The Seven Deadly Sins

Last updated: February 11, 2003 First appeared: June 18, 1996    

"Sin creates [an inclination] to sin; it engenders vice by repetition of the same acts. This results in perverse inclinations which cloud conscience and corrupt the concrete judgment of good and evil. Thus sin tends to reproduce itself and reinforce itself, but it cannot destroy the moral sense at its root."

Para. 1865, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994

Why bother?

Before even beginning a discussion of these Seven Deadly Sins, also known as "capital sins," it may be useful to discuss a few differences among Christians on this subject. Some people feel it is better to take a more positive approach to faith and not dwell on sin. Others believe all sin is equally repugnant to God, and so any classification of sins is wrong. Still others just want to forget the whole thing since they are saved and God loves them and really doesn't care about all this "stuff."

Inscribed in ancient times at the Oracle at Delphi: "Know thyself." Self-knowledge follows closely behind the knowledge of God, and self-knowledge for anyone means knowledge of sin. "My own heart shows me the way of the ungodly." Scripture says we are all sinners, and we don't mind as long as the sins are nameless and faceless. When we name a sin found in ourselves (by Grace) it is as though we are confronted in the back alleys of our souls with furtive saboteurs and muggers who seek to prevent our union with God. The sudden self-revelation of a serious fault is one thing: the discovery of a deadly sin which we hate very much in others is worse. It is like finding out a spouse is unfaithful, or worse, that we have been blindly unfaithful to the Spouse of our soul.

The following pages on the deadly sins may lead to horrible discoveries. Bear in mind:

  1. Friends will almost never volunteer this information.
  2. If they do, we will not accept it.
  3. God forgives anything, even repeatedly, so do not be afraid.

A combination of good spiritual reading (nothing too recent), nearly constant prayer, and reflection on the repetitive patterns of life works well for naming our sins. Remarks made in job performance reviews and conversations with people who dislike us are especially revealing. Our enemies usually lack the false charity to deny our sins. No wonder we are called to love them.

The human capacity for self-delusion is nearly limitless. We have all seen people claim great spirituality but do evil things and then ignore or rationalize them. Somehow we think we are immune to this phenomenon.

The List of Capital (Deadly) Sins

The table below lists The Seven Deadly Sins (vices) in the traditional order with the virtues against which they are sins. The list of sins goes back at least to Pope St. Gregory the Great and St. John Cassian, but the Bible proscribes them all. If one or more of these doesn't seem like a big sin to you, it almost certainly means you have already rationalized it. Work on that one first. By the way, there is no set list of Virtues corresponding to these. I've just listed the ones that made sense at the time.

If you need additional information on Dante's views of these, it is after the table.

Vice
Virtue against which it sins
Brief description
Pride (1) Humility Seeing ourselves as we are and not comparing ourselves to others is humility. Pride and vanity are competitive. If someone else's pride really bothers you, you have a lot of pride.
Avarice/Greed (5) Generosity This is about more than money. Generosity means letting others get the credit or praise. It is giving without having expectations of the other person. Greed wants to get its "fair share" or a bit more.
Envy (2) Love "Love is patient, love is kind…" Love actively seeks the good of others for their sake. Envy resents the good others receive or even might receive. Envy is almost indistinguishable from pride at times.
Wrath/Anger (3) Kindness Kindness means taking the tender approach, with patience and compassion. Anger is often our first reaction to the problems of others. Impatience with the faults of others is related to this.
Lust (7) Self control Self control and self mastery prevent pleasure from killing the soul by suffocation. Legitimate pleasures are controlled in the same way an athlete's muscles are: for maximum efficiency without damage. Lust is the self-destructive drive for pleasure out of proportion to its worth. Sex, power, or image can be used well, but they tend to go out of control.
Gluttony (6) Faith and Temperance Temperance accepts the natural limits of pleasures and preserves this natural balance. This does not pertain only to food, but to entertainment and other legitimate goods, and even the company of others.
Sloth (4) Zeal Zeal is the energetic response of the heart to God's commands. The other sins work together to deaden the spiritual senses so we first become slow to respond to God and then drift completely into the sleep of complacency.

