The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A Couple of Deadly Sins

In the traditional moral theology of the Christian Church, seven “sins” were identified as being particularly deadly. These were Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Avarice (Greed), Gluttony and Lust. I place “sins” in quotations not because I question the Church’s judgement of these as being wicked, but because they are actually vices rather than sins. A sin is an evil act like murder, robbery, or lying. A vice is an evil character trait or habit – the opposite of a virtue which is a good character trait or habit. These seven obviously fall within the vice category, and in classical Christian moral theology are ordinarily contrasted with seven Christian virtues, but the name “Seven Deadly Sins” somehow became attached to the list, has the weight of centuries of prescription behind it, and, if it comes down to that, has a better ring to it than “Seven Deadly Vices.”

Dorothly L. Sayers, who was a mystery writer, Christian apologist, and medieval scholar in the early to mid twentieth century, gave an address to the Public Morality Council at Caxton Hall in Westminster, in 1941, entitled “The Other Six Deadly Sins.” The text of her address can be found a number of collections of her essays, including Creed or Chaos? and The Whimsical Christian. The six which are the topic of her talk are those other than Lust and the point of her discussion was that these six had come to be neglected and Lust overly emphasized in popular Christian teaching. “Perhaps the bitterest commentary” she said “on the way in which Christian doctrine has been taught in the last few centuries is the fact that to the majority of people the word ‘immorality’ has come to mean one thing and one thing only.”

Ironically, in traditional Christian theology, as reflected in Dante Aligheri’s Divine Comedy - of which, incidentally, Sayers produced a translation – Lust was considered to be the least of the seven. Pride – the sin of Lucifer and the original source of all other sin - was considered to be the worst. The order in which I listed them in the first paragraph of this essay goes from worst to least – traditionally, the Church would list from least progressing to worst, beginning with Lust. As Virgil leads Dante up the mountain of Purgatory in the Purgatorio, they encounter the faithful being purged of their vices in order of their seriousness, beginning with lust and ending with pride.

If Dorothy L. Sayers was right in saying that popular Christian ethics had come to focus too heavily upon Lust to the exclusion of other sins, and she was, there is now a tendency in certain circles to make Avarice into the sum and total of all evil. Sayers used the term Covetousness for this vice. Both terms are now rather archaic but they are also more precise than the most common contemporary equivalent, Greed, which in its ordinary, everyday usage, includes Gluttony as well as Avarice. Avarice was the third least of the Seven Deadly Sins in traditional Christian ethics but those who seek to wed Christian theology to socialism often seem to consider it to be the worst. This is because they see Avarice as the driving force behind the capitalism they hate so much.

Whether Avarice actually is the force behind capitalism is debatable – much depending, of course, on how one defines capitalism. We will return to that momentarily. What is indisputable, however, is that Envy – traditionally, the second worst of the Seven Deadly Sins - is the force behind socialism. Nobody put it better than Sir Winston Churchill who said “Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery”. Envy is hate and resentment of other people because of what they have. It is the very essence of socialism.

Now to be fair a distinction needs to be made here. In North America an unfortunate tendency has developed to lump every law and every government program that is aimed at - whether effectively or not - bettering the conditions of the less advantaged under the label of socialism. This is not what the word socialism has historically meant and it is certainly not what Churchill meant by it in the above quotation. Indeed, laws and programs intended to better the conditions of the less advantaged have historically, often been introduced by conservatives, like Otto Von Bismarck in Germany, Benjamin Disraeli in the United Kingdom, and R. B. Bennett and John G. Diefenbaker in Canada for the purpose of combating socialism. In an interview with the Paris Review in the early 1970s, Anthony Burgess remarked that “to take socialism seriously, as opposed to minimal socialization (which America so desperately needs), is ridiculous”. This is the necessary distinction so let us borrow Burgess’ apt terminology for it. The laws and programs that comprise minimal socialization are not based upon Envy, but Envy is the essence of true socialism.

Socialism began in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and has been formulated in many different ways and has spawned many different movements which often bear little resemblance to one another.. Some socialists were anarchists who wanted to get rid of the state, others saw the state as the instrument by which their goals would be achieved. Some believed violent revolution was the path to their collectivist utopia, others insisted upon working peacefully and lawfully within the established system. Beneath all of these differences, what the various socialists had in common, is the idea that the private ownership of property is itself evil and unjust and that it is the source of most or all other evils and injustices in society. Originally, socialists proposed as a “solution” to this “problem” that private ownership be replaced by some form of collective or common ownership. Today, many, perhaps most, socialists have abandoned the advocacy of collective ownership in favour of a combination of confiscatory taxation, a heavily regulated market and an expansive welfare state that is far beyond anything that could be described as “minimal socialization”. What they have not abandoned is the basic idea of socialism that blame for the ills from which society suffers is to be placed on the “haves” for having so much. This hatred of the “haves” for having, continues to permeate all socialist rhetoric and it is precisely this attitude which the Church has traditionally condemned as the cardinal vice of Envy.

The relationship between socialism and Envy, therefore, is undeniable. Socialism is an ideology, and its basic concept reduces to Envy. If there is a relationship between capitalism and Avarice it is by no means as clear as this. Capitalism is an economic arrangement in which people own property on or in which commercial goods are produced (farms, mills, mines, factories, etc.), hire other people to work on or in that property, and market the goods, living off of the profit, that which they receive for the sale above what is necessary to cover the costs of operating their property. If some or even most capitalists (property owners) show Avarice in overcharging for their goods or underpaying their employees this does not mean that capitalism itself is based upon Avarice in the way that socialism is based upon Envy. (1)

Not only is the connection between socialism and Envy clearer and more fundamental than the connection, if any, between capitalism and Avarice, Envy is in the traditional teachings of the Christian Church the worse of the two vices. Let us consider why the Church traditionally ranked these vices in this way.

