Steve Tomkins wonders whether a revised list of the seven deadly sins misses the point of the original set
Among all the movies based on novels, news stories, TV series, biographies and other movies, there is only one that I know of based on a medieval categorisation of sins, the magnificent Seven (not to be confused with The Magnificent Seven) starring Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, a film adaptation of the seven deadly sins.
“We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home,” protests Spacey's character, John Doe, “and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it's common, it's trivial.”
So to challenge this apathy he kills one outstanding proponent of each sin in some gruesomely appropriate way.
The ethics of preaching through murder may be on the questionable side, but Doe insists, “Only in a world this sh*tty could you even try to say these were innocent people and keep a straight face.”
What he never seems to have considered is whether his list of deadly sins was up to date.
The BBC has just published a survey asking which sins people today consider most deadly, and only one from the traditional list makes it into the top seven. It was commissioned by The Heaven and Earth Show.
In at number one is cruelty. The second place goes to a surprisingly old-fashioned vice, adultery (it only made it to number seven in the Ten Commandments after all).
Bigotry is third, perhaps encapsulating sexism, racism, homophobia and other such modern iniquities that otherwise don’t get a look in.
Next we have dishonesty, followed by hypocrisy. Greed, steady at number six, is the one that makes both lists, and last comes selfishness.
The traditional list consists of pride, envy, lust, gluttony, sloth, anger, and of course greed.
It was first compiled by Evagrius of Pontus in the fourth century, though he had sadness instead of sloth, making him sound dangerously like those coathanger-mouthed charismatics who persecute us all with their bubbliness and insisting on praising the Lord that the kettle has boiled or that Nurofen has healed their headache. Sorry, personal issues.
The list was only finalised by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, and he denied the idea that they had any order of badness.
Unofficial medieval teaching had specific torments in hell assigned to each offense, such as toad-eating for gluttony, and living in a snakepit for sloth (is there a couch down there, I need to know).
The system had some notable loopholes. If, for example, you were guilty of lust (covered in fire and brimstone) your best bet would presumably be to think an equal number of envious thoughts (drenched in cold water) and hope the two cancel each other out.
Does the survey tell us anything very much about life today, other than how to publicise BBC Sunday morning TV and fill Monday morning column inches? (I shouldn’t sound so ungrateful – that’s hypocrisy, punishable by an eternity subjected to Nokia ringtones and Delirious?)
The answer is probably not.
It’s tempting to see a major shift in moral values here, from focussing on inner failings to being more concerned with interpersonal badness.
The original seven sins were in your heart, things only God could see - pride, lust, envy. According to the modern list we see something as wrong not because it offends God’s law, but because it hurts other people.
But in fact that interpretation misunderstands the very point of the deadly seven - as most people do, including The Heaven and Earth Show.
The seven deadly sins were never supposed to be the worst but the ‘cardinal’, what we would call the ‘root’ sins. They were the sins that lie at the heart of all others. That’s why anger and lust are there instead of murder and adultery.
So if we asked 1001 medieval people what the seven worst sins were, would they come up with the same list as this week’s survey?
To be realistic, they probably wouldn’t answer, but if they did, I think it’s safe to say they would have the sense to put murder and robbery higher up than selfishness.