The Seven Deadly Sins — What Are They and Why Are They So Dangerous?

The Seven Deadly Sins

What are the Seven Deadly Sins?

According to Roman Catholic Theology, the Seven Deadly Sins or otherwise known as the seven capital sins or seven cardinal sins, are the instigators of other sins and immoral behaviours. They are as follows:

  1. Pride
  2. Greed
  3. Wrath
  4. Envy
  5. Lust
  6. Gluttony
  7. Sloth.

Pride, Greed, Wrath, Envy, Lust, Gluttony and Sloth—The Seven Capital Vices or Seven Deadly Sins—Succumb to any of these sins and you’ll end up in your very own version of the Divine Comedy, being guided through hell and climbing out through Satan’s balls.

seven deadly sins: An infographic depicting the seven deadly sins of Roman Catholicism.
Seven Deadly Sins: An infographic depicting the seven deadly sins of Roman Catholicism.

Most of you have likely heard of the Seven Deadly Sins in some capacity. When we discussed Peter Binsfeld’s classification of demons, each of the seven demon princes of hell represented one of these seven deadly sins. This became a fairly common way for historians and demonologists to personify and create a taboo around these ideas.

Today we’ll look at what these seven deadly sins meant and why they were so deadly.

Although the Seven Deadly sins is largely a Christian concept, we do have similar ideas from the Ancient Greeks and Romans along with many other religions from across the world.

The Seven Deadly sins are commonly paired with the Seven holy virtues because they are examples of how we should and should not behave. Aristotle sees this as less of a concrete right and wrong system and more of a spectrum of behaviour.

Veer too far off in one direction and we move into the Vice territory, stay in the middle of these extremes and you’ll be showing positive qualities or virtues.

One example would be Fear. If you’re scared of everything, then you’ll miss out on things in life because you’re allowing the fear to control you, a demonstration of too much cowardice. The quality or virtue that conquers fear and cowardice is courage. However, if one shows too much courage, we now lean heavily over to the other side of the spectrum which is recklessness.

Too much courage may leave you in situations that could have otherwise been easily avoided. Rather than the approach of this behaviour can only be good or bad, this is much more of a balancing act, trying to maintain a healthy mean rather than the idea of Sin and Virtue.

The Origin of the Seven Deadly Sins

Seven Deadly Sins Picture Illustration
Hieronymus Bosch’s The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things

Moving onto the Christian or more accurately, the Catholic concept of the seven deadly sins. The most concise definition I’ve come across is as “immoral behaviour that would separate one from God, and in turn, then lead to more sins being committed.”

A Venial sin would weaken one’s relationship with God but not completely sever this bond as the deadly sins would. It was believed turning your back on God would make one more likely to commit what is known as mortal sins. If you then die without repenting for these mortals’ sins, you will go straight to hell.

So, the Seven Deadly Sins are essentially the gateway or temptation that leads to more sin. These ideas were first discussed in the catholic church by Pope Gregory the 1st.

He wrote about these seven sins in the 6th century, a very similar idea was discussed several hundred years before by the monk Evagrius, who instead listed 8 evil thoughts. These thoughts were translated from Greek to Latin by John Cassian. Pope Gregory then streamlined this number to 7 sins in his text Moralia, and thus we have the seven deadly sins.

Gregory’s list was then used in the 13th century by Thomas Aquinas who further expanded upon the ideas behind these sins.

1. Pride

The first sin is Pride, which is also commonly referred to as the father of all sin. Pride, however, in this case, refers to ego or the idea of Hubris, which is prevalent in Greek and Roman myth as one of the worst crimes one could commit.

Archangel Michael chasing down Lucifer

Whenever someone believed they were greater or equal to the gods, they were swiftly punished and made an example of. Once one succumbs to pride, this symbolises a lack of humility, the welfare of others is ignored in place of their urges and desires, this selfishness only leads to contempt and other sins.

This led to a great war in heaven that Lucifer would ultimately lose. For his rebellion, he was cast from heaven and forever known as the fallen angel who personified the sin of Pride.

The most classic example of pride we have is the story of Lucifer, the most beautiful of God’s angels. Lucifer began to question everything about the universe he had been told. Eventually, he started to believe that he could do a better job ruling heaven than God himself.

The opposite of pride is the virtue of humility or humbleness.

2. Gluttony

The next sin is Gluttony, this is the act of overindulgence to the point of waste. Although gluttony is most commonly associated with the consumption of food, it can also refer to an overindulgent lifestyle not too dissimilar from greed.