MTV did a special in August 1993 on the Seven Deadly Sins which involved interviewing various well-known entertainers from the music and television industry. They pretty much all agreed these were not vices and the list was "dumb." (Sigh) Oh well.

(Details: The MTV title was "Seven Deadly Sins: An MTV News Special Report"; PBS showed it as "Alive TV." First aired on MTV on August 11, 1993. PBS first aired it on August 20, 1993. If you have a copy, please e-mail us.)

Additional information (based on requests from readers):

Origins

The Seven Deadly Sins never occur as a formal list in the Bible. Some people say they can all be found in Matthew's Gospel (chapters 5 through 7), but they are not in a simple list there.

These sins were identified as a group around the same time as the Bible was being translated into a single language. Rather than these sins being identified in a single place in the Bible, they are found all through it, from Genesis to Revelation. The letters of the New Testament mention all of these, and many others as well. The Catechism has many Scriptural references in the section that lists the "Seven Deadly Sins." It is well to remember that the Scriptures come from the Jewish and Christian Churches, not the other way around. In both cases, faith preceded the writing.

Lent

Lent is a special time of self-examination and thought about how we live. More on Lent.

Dante

Dante Alighieri (1265 - 1321) was a Catholic layman who wrote "The Divine Comedy," which is really three epic poems in Italian: "Inferno," "Purgatorio," and "Paradiso," which are about Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven/Paradise, respectively. In "Purgatorio," Dante places each of the seven sins on a level, with the higher levels closer to Paradise and the lower ones closer to Hell. The numbers in parentheses, in the above table, indicate the level where they are found in "Purgatorio." Dante considers these sins as offenses against love, and groups them accordingly:

Perverted Love: Pride, Envy, Wrath/Anger
Insufficient Love: Sloth
Excessive Love of Earthly Goods: Avarice/Greed, Gluttony, Lust

Dante seems to have had a well-formed conscience. His emphasis on love, in the sense of Christian charity, is impressive. That is not to claim some sort of sainthood, but his ideas were very much in keeping with the teaching of the Catholic Church at a time when the practice of the clergy often fell short of the doctrine.

St. Thomas Aquinas

The Reverend Barthlolomew de la Torre, O.P. wrote the following on August 22, 2003:
"Thank you for your excellent web page on the Seven Deadly Sins. A principal classical text not to be omitted is that of St. Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae.

http://www.newadvent.org/summa/208404.htm

Pax et fides.
Fr. Bartholomew de la Torre, O.P.

St. Dominic dedicated himself to promoting "pax et fides", "peace and faith", because without peace, the faith cannot flourish, and he described himself as pursuing this goal by "singing and gentleness, preaching, imploring and weeping" (cf. M.-H. Vicaire, O.P., St. Dominic and His Times, pp. 62 and nt. 7, 146, 147 and nt. 80)."
Thank you so much for providing the link! For those unacquainted with Catholic orders, O.P. indicates the "Ordo Praedicatorum" (Latin) or "Order of Preachers", otherwise known as the Dominicans, founded by St. Dominic. St. Thomas Aquinas joined the Dominicans in 1244. It is worth noting that St. Dominic's approach to heresy (false teaching), was to teach and debate, rather than take up arms.

C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis might well be considered a modern-day Dante. Try reading "The Great Divorce," a short little book, and compare it to "The Divine Comedy." Lewis, as a professor of medieval literature, would have been familiar with Dante's work.

Narnia and the Seven Deadly Sins - Dr. Don W. King, Department of English, Montreat College

The Dao

A little article considering the The Seven Deadly Sins from a somewhat Daoist perspective.