Avarice is similar to Lust and Gluttony in that it is a natural, God-given desire that has been perverted by excess into a vice. God, the Bible tells us, created man male and female, and ordered him to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. Sexual desire, therefore, in and of itself, cannot be the bad thing that the Bible and the Church condemn as Lust. Lust is sexual desire taken to a vicious excess. Similarly God created us so that we require sustenance and gave us an appetite for food. If we did not have that appetite we would starve to death, but when that appetite is indulged to excess it becomes the vice of Gluttony. If Lust is the perversion by excess of the good, natural, and God-given sexual appetite and Gluttony is the perversion by excess of the good, natural, and God-given appetite for food, Avarice is the perversion by excess of the good, natural, and God-given appetite to have material possessions.

Jesus said that all of God’s commandments could be summarized in the greatest two – to love God and to love our neighbour. It follows from this that all vices and sins must be defects in our love for God and other people. This tells us how the vice of Avarice is to be distinguished from the natural, God-given, desire for material possessions. It is not sinful to want “things”. If however, we put our trust in material wealth, looking to our possessions as our source of personal security, then we have failed to love God properly because we have committed idolatry by giving to our material possessions the faith that we owe our Creator. The desire to have – even to have more – is not in itself Avarice. It becomes Avarice when we look at others and think “I don’t want them to have any, I want it all for myself”.

Envy is a different sort of vice altogether. It is not a twisting or a perversion of a natural desire but consists entirely of ill will towards others.. Envy resents another for what he possesses. The resentment is based upon the fact that it is his and not mine regardless of whether I actually want it for myself or not. Envy wants to see what the other person has taken away from him even if oneself is not thereby enriched or benefited in any way. As Dorothy L. Sayers said of Envy:

Envy is the great leveller: if it cannot level things up, it will level them down; and the words constantly in its mouth are “My Rights” and “My Wrongs.” At its best, Envy is a climber and a snob; at its worst, it is a destroyer-rather than have anybody happier than itself, it will see us all miserable together.

It is closely related to Pride, which in the traditional view is the only one of the Seven worse than itself. Pride is the worst of the Seven because it is the true “Original Sin” in the sense that it was the first sin, the sin of Lucifer, the root from which all other sin sprang. If Pride is the root sin, Lucifer’s sinful attitude towards himself, the second sin, the first to grow out of the root of Pride in the heart of Lucifer was Envy, his sinful attitude towards his Creator.

The Church’s traditional ranking of the vices seems entirely right and sensible. Envy is the second worst after Pride because the two are inseparably intertwined, almost the same sinful attitude in two different aspects, Pride looking inward and Envy looking outward. They are satanic in the most literal sense of the word – the sins that brought about Lucifer’s fall – and thus the spring from which the tainted river of sin and vice flows. Avarice, like Gluttony and Lust, is a lesser vice, a natural, God given desire that has been twisted and taken to excess, by the corrupting influence of the root sins of Pride and Envy.

Thus traditional Christian theology sheds much light on the kind of modern theology that looks more sympathetically towards socialism, the heart of which is Envy, than towards capitalism, which socialists claim promotes Avarice. (2)

(1) This essay will probably come across as an apology for capitalism, which I suppose it is if we associate no other connotations with capitalism beyond the definition in the eighth paragraph. The term usually has other connotations of course. These include mass production, industrialization, urbanization, technology, progress, and basically all the concepts that are wrapped up in the word “modern”. I make no apology for a capitalism that includes these concepts, each of which I look upon with varying degrees of suspicion and disgust. These are as much a part of socialism, however, as they are of capitalism.

(2) Dorothy L. Sayers, whose speech “The Other Six Deadly Sins” I have referred to throughout this essay, said that “If Avarice is the sin of the Haves against the Have-Nots, Envy is the sin of the Have-Nots against the Haves.” While I understand why she would say this, I question it. Anybody who has worked or volunteered for an organization that distributes food, clothing, etc. to the Have-Nots and has had to try and prevent those who are ahead in the distribution line from hoarding everything from those who are behind them in the line, will know that Avarice or Greed is hardly an unknown vice among the Have-Nots. On a somewhat related note, V. S. Naipaul has the narrator of one of the stories in his In a Free State comment “But no, like all poor people they want to be the only ones to rise. It is the poor who always want to keep down the poor.” I would also suggest that if one wants to observe Envy, on a truly spectacular scale, one has to look among the Haves.


  1. I do get very irritated with American conservatives who label every government intervention or social program as 'socialism.' As you say, that is not very helpful.

  2. What do you mean by "socialization" please?

    1. Hi. Sorry for taking so long to answer. I've been in bed with the flu for most of the last couple of weeks. I borrowed the word "socialization" from Anthony Burgess. Here is the interview I was quoting if you want to see how he used it in full context: It is not how the word is usually used, but in this sense I think it would mean "basic social programs".

    2. Thank you. I understand now. I hope you feel better. I came down with a cold in late October and I swear it took 10 weeks for it to go away. But not all that uncomfortable. I once endured two bouts of the flu back to back. I lost five pounds off my ego.