Book Review: The Seven Deadly Sins

seven deadly sins

“humans cannot understand a full life without fun and pleasure; as such, we cannot possibly comprehend a truly human life without some aspect of lust, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Yet the sagest Christians demurred from going into details about what was attractive about the life to come: they weren’t sure. And humanists have done the same thing. When they tried to imagine a perfectly ordered human life it was far from appealing.”

The Seven Deadly Sins is a collection of essays written by seven Catalan authors who each explore the history and development of one of Christianity’s seven deadly sins. They discuss when the sin was selected and how it is defined. They ponder why a natural human emotion would be regarded as bad.

As these sins are a Christian concept, the tenets of that religion are focused on. There are also many reference to ancient beliefs and the more modern development of humanism. Key episodes in history are alluded to as markers in how what was considered sinful changed and developed. Philosophical thinking through the ages is analysed. A feature of the essays is the many digressions taken.

“nothing is excessive, disordered, or immoderate except in relation to a gradation that marks the point where excess begins.”

The first essay, by Oriol Qintana, covers sloth. It looks at changes to social and work culture in various societies and the pressure to perform productively and efficiently – to amass wealth for self or others. It is suggested that obligations are imposed to encourage aspiration for an idealised vision of ourselves.

“We don’t have the obligation to be the best people possible, but to be decent people, good enough people, each in our own way.

As in many of the essays, there are references to well known works of literature as the author introduces threads of personal opinion, each backed by argument but at times linking tenuously to the sin under discussion.

“We live among naysayers and enthusiasts, and the chaos is considerable. We certainly have a lot of opinions about good and evil.”

The second essay, by Adrià Pujol, looks at gluttony. The author suggests this is more of a man’s sin than a woman’s, a premise I disagreed with. He also offered gyms as an antidote – a way of offsetting overeating and its obvious manifestation, fat accrual – despite it now being known that, while exercise is vital for good health, weight loss still requires, first and foremost, a calorie deficit. Perhaps there is some cultural difference that made me struggle to engage with the arguments presented.

Lust is covered by Anna Punsoda. Once again I disagreed with the framework around which she built her reasoning. She seemed to be suggesting that all thought like her – I do not.

“It is not the most frowned-upon sin, because secretly we can all understand and forgive it.”

Desire may be a compulsion but the author appeared to devalue love, suggesting the value of maintaining monogamous relationships could not outweigh the pleasure to be found in moments of passion, paying little heed to the hurt and damage wrought when sexual excitement is valued over devotion.

“Their passion places them beyond good and evil and, more than loving each other, they love the very act of loving.”

Having struggled to engage once again, I was relieved to find more to consider in Raül Garrigasait’s thoughts on wrath. In this essay, the author expands on his thoughts with many references to the ancients – their wars and philosophy.

“Their ideal sage possessed an unflappable cold intelligence that never grew irritated, fell in love, or got depressed. They saw the passions as impurities that sullied the individual.”

As with other arguments propounded in the collection, there are suggestions that each sin may also offer positives. The key is to remain in control, to avoid excess. Being constantly angry can lead to embittered obstinacy, but wrath can also offer strength to say no to degrading commitments or evil collaborations.

Marina Porras writes of the sin of envy, pointing out it is harder to recognise as it comes from profound feelings difficult to articulate. Much of this essay references a work of literature I am not familiar with (A Broken Mirror by Mercè Rodoreda). While I could follow the opinions being shared I did not find them compelling.

Oriol Ponsatí-Murlà then looks at greed, referencing both modern and ancient texts to argue his case. He suggests that the concept of greed cannot be analysed objectively, that it and other sins are relative contextually.

“Raising awareness of our basic fallibility at comprehending our cultural past and present is absolutely indispensable so as to avoid making dogmatic fools of ourselves”

The author writes of a golden mean, one that can be a challenge to evaluate and determine.

The final essay, by Jordi Graupera, looks at pride. The golden mean is once again referenced along with texts that illustrate the basis of the author’s thinking. There are a smattering of personal anecdotes that added interest. I admit though, that by this stage in the book, my attention had waned.

The writing throughout verges on the academic in elucidation and clarification. There is much on the historical perspective along with the function of ethical thinking – sins as instruments of social control. The many digressions, although considered and explained, too often veered off topic. Essays are, of course, an author’s opinion. That I disagreed with many of these won’t have added to my enjoyment while reading.

How the seven deadly sins were selected was of interest. Although not new to me, the adaptation of ancient beliefs to make religious dogma more palatable was well expressed.

“The vast operation of translating – from Greek to Latin – and of conceptual transposing – adapting ancient philosophical notions to the Christian spiritual paradigm – that was entailed in moving Greek pagan wisdom to a religious imagery (along, largely, the footbridge of neo-Platonism) still constitutes one of the most monumental and successful intellectual efforts ever carried out in the Western World. Without it, it is impossible to understand the course of the last two millenia of our civilisation.”

I found aspects of these essays worth my time and consideration. On the whole, however, the collection was rather too dry to appeal to my reading tastes.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum d’Estampa.

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