Christopher Marlowe
Donna Hatsuko Reedy wrote the following on May 18, 2000:
"I enjoyed your site; it's quite informative. Just wanted to add another text to your reading list: Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. The entire play revolves around issues of salvation, and there's this great scene in which the seven deadly sins are paraded for Faustus. It'll make a great addition to your already well-supported site."
Thank you for the suggestion! I've put a link to the on-line text here for our readers.
The Tragical History of D. Faustus

Edmund Spenser
Alan Sickler wrote the following on April 26, 2000:
"I was reading your page on the "Seven Deadly" sins and thoroughly enjoyed your definitions of the sins; even better though was the literary occurrences of this that you outlined. However, I was perplexed as to why you failed to mention Spenser's "The Faerie Queene"; This work is one of the greatest Middle English / Renaissance pieces ever written, and it is maybe the greatest occurance of the seven deadly sins. I forget which book they are in, but Spenser characterizes each deadly sin as a person - using physiognomy tradition to visualize the vices, and he even models this parade of sins after the pilgrims in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales". Gluttony rides a fat pig which is symbolic of his nature and etc etc. I don't know if you've read the Faerie Queen or not, but its maybe the most vital occurance of the seven deadly sins - a must read for an enthusist like yourself. Thanks for your time - I enjoyed your site thoroughly."
I will read it soon, but for now I've posted your kind and helpful comments, as well as a link to a Spenser site and "The Faerie Queene."
The Seven Deadly Sins Personified In The Faerie Queene by Lisa Hunt

Chaucer
More to be added soon
The Canterbury Tales - http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/gchaucer/bl-gchau-can-genpro.htm

Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton wrote a prayer to ask for help against the Seven Deadly Sins. It is found on page 44 of "New Seeds of Contemplation." Much of his focus is on the illusions we have about ourselves, and how to let God clear these away.

Stephen Sondheim

In the play: "Getting Away With Murder" (or "The Doctor is Out"), Patrick Phenicie (PATLi36@email.msn.com) says the following characters appear to represent the seven deadly sins. Here are the characters and sins:

Lust

Pride

Greed

Envy (NV)

Anger

Sloth

Gluttony

Dossie Lustig

Pamela Prideaux

Gregory Reed

Nam-Young Voung

Dan Gerard

Chistholm

Vassili Laimorgos

As you may have noticed, the names seem to form anagrams of the sins (or contain the anagram; some are obvious, some are less so). Patrick and I were unable to figure out how the name "Laimorgos" fits into Sonheim's naming scheme, but Christopher Sabatowich has an idea: Vassili Laimorgos can be rearranged (with some letters omitted) to form the word "smörgås," which is Norse/Swedish for "bread and butter," as in "smorgasbord." In English, "smorgasbord" can be applied as a "varied collection" of anything, and Gluttony does not apply (exclusively) to food.
T. Nickson writes: "Vassili Laimorgos is a Greek Name - Vassili links with the Greek word for King and Laimorgos translates literally as Glutton.  Sondheim was being clever!"

John Gower

Confessio Amantis

Robert Mannyng

Handling Synne

Hieronymus Bosch

Table of the Seven Deadly Sins (about)

George Balanchine (Dance)

CiCi Houston writes: I found this website very useful for a current project I am working on.  Perhaps it would be of interest to your readers to hear how this list has crept into the arts.  The New York City Ballet had a production entitled "Seven Deadly Sins."  It was originally choreographed by George Balanchine in Europe around 1933 for Tilly Losch.  He restaged it in the late 50's for Allegra Kent, and in both productions Lotte Lenya participated. The ballet focused on Anna 1 and Anna 2.  Lotte (1) was the talking half, and would order around Allegra (2), the silent but dancing half. 1 would make 2 commit the sins, or set double standards.  For instance, one famous picture of the ballet shows Lotte with an ice cream cone (a clever disguise for the microphone she sang into) pointing a finger at Allegra, who is on the floor pushing herself through a series of stretches and exercises under Lotte's rule. I'm sure there is much more information than what I have access to, but I'm sure that readers interested in this will enjoy gaining the extra knowledge on a rather hidden piece of work (it was never restaged since Allegra last performed it), whether they approve of the concept or not.
Thanks again for the useful website - CiCi Houston
Thank you, CiCi!

