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Evolution of the Seven Deadly Sins

Updated on October 4, 2014
Thomas Swan profile image

Dr. Thomas Swan studied cognition and culture at Queen's University Belfast. He specializes in the cognitive science of religion.

Envy was the last sin to be added to the list.
Envy was the last sin to be added to the list. | Source

What are the Seven Deadly Sins?

Whether in Dante’s Purgatorio or the vibrant artifice that is modern cinema, the seven deadly sins have captivated western culture since their inception in the 4th century by the Christian monk, Evagrius Ponticus. His original list of eight vices was reduced to six in 590 A.D. by Pope Gregory because of overlapping definitions. Gregory then added envy to the list, beginning the Catholic Church’s era of fixation upon the seven key personality traits that supposedly manifest human evil. These cardinal sins are:

  1. Lust - Excessive thoughts of a sexual nature.
  2. Gluttony - Indulgence to the point of waste.
  3. Greed - Rapacious pursuit of wealth, power and status.
  4. Sloth - Failure to utilise one’s God given gifts as a result of being lazy or despondent.
  5. Wrath - Uncontrolled hatred or anger.
  6. Envy - Jealous desire to deprive another person of something, and to acquire it for oneself.
  7. Pride - Excessive love of oneself. Considered the most serious sin, and the source of the other sins; having origin in the fall of Lucifer.

Pride is seen to be the progenitor of the other sins, whereas vices that escape the list (such as drunkenness, forgetfulness, trivial theft or dishonesty) are seen to be secondary, or derivable, from the seven sins.

The sins illustrate the Church’s ascetic support of abstinence. While examples can be raised of sinful behaviour that has negative consequences, counter-examples can easily be proposed. For example, without pride we may become depressive; without greed we may become poor; and without lust we may never find a sexual partner. Indeed, if these licentious emotions are part of the human condition, then natural selection dictates they must serve a purpose.

Dante's Purgatorio. This painting by William Blake is called Beatrice Addressing Dante. It depicts a chariot bearing Beatrice, drawn by the Griffin and four ladies who represent specific virtues.
Dante's Purgatorio. This painting by William Blake is called Beatrice Addressing Dante. It depicts a chariot bearing Beatrice, drawn by the Griffin and four ladies who represent specific virtues. | Source

What is Emotion?

All emotions may be linked to primitive feelings of pleasure or pain. Negative emotions such as sorrow, fear and anxiety are associated with pain, whereas positive emotions such as happiness, pride and love are associated with pleasure. The basic function of negative emotion is to deter behaviour that leads to painful outcomes. For example, we experience fear when our well-being is threatened, and this fear motivates avoidance of the threat. Conversely, the basic function of positive emotions is to reinforce behaviour that leads to pleasure. For example, we experience relief when danger has been avoided, motivating a repeat of our avoidance behaviour if the danger should reoccur. Emotions help us do what is necessary to survive. If emotions were detrimental then we wouldn’t have them – they would have been lost in the course of natural selection because with each generation, only the least emotional would have survived.

The Seven Deadly Sins

With this in mind, we can revisit the seven deadly sins in terms of how each of the concurrent emotions would have been useful in the course of human evolution. We could define pride as a positive emotion that reinforces healthy behaviour. In other words, we are proud when we do something well, and this encourages a repeat of the behaviour. Pride may become dangerous when misplaced, but by itself, even excessive pride is not sinful. Greed can be defined as a negative emotion that prevents personal poverty. We are greedy when we think we require more than we have. It encourages the accumulation of resources, ensuring we stand a better chance of survival. Greed is not sinful, but excessive greed may be careless if it evokes envy from others.

Is it immoral to commit one of the seven deadly sins?

See results

Envy, wrath and lust are all negative emotions. Envy prevents domination and keeps the greed of others in check. We are envious when we see ourselves as having less than another. It encourages behaviour that will improve our status. Excessive envy is not sinful unless one endorses immoral methods. Wrath prevents harm and exploitation of the self, and of one's family and friends. A demonstration of wrath will deter further attempts to harm and exploit. Wrath is only sinful when used without proper provocation. Lust prevents involuntary celibacy by encouraging behaviour that culminates in reproduction. Lust is not sinful unless one condones immoral acts as a way to satiate it.

Gluttony and sloth are positive emotions. Gluttony reinforces inequality because by using resources to the point of waste, others are prevented from using them. This will maintain one’s position of strength, and keep competitors weak. Like greed, this may be careless if it evokes envy in others, but it is not sinful. Sloth promotes regenerative behaviour. When we are upset or in pain, we slink away from the public eye to avoid further distress. This inaction, or slothful despondence, is a means of avoiding danger, preventing further harm.

All of these emotions promote behaviour that will help us out-compete our rivals. Emotions by themselves only create the drive to receive pleasure or avoid pain. If an individual chooses to respond to this drive with immoral behaviour, it is not the emotion that causes it, it is the knowledge that immorality is an appropriate response to the drive the emotion creates. As Mark Twain said: "Any emotion, if it is sincere, is involuntary."

Original Sin, painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo.
Original Sin, painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo.

Why does religion censure our emotions?

Religion isn’t at war with all our emotions, but it is in conflict with those emotions which encourage social competition. Greed, envy and lust motivate behaviour for defeating our rivals; pride and gluttony reinforce this behaviour, and wrath and sloth maintain strength when faced by challengers. In discouraging these emotions, Christianity appears to be advocating a world without competition.

Religion offers its followers a number of comforting propositions such as an afterlife, a protective God, and an explanation for the terrifying uncertainties of life. One might suggest that religion appeals most to those who need comforting. By condemning competition, religious followers condemn that which puts them in need of comfort. The principle cause of anxiety is the threat caused by one’s rivals; so what better way to respond to this threat than by condemning the emotions that drive one's rivals to create it?

Christianity is about equality. We are “equal in the eyes of God” and we are all tarnished with the original sin. This is how Christianity resets the playing field, appealing to all who cannot match the greed of their rivals. The seven sins are merely a way of discouraging emotions that are used more effectively by non-Christians.

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      Thomas Swan 5 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks for the comment! Glad you liked it!

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      Jo Alexis-Hagues 5 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      Very interesting hub, bookmarking for future reference.