Your phone number, not counting the area code, is seven digits. There’s a reason for this. Bell laboratories research in the 1950s found a steep drop-off between humans’ ability to recall a seven-digit number and ability to recall an eight-digit number. Perhaps seven is significant for us because of the way our brains are built.
“Countless psychological experiments have shown that, on average, the longest sequence a normal person can recall on the fly contains about seven items. This limit, which psychologists dubbed the "magical number seven" when they discovered it in the 1950s, is the typical capacity of what's called the brain's working memory.” (ABC News, 2009 Dec 6. Click here.)We love to make lists of seven items. One of these is the seven deadly sins. Lake Chalice wonders whether you, gentle reader, can recite them? No, they are not, "Sleepy, Dopey, Grumpy, Bashful, Sneezy, Happy, and Doc." Those would be the seven dwarfs in the Disney’s version of Snow White.
The seven deadly sins, as delineated by Pope Gregory I ("Gregory the Great") in the 6th century, are:
- anger (or wrath)
- pride (or vanity)
- greed (or avarice)
In the 20th century, Mohandas Gandhi crafted his own list of seven social sins:
- Politics without Principle
- Wealth without Work
- Pleasure without Conscience
- Knowledge without Character
- Commerce without Morality
- Science without Humanity
- Worship without Sacrifice
- Drug abuse
- Polluting the environment
- Contributing to widening divide between rich and poor
- Excessive wealth
- Creating poverty
- “Bioethical” violations such as birth control
- “Morally dubious'' experiments such as stem cell research
The temptation to make a seven-item list imbued with special significance has not passed by the Unitarian Universalists either. We have our seven principles! (Click here.) Some of us call them the seven lively principles to stand over against the seven deadly sins.
What motivated Pope Gregory I’s traditional list of seven deadly sins? And why those seven? After all, the seven deadly sins are not listed in the Jewish or Christian Bible. What is in the Bible are the Ten Commandments, the violations of which amounts to a list of sins: idolatry, swearing, sabbathlessness, filial disrespect, murder, adultery, theft, deceit, covetousness. (Count only nine? Some traditions split "idolatry" into two to get ten, and other traditions split "covetousness" into two. There's a handy table in Wikipedia's "Ten Commandments" entry: click here.) Given the centrality of the Ten Commandments in our Judeo-Christian heritage, wouldn’t those be the main sins?
Maybe ten is just too many to hold in working memory. Theologians might, then, have looked to the Book of Proverbs:
“There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that hurry to run to evil, a lying witness who testifies falsely, and one who sows discord in a family.” (Proverbs 6: 16-19)There are seven, here – quite different from Gregory the Great’s list (only pride – “haughty eyes” – made the cut for Gregory). These seven, though, aren’t nicely encapsulated in a single word each.
In the New Testament, there’s a sin list in Galatians:
“Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5: 19-21)Despite these various Biblical sources for sin lists, early Christian thinkers felt a need to create a different list.
In the fourth century, Evagrius of Pontus, made a list of eight “evil thoughts.” He almost, but not quite, grasped that seven is the magic number. When, over two centuries after Evagrius wrote his list, Pope Gregory I created the seven-sin list that became so widely known, Gregory only had to do a little tweaking of Evagrius. Gregory kept "gluttony," "greed/avarice," and "anger/wrath" from Evagrius' list. Evagrius and Gregory both listed acedia, though, for Evagrius, the term meant dejection, while Gregory and subsequent writers explained the term in a way that gradually made "sloth" the better English translation. Evagrius had listed the actions, "prostitution and fornication," which Gregory replaced with the psychological state, "lust." Evagrius used the Greek work lype, which generally means sadness; Gregory shifted to a more specific focus on sadness related to comparing oneself to others, "envy." Evagrius had hubris and boasting (or vainglory) as two separate sins, which Gregory combined into one, "pride/vanity," thereby getting the list down to seven.
Still. With so many other sins enumerated in scripture – and an absence of any scriptural basis for Pope Gregory the Great’s particular list – what was the point of “the seven deadly sins”?
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This is part 1 of "The Seven Deadlies"
Next: Part 2: "Let's Start with Gluttony"