Seven and Sins

There’s something about the number seven. Seven days in a week. Seven colors in a rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet). Pre-moderns counted seven celestial bodies (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn). The earth, we learned in school, has seven continents (though, frankly, the basis for counting Europe as a separate continent from Asia is more cultural than geological). Sail the seven seas and see the seven wonders of the world – before you get the seven-year itch.

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)
  • lust
  • gluttony
  • sloth
  • envy
  • pride (or vanity)
  • greed (or avarice)
Then there are the seven virtues, that also go back at least to the Middle Ages:
  • prudence/wisdom
  • justice
  • temperance
  • courage
  • faith
  • hope
  • love
The first four derive from the writings of Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and came to be called the “cardinal virtues.” The last three, from Paul's letter to Corinthians, are called the “theological virtues.” Our gentle readers will no doubt notice that these seven virtues do not parallel the seven sins. Thus, a list called "the heavenly virtues" has also been made, providing direct antidotes to the seven deadly sins. To counteract anger, lust, gluttony, sloth, envy, vanity, and greed, respectively, are:
  • patience
  • chastity
  • temperance
  • diligence
  • kindness
  • humility
  • charity/generosity
"Temperance" is on both virtue lists. The Latin caritas translates as both "love" and "charity," so we can say it's also on both lists. "Diligence," from the Latin industria, carries a connotation of fortitude, which carries a connotation of courage -- so maybe that's also on both lists. The other four -- "prudence/wisdom," "justice," "faith," and "hope," -- are replaced by "patience," "chastity," "kindness," and "humility."

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
In 2008, Pope Benedict, noticing that the traditional seven deadly sins were very individual and typically victimless (in and of themselves), followed Gandhi’s lead in making a list of seven social sins. Benedict’s seven social sins are:
  • 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
Lake Chalice approves of the Pope's interest in reducing the first five, and wishes the last two had been left off. Many better ways to bring the list to the magic number seven were available. Overconsumption of resources, exploitation of labor, undermining or failing to support: public education, full equality for girls and women, gun control, immigrant rights.... Lake Chalice has many helpful suggestions, and will return calls from the Vatican.

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"

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