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Seven Sins |
The seven virtues and the seven sins

Seven Sins is drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 202, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

As the Christians came to see that what Christ wanted was not obedience to a set of rules but people of godly qualities, they set forth the desirable and undesirable in Christian life

Seven Sins - The seven virtues and the seven sins

Seven Sins - The seven virtues and the seven sins
The virtue of Justice as conceived by fourteenth-century artist Bondone di Giotto is taken from the Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel) in Padua.

Christians through twenty centuries and more have sought to explain just how Jesus Christ wants them to behave. Jesus had as his background Moses’ Ten Commandments, the writings of the Hebrew prophets, and “the Law,” or the Torah, the myriad regulations of the Jewish tradition, from many of which Gentile Christians were exempted. Instead, the Christians had the Jewish scriptures, the Christian scriptures as they came into being, and preeminently Jesus’ own example: what he himself called “the Way.”

But the Way was difficult to teach, they soon realized, because what Jesus plainly wanted was not simply adherence to a set of rules so much as people of distinct qualities and character that would dispose them to adhere to such rules. As the Christians began to describe these qualities in letters (“epistles”) addressed to the churches and later collected in the New Testament, they increasingly found that many of the behavioral traits they strove to produce were already revered by the best of the pagan society around them. The pagans called them “virtues” (in Latin virtus, in Greek arete) and considered four to be “cardinal,” or pivotal: justice, courage, temperance, and prudence.

Justice encompassed the concept of “fair play” and honest dealing. The just man would tell the truth even to his own disadvantage, for instance, and keep his promises. Justice required people to follow the rules of the game, the whole game of life. And Christians rapidly realized that the Jews’ fifteenth Psalm was also written to extol what pagans recognized as the virtue of justice.1

Courage, or fortitude, meant two things. It meant facing danger–standing by your post when you’re terrified or standing by your convictions with a whole crowd laughing at you–but it also means sticking to the task, not giving up when everything in you seems to be urging you to quit. Obviously, a serious attempt to practice any virtue would also involve this one.

Temperance meant going the right length and no farther. For example, overindulgence in liquor or food constitutes “intemperance,” but you can also be intemperate in work or in play. Golf or bridge may be as spiritually dangerous to one person as whiskey or cigarettes to another. The effects might not show on the outside; golf won’t slur the speech or cards damage the lungs, but for anyone captive to them, they can just as surely corrupt the soul.

Temperance was not the same as abstinence, however. A good man may abstain from something because he can’t do it at all without overdoing it or because he wants to save money for some other purpose or because he believes it is jeopardizing his whole society, without believing the thing itself–in moderation–to be wrong.

Prudence essentially meant using the brains God gave you. A virtuous man does not hide from the facts but contends with them. He does not pretend that something (or some person or some cause) is good when it is quite obviously bad. He considers thinking things through, especially in religion, to be a definite responsibility since religious belief should not entail shutting one’s eyes to obvious fact. Nor would he “take a positive attitude” toward something that plainly called for a negative one.2

The greatest factor in the conversion of the pagan world to Christianity was the way in which Christians themselves, both under fearful persecution and in their own community life, exemplified these much admired pagan virtues. Conversely, as Christians such as Justin and Clement (volume 2), Ambrose and Augustine, Chrysostom and the Cappadocians (volume 4) came to see these parallels in the pagan culture, they gradually absorbed the four pagan virtues into Christian teaching, a process that was completed by Aquinas in the thirteenth century.

But they discerned something else as well. The four cardinal virtues, admirable though they are, do not embrace some of the key traits needed in a Christian life. They saw that there must be three more that the pagans did not recognize but which were identified by St. Paul in the most quoted of all his letters: “And now abideth faith, hope and charity, these three. But the greatest of these is charity” (1 Corinthians 13:13). So to the four “cardinal” virtues the Christians added three “theological” virtues, for a total of seven. They also noticed that these three all led to and reinforced the first four. For Christians, that is, the theological virtues lay behind the cardinal virtues. “The theological virtues are the foundation of Christian moral activity,” says a Christian catechism. “They animate it and give it its special character. They inform and give life to all moral virtues.”

