The Seven Deadly Sins: A Fresh Look
Can a godless man conceive of sin? Frankly, I don't see why not; although I confess a healthy respect for God might help enliven the sense of one's transgressions. But sin as a sense of transgressing boundaries, however those boundaries are set, is alive and well.
I've been struggling of late with the forces unleashed in my clients' lives. There is so much destruction, and sometimes so much self-destruction. I wondered recently whether revisiting the Seven Deadly Sins might help. So I started by reading Henry Fairlie's lively The Seven Deadly Sins Today. The book really served less as a road map leading me to others, than a mirror forcing me to reflect on my own failings.
Fairlie's been dead now some 20 years, but his prose live on. Just last year, another book of his essays came out. He was a prodigious journalist and social critic, writing on both sides of the Atlantic. The Seven Deadly Sins Today was first published in 1978, and has been republished six times since, most recently in 2006. Sin, it seems, never goes out of style.
First, the big seven: Pride, Envy, Anger, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony and Lust. The order matters, Fairlie argues. At the root of all sin is misplaced love of self. Pride reflects a sort of contempt for the world, a vaunting, over-reaching sense of our own superiority. It is a detachment from things held in common so as to glory, falsely, in the superiority of our solitary visions. Pride is the island no man should seek to become.
There is a quaint quality to Fairlie's rendering of pride, however. He tends to make all sin a failure of relations between man and man. Pride, the most persistent of our sins, fouls our relations to one another. Perhaps. But it seems far more than that. It is isolating precisely because its defenses against the world cut the proud off from any realistic sense of self: Pride is King Solipsism enthroned.
But all sin, Fairlie notes, "is our secret from others. Only we know where, and how deeply, it has taken root in us." Thus, the proud man cowers in the secret shadow shed by his conceit: Hell is the other not so much because we lose some potent sense of authenticity. The other is Hell because she is the mirror which reveals a nakedness the proud cannot tolerate. I am willing to bet that every good marriage can be explained in terms of how pride is managed.
I wished, as I read Fairlie, that he had chose to engage Sarte rather than Helter Skelter or I'm OK, You're OK. He aimed too low when he sought to remind us of the precarious nature of spiritual health.
Fairlie seems to strike the mark when he observes: "Th[e] solitude to which sin condemns us is partly a result of taking something in our lives, which has an appropriate place and value, and then lifting it out of place and exaggerating its importance to us. In the end, it is no longer a part of our lives but takes the place of living." Sin then becomes a departure from the mean, and Fairlee makes good use of Aristotle to show how easliy self-respect can be transformed into either pusillanmity or vanity.
Sin, then, is a carcicature of the human spirit: a part struggling to become the whole of one's existence; the violent effort to place at the center that which belongs at the periphery. Lust is so easy to see in these terms: When did the loving embrace become a cage?
I read Fairlie with a sense of shame and furtive relief. I saw without hestitation the presence of each of the sins in my own life. I live largely a reclusive life, my wife and I tucked away on a beautiful rural piece of property deciding when, and on what terms, to engage the world. Is not my preening, even on these pages, as a defender of those in need, a form of pride? Of course, it is. Even when I suffer I seek to make it exquisite, and therefore uncommon.
And envy, what of envy? Another man's pride bridles. Thus when Gerry Spence, to select an old hobby horse, announces that he is "America's Finest Trial Lawyer," and proclaims he has never lost a criminal case, I am reduced to a simmering rage. Of envy, Fairlie writes: "This gnawing fear that, if someone else gains something, [I] must be losing something, that someone else's good, material or spiritual, ... means [my] lessening...." How else to explain the secret delight when another stumbles?
Fairlie's account of sloth also forced me to turn an appraising eye on my attitudes. Sloth is not mere laziness. Of that, I am not guilty. I work long hours, and always have. But to what end this work if the effort merely deflects from a sense of despair? I saw myself in this attitude: "The world is evil, filled with destruction. Creation is evil, condemning us to die. Life is an absurdity, since we all end under ground. The evil of our societies, embedded in institutions so big that we cannot hope to control them is beyond our concern or correction. So we will retreat to our oases, and cultivate our Sloth.... We have made a religion of ourselves and, of all sins, we have come nearest to making a religion of Sloth."
These shoes fit. I walk in them. They yield a certain familiar ease, if not comfort. But how to transcend a sense of sin. Where to turn for grace?
Fairlie loses me with his theism. He writes from time to time like a crabby old man, one of the venal sins of all Tories. (When he goes on and on about the packaging of consumer goods as an example of gluttony I feel as though the village idiot is pining away for medieval simplicity.)
Fairlie makes reference to God's mercy, to the bounty of "creation," to abusing things "provided for our well being." An invisible hand haunts Fairlie's universe. The hand is God's, apparently. Yet the signs of this faith appear to be little more than rhetorical necessities in Fairlie's argument. The work made me nostalgic for a faith I have long since lost, and, sadly, it made me once again envy Joshua, whose hip, mind you, was broken in a struggle with an angel. Oh, to be transformed so by the reality of things unseen!
I loved Fairlie's book for the unsparing mirror it held before me. I am sin. And I know first-hand how every smoldering flame can erupt into an all-consuming fire. I loved the even treatment of Aristotle, and the fair-sighted, if undeveloped, appreciation of Augustine's City of God. "Every sin," Fairlie argues, "is a sin of love, misdirected or perverted..." We do become what we love. I confess to my shortcomings, and to my sorrow over not knowing how to find my way beyond the niggling contours of perception fueled by desire.
Oddly, Fairlie's book awakened a hunger to reread Freud's Civilization and its Discontents. As regular readers of this blog know, I have undertaken a psychoanalysis: it is barely one year along now, and what I have seen thus far has made a beliver of me in sin. Beneath the surface of every gesture is a seething cauldron of desire. I know the veneer of civilization is thin, but necessary.
So who shall deliver me from this body of death? Not the sermonizer's paper Jesus; byt those parables, there's power there, and some intimation of a more abundant life. I've been struggling through Jung's Red Book by fits and starts. Is there hope there in things unseen? Or is it enough merely to know that the world is other, and the only hope to avoid becoming trapped in my own sin is learn to love that which I cannot define?