The image below is cropped from Death of the Miser by Hieronymus Bosch, a 15th century painter in the Netherlands. Little is known about Bosch, other than that he did rather well in life. His paintings are frequently religious in theme and often bizarre. He also had a way of populating his works with creepy demons from his imagination, and you’ll find some in the scene below. Clearly it’s a bad moment for the Miser — Death is coming in the door and though the Miser’s guardian angel is trying to direct his attention to the crucifix at the window, the Miser’s hand still grasps at the bag of gold offered him by a weird fish-faced demon. This is Avarice, one of the Seven Deadly Sins.
Ever hear of the Seven Deadly Sins? Probably. Can you list them? Probably not. If you also asked Why should I care? you’re in grave danger of cultural ignorance, which isn’t a sin but merely a deep personal flaw. Here’s the list, starting with the worst: Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Greed, Gluttony, and Lust.
The concept of Seven Deadly Sins was popularized and woven into European culture in Medieval times and though its importance has certainly faded it’s still part of our European, and now Western, Christian cultural inheritance. There’s no absolutely authoritative list nor is there a wholly agreed upon order and, to be frank, the meaning of the words, what behaviors they embrace, has changed over time. But let’s do our best and not quibble.
The list we’re using is the one used by the 13th / 14th century poet Dante Alighieri in his great Divine Comedy. Dante’s amazing poem is a first-person account in which Dante himself, accompanied by the spirit of Virgil, walks down through Hell and up through Purgatory and, regretfully leaving the pagan Virgil behind, he eventually sails into Heaven and God’s presence. So this list must be as authoritative as any you’ll find.
The sins are deadly in the sense that they may kill the life of God in the soul and thereby threaten the sinner with eternal damnation. If eternal damnation isn’t one of your cool concepts, you can look at the list simply as a compilation of bad behavior. No one will love you if you’re a proud, envious, angry, lazy, greedy, gluttonous, lecher.
There’s always been disagreement about how to rank most of these seven sins, but Pride seems to top everyone’s list. Overwhelming Pride, you recall, was what drove Lucifer, the brightest of angels, to rebel against God. The 17th century Protestant poet, John Milton, wrote Paradise Lost, an epic that has some great scenes featuring the rebellion in Heaven. When your opponent is God, the odds are truly stacked against you and you may wonder if Lucifer really thought he had a chance of taking over Heaven. In any case, he was thrown from that high place, fell for three days and nights and landed in Hell where, in fact, he made himself at home. Both Dante and Milton are experts on the subject of God, sin and hell. Milton quotes the fallen angel Mammon as saying that it’s “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven”
And then there’s that episode in the Garden of Eden. The Serpent, you remember, ruined the famously weak-willed couple by telling Eve that if she and Adam ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge “your eyes shall be opened and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” It sure is tempting to be like the gods. So again it was Pride, the desire to be higher up, even if it’s forbidden by God, that causes a catastrophe.
When Dante enters hell and starts his descent he finds that hell is constructed rather like a large sports stadium. No, Dante doesn’t use that comparison, but if haven’t gotten around to reading the poem, that image will give you a good sense of Hell’s geography. Hell has concentric circles that funnel downward; the least sinful souls are in the topmost circle, and as you descend from level to level you encounter worse and worse sinners. The lowest pit of hell is actually frozen over — the sinners down there committed sins of cold-blooded intellect. Up near the top, where the sinners are less sinful, Dante meets Paolo and Francesca, a hot-blooded couple who succumbed to Lust. As punishment, the errant lovers are blown this way and that by winds that mimic gusts of erotic passion. Pride, arrogant pride, is the worst of the Seven Deadly Sins and you can sometimes see it on grand display during campaigns for political office. Lust, on the other hand, is the least deadly. There may be some consolation in that.