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The sum of all vices is constant

Brueghel, Village Festival. Plenty of opportunity for vice!

We have a thing about vice in Sweden. There was even a time when Sweden was considered the hotbed of carnal vice – although I must say just how we got that reputation is something of a conundrum, as Swedish people in general are rather shy and prudish. Sorry to kill the myth, but there you are. Yes, we may have a relaxed approach to sex outside marriage, we don’t have major issues with divorce, but we are sticklers for monogamy.

Sweden is a society that today is best described as agnostic. Our calendar is dotted with religious festivals (some more heathen than others, such as Midsummer) and we are very protective of our red letter days (not at all as many as in Germany, but quite a few more than in the US). When Whitsun Monday was abolished as a feast day a decade or so ago, people were very, very upset. Not because they had any idea what Whitsun was all about – the Holy Ghost communing with Christ’s Apostles is something many Swedes have never heard off – but because we were losing a long weekend.

Vice – but oh, so nice! (Boucher)

Further to this fascination with feast days, Swedish people like discussing vices, probably a throwback to the not so long ago time when Sweden was a very religious country. We abolished our Conventicle Act long after all other European countries, and well into the early 20th century, the local minister had an obligation to visit the households in his parish and cross-examine the inhabitants on Luther’s Catechism, the Bible and the Psalms. Church and State had a vested interest in keeping the population under control, and one way of doing so was to paint the picture of hell everlasting for those that did not study the holy texts or, even worse, did not reconcile themselves with their given place in society. No wonder so many Swedes left their homeland in droves in the 19th century, making for the shores of the United States of America, where a new life, less constrained by King and God, beckoned.

Back to vices. Now why am I writing this?It may have something to do with the fact that I have just consumed two miniature croissants, still deliciously warm, with plenty of whipped cream and strawberry jam. I shouldn’t, of course. Most Swedish people say “I really shouldn’t, but…” when we are  contemplating giving in to a vice, i.e. we like flagellating ourselves for our little pecadilloes. But once we’ve told the world out loud that we are weak, defective people for doing what we’re about to do, we give in to our lusts with abandon. Actually, abandon doesn’t come easy to us stiff northeners, but once we get over that initial barrier, boy, oh boy can we do abandon.

Why the croissants? I blame it on IT. They have chosen to set their Global IT conference in the middle of nowhere, but the chosen venue is known for their fabulous food. As a guest speaker at the conference, it would of course be very rude of me not to partake of what is set before me, right? And while over-consumption of all things cake and chocolate definitely is a vice of mine, impoliteness definitely is not.


In Sweden, we have this saying that the sum total of all vices is constant. So if a person doesn’t smoke, nor drink, nor eat excessively, nor curse, nor skimp off from work (very big thing; our Lutheran heritage makes us scowl at slackers) well, we can easily imagine just what vices this particular person gets up to, wink, wink. Obviously, there’s no truth to the Swedish saying. People are not apportioned a fixed amount of “vice” which they can then distribute as they wish. But by defining the sum total of all vices as constant, whoever the person, the more vice-prone among us can relax – they’re not the only petty sinners in the fold.

Vice. NOOO! This is a necessity

If one looks up the word “vice”, one gets various definitions:
“Immoral or wicked behaviour” – that’s not something one wants to own up to.
“A moral flaw or weakness” – if we’re going to be honest (and dishonesty is a moral flaw) we all have our fair shares of moral weaknesses … well, not me, obviously.
“A minor bad habit” – phew, it makes me relax to define my failings as “minor bad habits”. It sort of moves the potential of an afterlife roasting over hell fire into the furthest periphery. And if we’re going to be quite honest, eating two croissants instead of one isn’t about to cause a major catastrophe, is it?( Except for the impact it has on my waistline)

pbruegel dancing
More Brueghel, now with the vice of DANCING

Back in the good old days, The Swedish Church frowned on levity: Dancing, singing, feasting, drinking, fornication – all of this was bad, bad, bad. Life was about toil and duty, about delivering your penny to the church and your multiple pennies to the king. Beyond that, a good Swedish peasant was expected to do as he was told by his betters. No one wanted to experience the shame of being upbraided in church, the social control was rigorous, and whatever free spirits we had fled abroad. Which leads me back to my initial paragraph regarding The Swedish Sin – quite ludicrous as you can see. The hotties up and left, okay? The staid and proper people stayed… (note the alliterative pun)

However, since then a lot of water had passed under the bridge. The modern Swede has embraced the adage that some vice adds spice. Never too much spice, mind. Just enough to make sure we don’t come across as a nation of Sandra Dees. After all, can you imagine just how dull and dreary life would be if we were all like her?

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