenth-century Tragical History of Doctor Faustus all feature depictions of the seven deadly sins that remained influential long after their periods of creation. When Hieronymus Bosch introduced his unique and startling visual representation of the seven deadly sins in the fifteenth century, it was with a revisionist twist. The sins were converted from theological abstractions to the follies of everyday people in their everyday liveswith a bracing addition of dark humor.

As the medieval mindset gave way to the modern there was more attention given to naturalistic explanations for events (i.e., disease, famine, and earthquake) and to human actions. The concept of sin would come under increasing pressure from rival explanations, many with psychological and sociological orientations. Nevertheless, the seven deadly sins have continued to appeal to the artistic imagination and to engage the attention of people who, in times very different from Pope Gregory's, are still attempting to negotiate their way between temptation and virtue. Examples of contemporary or near-contemporary contributions include The Seven Deadly Sins (1933), set as a musical theater piece by the twentieth-century composer Kurt Weill (best known for The Threepenny Opera (1933)), and the motion picture Seven (1995), starring Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Spacey. The survival of this concept has also included numerous examples of accommodation to technology and consumerism.

See also: Catholicism; Christian Death Rites, History of; Hell; Purgatory


Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1947.

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1948.

De Tolnay, Charles. Hieronymus Bosch. New York: Artabus, 1966.

Fairlie, Henry. The Seven Deadly Sins Today. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983.

Marlowe, Christopher. Doctor Faustus. New York: Signet, 2001.

Menninger, Karl. Whatever Became of Sin? New York: Hawthorne, 1973.

Schimmel, Solomon. The Seven Deadly Sins: Jewish, Christian, and Classical Reflections on Human Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Spenser, Edmund. The Fairie Queen. New York: Longman, 2001.


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Also called "capital sins," they are those vices that by their particular attractiveness are likely to lead to additional sins. Although the lists of such sins vary, they have been reckoned since the Middle Ages to include pride, greed, lust, gluttony, envy, anger, and sloth.

History of the Tradition. Scripture, while it contains lists of sins and mentions all those sins that were later called capital, is not the actual source of the tradition. Moreover, scholarly efforts to trace its beginning to Oriental astrology, mythical soul-journeying, demonology, and even Stoic Philosophy are largely inconclusive. It seems certain that the general cultural milieu of Hellenistic syncretism formed the matrix in which the Christian experience of monastic asceticism developed the idea. When, in 383, Evagrius Ponticus wrote of eight evil thoughts (Patrologia Graeca 40:127173), the theme was already common in the Egyptian desert. John Cassian, after a visit to monastic centers in Egypt (385403), brought the tradition to the West in his Conferences (Patrologia Latina 49:609642) and Institutes 512 (Patrologia Latina 49:201476). Although arranged in different order, Cassian's list contains the same eight sins as that of Evagrius: gluttony, lust, avarice, anger, melancholy, sloth, vainglory, and pride. Gregory the Great, in his commentary on Job (Moralia 31.45; Patrologia Latina 76:621), gives a slightly different rendition (seven instead of eight, leaving pride out, adding envy, and subsuming sloth under melancholy). Following the Vulgate, where pride is called "the root of all evil" (Sir 10:13), Gregory pictures the root, pride, producing seven branches he considers "leaders of wicked armies," and identifies offspring of each. A modification of the Gregorian classification eventually prevailed in the Western Church.

The theme enjoyed enormous popularity in the medieval period. Together with the Creed and the Decalogue, the deadly sins were the staple of sermon topics, and often received more attention than the virtues with which they were sometimes pictured as battling. In 1236 Guillaume Perrault wrote a Summa vitiorum that inspired imitation not only in other sermon books and confessors'

manuals but in literature and art. The sins appear in allegorized drama and gargoyles; they form the structure of Dante's Purgatorio and the concluding sermon in Chaucer's Persoun's Tale. Notwithstanding this popular interest, St. Thomas Aquinas did not grant the capital sins (vitia capitalia ) a predominant place in his doctrine of sin. In the Summa, for example, the deadly sins as causes of other sins are treated in two brief articles (Summa theologiae la2ae, 84.34), although the sins are considered separately in their opposition to the virtues throughout the Secunda Secundae. Renaissance classicism, Reformation emphasis on sin rather than sins, and fading interest in allegory weakened the popularity of the tradition, although the theme has recurred persistently.

Theology. Both titles, "the deadly sins" and "the capital sins" are misnomers in that their referents are not necessarily either mortal sins or capital crimes. Following St. Thomas, Catholics have long preferred the designation "capital sins," since the term "capital," when understood as chief or head of a class, indicates that these sins are important not because they are the worst sins but because they lead to other sins. Thomas's designation of them as "vices" or habits of evil as opposed to "sins" or evil acts has received less consideration.

Although much of the appeal of the concept lies in its succinct formulation, the emphasis on a list of "seven deadly sins" contributes to their trivialization. That there are seven, a number that biblically connotes totality, fullness, and completion, may lead to the erroneous conclusion that eliminating the deadly sins and eradicating evil are equivalent. The classical list has also been deemed problematic by theologians who criticize its excessive attention to individual sins, to the exclusion of any consideration of social sin. Other theologians argue that the classical list manifests a cultural bias, and obscures the fact that other sins might rightly be called "capital."

Inasmuch as sin is a reality that dissipates and disorganizes human life, the tradition of the deadly sins has value in tracing patterns of that dissipation and disorganization. In spiritual direction the device can be used to diagnose spiritual diseases manifest in apparently unrelated symptoms. Contemporary efforts along these lines include texts that guide readers through a process of reading about the sins and reflecting on their expressions in life. A more thorough revision of the tradition attempts to correlate personality types, with their particular weaknesses, with the sins. In light of the history of the tradition, such revisions seem appropriate and testify to the continuing vitality of Christian asceticism in general and the theme of the deadly sins in particular.

Bibliography: m. w. bloomfield, The Seven Deadly Sins: An Introduction to the History of a Religious Concept, with Special Reference to Medieval English Literature (East Lansing, Mich. 1956; repr., 1967). m. dunnam and k. d. reisman, The Workbook on the Seven Deadly Sins (Nashville 1997). r. c. solomon, ed., Wicked Pleasures: Meditations on the Seven "Deadly" Sins (Lanham, Md. 1999). s. schimmel, The Seven Deadly Sins: Jewish, Christian and Classical Reflections on Human Nature (New York 1992). f. j. van beeck, "Fantasy, the Capital Sins, the Enneagram, and Self-Acceptance," Pro Ecclesia 3 (1994) 179196. g. p. weber, The Capital Sins: Seven Obstacles to Life and Love (Cincinnati 1997).

[u. voll/

s. a. kenel]

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Deadly sins or capital sins. In Christianity the root sins, usually listed as seven: pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust. Cf. the three ‘deadly’ faults of Buddhism; the five deadly sins; gogyaku-zai; five evil passions.

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Seven deadly sins. In Christianity (more accurately, ‘capital’ or ‘root’ sins): pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth (accidie). The traditional number is first found in Gregory the Great (although with tristitia, ‘gloom’, instead of accidie). For five deadly sins, see GOGYAKU-ZAI.

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Deadly Sins ★★½ 1995 (R)

Deputy sheriff Jack Gates (Keith) hooks up with P.I. Christina Herrera (Milano) to investigate a murder in a Catholic girls school. Christina poses as a student and uncovers sinister secrets. 98m/C VHS . David Keith, Alyssa Milano, Terry David Mulligan, Corrie Clark; D: Michael Robison; W: John Langley, Malcolm Barbour.