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Seven sins that pave the highway to hell

Bosch – the seven deadly sins

There are seven deadly sins. Those of you who have attended Catholic schools, will probably know them by heart – or maybe you don’t, because you spent Divinity class doodling rather than listening. The rest of you may have only the vaguest of notions as to what I’m on about, but some of you will remember the movie “Seven” and shudder.

Originally, the deadly sins denominated transgressions that led straight to hell – unless the sinner repented and did penance, of course. Nowadays, we have to a large extent done away with the concept of hell. Priests will squirm and mutter that hell is probably more a question of being banished from God’s presence, than being punished for an eternity. Not quite as deterring, if you ask me, but if you want people to come to church these days, you’d best avoid speaking too much about such off-putting things as hell – actually, best avoid raising the concept of death and its aftermath altogether, as us modern people prefer to ignore the fact that our lives are finite and short.

Rather lustful…Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time by Bronzino

Back to the sins. Wrath, greed, pride, lust, envy, gluttony and sloth – are they at all applicable today? Okay, okay; that was a stupid question. It takes but a peek around to realise that these deadly sins thrive in our modern world. Not that we’d agree that all of them are sins – lust, for example, is an instinct rather than a sin, right? Greed is a motivator, and envy, well, how can we call a feeling so many of us experience a sin? That would qualify all of us as sinners. Most of us will agree that sloth is a sin – lazy people don’t contribute to society – and wrath is probably a sin as well, because angry people are a bit scary, and these days, angry people might very well be toting a gun or a knife, and so wrath can lead to murder, and killing someone is definitely a sin – it says so in the Ten Commandments.

Do I feel envy? Often. Do I succeed in converting that envy to a genuine congratulation or compliment? Rarely. But I do try – sometimes. I can, however, pat myself on the back when it comes to wrath, lust, gluttony and sloth. (I have decided an over-consumption of chocolate does not qualify as gluttony, it’s more of a necessity) Greed? Not really an issue. Pride? Hmm. Let’s just say that a number of tumbles have brought home the lesson that boastful pride generally comes back to bite you – where it really, really hurts.

Jacques Callot devil musketeers
Jacques Callot: Devil musketeers

The seven deadly sins as a concept date back to the very early Christian period. These sins were considered especially serious as they would often lead to other vices, thereby corroding the fragile soul further. The soul was a big thing back then. It would continue to be a big thing throughout the coming centuries. People would die to keep their souls unblemished. They’d suffer death at the stake rather than renege on their beliefs, so convinced were they that only by holding to their concept of the true faith would their soul rise untarnished to heaven.

These days, the immortal soul is a concept very many dismiss as being archaic. And as there is no way to prove there is an afterlife, modern man to a large extent prefers to gamble on the fact that this life is all we get, so who cares about sins and stuff? Life is at times reduced to a ridiculous competition along the lines that he/she who amasses the most (or becomes the most famous) wins. And then what? You die disgustingly rich and it benefits you how?

Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Sloth

For the ancient Christians, the deadliest of the seven sins was sloth – Acedia in Latin. Not sloth along the lines “Oh, I can’t be arsed to get out of bed today”, but sloth in the sense of not bothering to fortify their faith on a daily basis to protect and develop their soul. Hands up all of those that invest time on a daily basis to develop your spiritual state…No, these days most of us are too busy with our hectic everyday life to find the time to do so – unfortunately.

What is interesting about these seven sins is that they are all about combating our baser instincts. Yes, lust is an instinct, but giving in to it can at times be a sin. To view your neighbour’s brand new BMW through the green-tinted glasses of envy is probably quite natural – but to rise above it and sincerely congratulate her on her new hot wheels, buttresses our souls (Key word here is sincerely, okay? Otherwise you’re committing a venial sin by lying. I know, I know; something of a bummer). Greed may very well be a motivator – but where does the dividing line go between the desire to become wealthy enough to make your own destiny and amassing riches at the expense of others? To work at your sloth (!) is to take responsibility over your life, to not succumb to the red-hot rage that pounds through your blood is to behave as a mature adult. In conclusion, by trying to avoid these seven sins, we become better people – more generous, more productive, more controlled and, hopefully, more content.

Whether or not you believe in God, most of our Western societies have their roots in Christian beliefs. Our codes of law are to a large extent influenced by the ancient rules encoded in The Ten Commandments – simply because these rules make it so much easier for us humans to get along. It does not bode well for the future survival of a society, if we allow people to steal and kill. It creates major animosity if people sleep around with other partners than their own. The seven deadly sins are part of this normative code, but in difference to the commandments, the sins are all about us; you and me, and how we try to better ourselves by not giving in to temptation, at least not always.

Paradise and Hell by Bosch

In a world that spins increasingly faster, in a world where more and more people have to get along, where most of us are part of various complex social networks, it might make sense to breathe life into the old concept of the seven deadly sins. Not so as to load people with guilt and angst, but so as to make it easier for us all to rub along. It’s not as if the idea of controlling your anger, lust, greed, envy, pride, etc, is in any way controversial, is it? Besides, who knows; maybe there is an afterlife,  and maybe there even is a hell – an eternity being roasted over fire-pits, or having your liver hacked out as poor old Prometheus. Why risk ending up there, when the alternative sounds so much nicer? Give me the rolling meadows and the gamboling lambs of heaven any day. Oh; please throw in some good-looking angels, a plentiful supply of tea and masses of chocolate cake. What? All that cake comes close to gluttony? Oh dear, oh dear…

4 thoughts on “Seven sins that pave the highway to hell”

  1. I love your tongue-in-cheek approach to writing, Anna – reframing this rather gloomy subject into something far more palatable and philosophically refreshing. I’m a big fan of Bruegel, too!

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