Wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. This list has been around since 590 AD, when Pope Gregory I created the definitive roster of deadly sins most people are familiar with today. But why has this list endured? And what useful social function do notions of guilt, shame, and transgression hold in society?
Alex Clark, co-editor of “The Seven Deadly Sins: A Celebration of Virtue and Vice,” explains the social role the idea of "sin" plays, and why it might be time for a modern update to an age-old list.
"It is the time of year to be celebrating both virtue and vice," Clark says. "You can't have one without the other." The motivation behind this book, then, was to both acknowledge that sin is a part of our lives, and to explore the literary potential therein. From "Anna Karenina" to "Pride & Prejudice," from "The Scarlet Letter" to "The Great Gatsby," it is difficult to find any literature at all that doesn't concern itself with sin. "Writers are driven to examine our sort of darker parts — the things that make us human, and make us frail," Clark says.
Part of what is so fascinating about the "seven deadly sins" is trying to conceive of how Pope Gregory settled on these seven. Attempting to codify human behavior is a slippery business, and our attitudes toward human nature and behavior have changed significantly since the year 590 AD. "I think, as many of us would concede, you're very unlikely to get the world to go on for a long time without lust," Clark says. "We've redefined our own position toward a lot of these sins."
And yet, though our ideas about what qualifies as "lust" or "sloth" or "gluttony" would likely seem shocking to Pope Gregory, it's actually more incredible that these seven sins remain pervasive and relevant. "I don't know if we quite imagine that hellfire will be waiting for us," Clark says, "but I think we absolutely believe that something, somewhere will tell us when we've done wrong."