There are several different types of gluttony, Thomas Aquinas divided gluttony into separate forms:

  • Eating food that was too expensive, luxurious, or exotic.
  • Eating food in excessive quantities.
  • Eating food that required elaborate preparation
  • Eating food at an inappropriate time and lastly,
  • Eating food too eagerly.

The virtue of gluttony is temperance or moderation. Exercising restraint and modesty are examples of how not to succumb to Gluttony.

3. Greed

Moving onto Greed or Avarice as it’s also known, this sin also focuses on desire. The uncontrollable desire for material, social or political gain.

From this stems all sorts of questionable behaviour; Hoarding riches and materials that could be used to help those in need, stealing in order to obtain what you desire or lies, trickery and the manipulation of others to achieve status or political power.

Early European theologists would go as far as to say, “Other than the Devil, there is no greater enemy to a man than the desire for money.”

This was commonly used when discussing Usury—which is the practice of making immoral or unethical loans that exceed legal interest rates, often taking advantage of others’ misfortunes. This is what we would refer to today as a loan shark.

Similar to pride, Greed is considered a gateway into numerous other sins and the route of many evils.

4. Lust

Paolo and Francesca, whom Dante's Inferno describes as damned for fornication. (Ingres, 1819) - Lust
Paolo and Francesca, whom Dante’s Inferno describes as damned for fornication. (Ingres, 1819)

Lust is the capital sin that relates to desire of a sexual nature. This was seen as leading to fornication, adultery, sexual assault, and seduction, in some odd cases.

Most religions will distinguish lust from passion. Lust was an immoral desire, whereas passion was widely more accepted as it was considered God-given and the main driving force behind reproduction.

Lust does also come in some other forms such as the unbridled desire for money, power and even food; these are minor forms of lust that also relate to greed and gluttony.

The virtue opposite of lust is chastity, the act of refraining from sexual activity that is considered immoral and, in some cases, promotes sexual activity.

5. Envy

Cain killing Abel (c. 1600) by Bartolomeo Manfredi

Envy is a sin that ties closely together with both greed and lust, it is a desire for what others have that leads to resentfulness and sadness. This can mean desiring someone’s possessions, achievements, physical and personality traits, or social status.

In some cases, you may not desire them, but instead, wish that someone else didn’t have them. Envy is also separated into two categories: malicious envy and benign envy.

Malicious envy is like jealousy, the negative emotion towards people who you perceive as better off than yourself; Benign envy is merely the recognition that someone is better off or in a better position than yourself—this type of envy is still negative, but it can be used in a positive way, such as the motivation to emulate someone’s success.

Malicious envy only leads down the path of hatred, isolation, and sorrow. The only sin that weighs down the souls more than envy is pride. The most famous example of envy, at least in the book of Genesis, is Cain murdering his brother, Abel, because he was jealous God favoured his brother’s sacrifice.

The virtue of this sin is kindness, which involves compassion and the satisfaction of one’s situation or position.

6. Sloth

Abraham Bloemaert (Dutch, 1566-1651). ‘Parable of the Wheat and the Tares,’ 1624. oil on canvas. Walters Art Museum (37.2505): Gift of the Dr Francis D. Murnaghan Fund, 1973.

Sloth is the sin where you start to see the separation from God we mentioned earlier. This isn’t laziness in terms of one just sitting around the couch all day. Well, actually it is, but it also means spiritual laziness.

The Latin for sloth translates to mean ‘without a care, not caring about anything in your current life and even the afterlife.’

Whatever the church perceived as obligations or duties would be ignored. Losing interest in things in your life such as work, hobbies, friends, and romance leads to sadness and depression.

All the sins so far have been something someone you should not do; acts you shouldn’t commit but do anyway. However, Sloth is the sin of omission not doing something that you should do.

You may have heard the phrases, “The devil makes work for idle hands” or “Evil exists when good people fail to act.” These were taken from a much older sentiment towards sloths.

The virtue of sloth is diligence and a persistent work ethic. The lack of stimulation relating to one’s mind and body is still something many struggles to overcome even today.

7. Wrath

Wrath by The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Wrath, the feeling of rage and anger that one struggles to control. From wrath stems hatred and vengeance that causes feuds that can last for decades and even centuries.

Anger was not considered a sin unless it was directed towards an innocent person, only then does it become the sin of wrath. Anger is normally divided into three subsections:

Passive anger consists of defeatism, self-blame, and Apathy. This was seen as the path that leads to substance abuse and addiction.
Aggressive anger consists of bullying, hurtfulness, and vengeance.
Assertive anger involves calling out behaviour you deem as wrong, blaming the individual responsible for that behaviour and then punishing them.

The Virtue of Wrath is patience, allowing people time to change the way they behave.

Image Sources: Pouya Moayedi, WIkimedia.

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