The Movies

There was a movie entitled "Se7en," starring Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt. You can read about it at IMDB.

Other Helps Toward Virtue and Peace

Description of Thomas More by Erasmus - St. Thomas More was a man of great virtue and integrated faith

Faith and Reason (Fides et Ratio) - "Know thyself"

On Spiritual Direction - How can I get help?

Lectio Divina - A way to get closer to God

Other Information About The Seven Deadly Sins

In art, a different set of seven virtues is set in opposition to The Seven Deadly Sins. These virtues did not correspond on a one-to-one basis, though, and the focus was on good art rather than spiritual instruction for combating specific vices. See "The Cardinal Virtues" and "The Theological Virtues," below.

Pointless Controversy

Originally, the advice, "Know Thyself", was attributed to the Greeks in a general sense. A reader complained that it was Socrates, not Plato that originated it, and that the author "should get an education before creating web pages." I researched this and found that Socrates wrote nothing, and that Plato attributes this saying to Socrates. So it was changed to:
Plato quotes Socrates as saying: "Know thyself."
As viewers of the movie, "The Matrix," know, this was inscribed at the Oracle at Delphi, a sacred place dating from the 9th century B.C. to the late 4th century A.D. Another reader pointed out that it was not Plato or Socrates. I don't know, but as many people have seen the movie, the text has been altered to the current form. Please don't write to make corrections about who said (or carved) it first. One way to avoid personal growth is to get caught up in the medium and neglect the message. It is a good saying; think about it, and question why people are more interested in the origins of good advice than in following it.

More Information from the Catholic Catechism

The Seven Deadly Sins FAQ #1 - What questions do we get?

Signs & Symbols in Christian Art, by George Ferguson, has a few notes on The Seven Deadly Sins. It sometimes omits details, but is otherwise a very useful book.

Other lists

There are also lists of virtues, not directly associated with particular vices: The Theological Virtues and The Cardinal (pivotal) Virtues. We don't have pages on them yet, but they are covered well in "Mere Christianity," by C.S. Lewis. These and other lists from the Church are described (briefly) below, or you can search.

The Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope and Charity

These are from 1 Corinthians 13:13

The Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude

These are from Wisdom 8:7

The Ten Commandments: With Ten Calls to Freedom

Go here for a different take on the Ten Commandments. It uses the Catholic list, but it can be adapted for other traditions.

The Evangelical Counsels: Poverty, Chastity and Obedience

From the Beatitudes and Philippians 2:8. The name means they are suggested by the Gospel, both the words and the example of Jesus.

The Gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, and Fear of the Lord.

See also the Catechism, #1831. The term "Fear of the Lord" refers to an "awesome respect" not abject or servile fear.

The Fruits of the Holy Spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, and Faithfulness

These are from Galatians 5:22. The Church has a tradition of twelve also, which adds: Generosity, Gentleness, Modesty, Self-control, and Chastity (Catechism #1832)

The Spiritual Works of Mercy: Kindnesses to the spirits of others

http://www.ceeme.com/prayers/works.htm

The Corporal Works of Mercy: Kindnesses to the bodies of others

http://www.ceeme.com/prayers/crpwork.htm

The Precepts of the Church: Expectations of Catholics (it's another list, so I put it here)

http://www.cin.org/precept.html

Links to other sites: They aren't always pretty, but here they are:

http://www.le.ac.uk/arthistory/seedcorn/contents.html
http://www.le.ac.uk/arthistory/seedcorn/faq-sds.html
http://hometown.aol.com/MaryPulver/Sins.htm
http://www.straightdope.com/columns/010601.html
http://www.thesevendeadlysins.org


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