Charity commonly came to be translated as “love” because the meaning of the term “charity” gradually narrowed down to what the Bible calls “alms,” that is, giving to the poor, and nothing else. However, the English word “love” poses still another problem since it is used to designate four quite different forms of behavior.3

The essence of charity for a Christian is what theologians like Aquinas and many of his forerunners defined as the love of God; to love God is a state of mind, just as loving ourselves is a state of mind. It is wishing our own good. If we learn how to love our neighbors as ourselves, in the sense of wishing good for them too, then we are learning how to love God and are thus practicing the greatest virtue.

They emphasized, however, that “loving” someone in the Christian sense does not necessarily mean “liking” him. It does not mean trying to believe his conduct “good” when it is plainly “bad,” or trying to persuade yourself he is “likeable” when his conduct is obviously detestable. Rather, it means hoping the best for him, wishing his good. Some Christian teachers even have a kind of test for this. If you discover that a person you dislike has done something that demonstrates him not quite as bad as you had thought, do you sense a certain disappointment? This would indicate you are not loving him. But if you are gratified to discover this, that probably means you are.

It is also true, they found, that sometimes by actively pretending to like someone we dislike, we can begin to genuinely like them after all and, more astonishing still, they may come to like us. The pretense, in other words, has become a reality. Conversely, when we hurt someone we dislike, we usually discover ourselves disliking him more. The same goes for our love for God. We may not feel it is possible to love God, but if we behave as if we love him, we may be surprised to discover that genuine love for him follows.

The theological virtue of hope is learning to live with the idea of eternal life, usually thought of as heaven, or paradise. Aquinas called it the contemplation of the perfect Good. It represents a deep human need, and just as food satisfies our hunger and copulation satisfies our sexual desire, the future life satisfies our yearning for permanence that earthly life cannot provide. Thus hope, for Christians, means striving for confidence in God’s ultimate and everlasting mercy. Not that they despise the earthly pleasures he provides, but they realize that these are the foreshadowing of better things to come, to be enjoyed as such–like an appetizer preceding the heavenly feast. If one accepts the pleasures of this world as a gift of God, one must also recognize the longings they trigger as coming from the same source.

As a virtue faith seems a bit of a stretch. Taken at face value, it may appear to be something that one either has or doesn’t have, based on the weighing of the evidence. Where is the virtue in that? But if you have weighed the evidence and conclusively decided that Christianity is true, there will still be moments when you doubt your conviction. You may also be drawn away from it by circumstances if, for instance, you have an opportunity to make some money by slightly shady means or feel that it is in your best interests to tell a lie. When it becomes temptingly convenient to forget that Christianity is true, then faith, derived through prayer and other spiritual means, must come into play.

A second and even more important aspect of faith involves entrusting one’s entire life to Christ. This happens when we realize that we can never on our own reach the moral perfection that Jesus epitomized, or even sometimes meet the bare standard of conduct we expect of other people. We discover, that is, our own moral bankruptcy. Only then does the endlessly repeated Christian prayer “Lord, have mercy” begin to have meaning for us. We have discovered that if we are ever to get to heaven, the grace of God will have to figure centrally in our getting there.

Pagan culture, of course, dealt with bad behavior as well as good, recognizing seven major flaws in human conduct that the Christians, in turn, would recognize as the “Seven Deadly Sins.” The seven–gluttony, lust, wrath, greed, envy, sloth, and pride–were adopted by Christian teachers in the West at the time of Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century. They have been part of a Christian’s moral education ever since and are usually subdivided into three so-called warm-blooded sins and four cold-blooded.

Gluttony (Latin “gula”), the first of the warm-blooded sins, is an exaggeration of the natural human capacity for enjoying life’s pleasures, but it is not the act of eating or owning a house or wearing good clothes that constitutes gluttony; it is doing these things to excess. We seldom really need to eat until we can hold no more, after all, or to acquire a ten-thousand-square-foot house. Gluttony is the perversion of that free, careless, and generous mood that wants enjoyment from life for us and for others. And the perversion kills the good, for it is a vain effort to satisfy the abovementioned longing, which should be directed toward the hereafter and not the here and now.

Similarly, lust (luxuria) is the exaggeration of the natural desire to procreate and the natural pleasure that comes from sex. Aquinas taught that God gave us the ability to procreate and to enjoy the process. But it is by its nature designed to regenerate the species and must therefore be practiced only within the bonds of marriage. “Chastity is the most unpopular of the Christian virtues,” observed the twentieth- century Christian writer C. S. Lewis in his Mere Christianity. “There’s no getting away from it; the Christian rule is, ‘Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.’ Now this is so difficult and so contrary to our instincts that obviously either Christianity is wrong or our sexual instinct, as it now is, has gone wrong. One or the other. Of course, being a Christian, I think it is the instinct.”

Wrath (ira) is anger and hate taken to damaging levels. It is right and just to hate evil, to become angry at those who practice evil, and even to punish evil through violent means, including war. The problem begins when we enjoy the hating and take pleasure in the punishment and pain it inflicts out of a sense of vengeance. Vengeance is not justice; it is the sin of wrath.

Nevertheless, the four cold-blooded sins are considered far more serious because of their origin. Where the warm-blooded sins are perversions of some good, the cold-blooded are considered “sins of the spirit.” They do not originate in the natural world, the Christians say–they are purely diabolical.

Greed (avaritia) is the first one. Also known as covetousness or avarice, it is an unhealthy preoccupation with possessions, often money or the things money can buy.4 In mild form it might be referred to as thrift or niggardliness, but while the village miser is guilty of this sin, far more is the rather more attractive, swashbuckling billionaire who ultimately measures everything and everybody only in dollars and cents. For avarice is driven by competition and pride: the greedy man wants more, not because it increases his pleasure but because he needs to prove himself smarter, richer, and generally superior to anyone else, and to preserve that status.

Envy (invidia) is the sin that wants us all miserable together and resents anyone being happier. “If avarice is the sin of the haves against the have-nots, envy is the sin of the have-nots against the haves,” writes mid-twentieth-century Christian essayist Dorothy L. Sayers in an essay entitled “The Other Six Deadly Sins.” In its lesser form, envy can inspire social climbing or snobbism, but the envious can also be destroyers. The trade unionist who would rather that the company go broke than that he forego a salary increase or ease a clause in the collective agreement might well be acting out of envy. The wife who cannot abide her husband’s success and nags a marriage to its death commits the same sin.

Sloth (acedia), which in most ages was simply condemned as laziness, would gain sympathy and even respectability in the late twentieth century, when apathy and indifference to life’s problems would come to be rather admired or else diagnosed as depression in need of drug therapy. The pagans called it “sadness” and the romanticists “melancholy,” but they nonetheless thought it sinful. For sloth is the sin that rejects God’s creation, the sin, says essayist Sayers, that “believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.”

But perhaps the greatest surprise in secularist eyes is the first-place ranking that both pagan society and the Christians assigned to pride (superbia), which C. S. Lewis describes as “the one vice of which no man is free; which everyone in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and which hardly any people except Christians ever imagine they are guilty of themselves . . . There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others.”

But surely, a man might object, there’s nothing sinful about being proud of my country, or my family, or my golf club. This depends, however, upon what he means by “being proud of.” If he means he admires his country, loves his family, and revels in the camaraderie and skill of the golf course, this is not “pride” as Christians use the word. But if he tends to look down on other, “inferior” countries or to put on airs because of his family lineage or because he belongs to the “right” golf club, this would be a very different matter. It would be pride.

Pride, like sloth, would gain some respectability in the late twentieth century, when “looking out for number one” began to be seen as virtuous, along with the quest for “self-fulfillment” and the seeking for “empowerment.” But the old realities would remain, of course, as people would discover whenever they actually needed help from someone who was looking out for number one and saw them as number two or three or possibly fifty. Marry someone forever searching for self-fulfillment or hire someone intent on “seeking empowerment,” and the diabolical origins become evident as ever.

The outstanding twentieth-century entertainer Frank Sinatra won accolades for a captivating song, written by Paul Anka, in which he looked back on his life and declared, “I did it my way.” Few of his admirers stopped to think that every marital breakup, every family feud, and much other human misery come about because somebody is determined to “do it my way.”

The sin of pride comes when you don’t care what others think because you consider yourself above them. It is the most competitive of sins, getting no pleasure out of having something, only of having more of it than the next man. The proud person, more than any other, hates to be snubbed or ignored or outshone. Thus, Christians believe pride to have been the main source of woe in every nation and every family since time began.

Pride is pure antagonism, both between human creatures and between humans and God. For when a man looks down on everyone, he cannot see something that is above him. Pride, through which the devil became the devil, comes straight from hell. Therefore, observes Lewis, the proud, self-righteous prig who sits in the front pew of the church every Sunday may be closer to hell than a prostitute. However, he concludes, “it is better to be neither.”

This is the end of the Seven Sins category article drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 202, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster. To continue reading more about Seven Sins from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at