Sins and Virtues

Throughout most of human existence, most people lived in small, scattered family-based groups called bands. The people in these bands spent virtually all of their lives among people they had known all of their lives. As a result, social relationships were negotiated face-to-face. If you saw a stranger in your territory, you might try to kill him before he killed you. Yet as human societies grew in scale, they needed to find ways to persuade people to get along with strangers. For this purpose, societies developed laws that were enforced by the powerful people within society. They also developed informal rules, such as customs, that helped to regulate social relationships among virtual strangers.

The concept of sin is a product of civilization. A civilization is a large, complex society with a cultural elite. The cultural elite serves two practical purposes. One is to dominate the natural environment. In particular, civilizations needed engineers who could control the flow of water through and around cities. Civilizations also needed laws that would help to regulate how strangers treated each other. Since the police power of the state was limited, the civilization’s rulers needed ordinary people to accept abstract concepts of good and evil, so that ordinary people would behave like civilized people. In other words, the society’s rulers needed to popularize the abstract concepts of truth and justice, and the related concepts of sin and virtue.

Ma’at was the ancient Egyptian goddess who represented truth, justice, order, and harmony. She prevented the universe from returning to chaos, and she judged the souls of the dead.

Ancient Egypt was a great civilization that developed along the banks of the Nile River. Egypt’s prosperity depended on the predictability of the Nile and the orderly and harmonious behavior of its citizenry. For that reason, the Egyptians developed the concept of Ma’at, which embraced the concepts of law, order, justice, and harmony. Ma’at was personified as a goddess who was responsible for regulating the behavior of the natural universe. She also set the standards of behavior for the other gods as well as for human beings. She was responsible for judging the souls of the dead. Ma’at’s opposite was the god Isfet, who represented lies, chaos, and violence.

The ancient Hebrews and the ancient Greeks were enormously influenced by ancient Egypt. In particular, they embraced the Egyptian idea that there were standards of behavior that human beings ought to follow. The Greek and Hebrew words that are translated as sin in English translations of the Bible are borrowed from archery. These words meant that an arrow has hit the target, but not in the bull’s-eye at the center. In other words, the person’s behavior has fallen short of perfection.

Seven Capital Sins and Heavenly Virtues

Greek philosophers attempted to define and categorize the different kinds of sin. During the Middle Ages, Roman Catholic theologians built on these ideas to develop a list of seven capital sins and seven heavenly virtues. You do not need to be Catholic or even religious to see the importance of these concepts. Theologians of other religions and secular ethicists have developed similar concepts. The heavenly virtues have worldly purposes: they teach you how to be a happy and prosperous member of a peaceful and prosperous society.

The word virtue came from the Latin word for manliness, or how a man ought to behave. For example, the ancient Greeks felt that a man should be a dependable citizen in wartime and a pleasant companion in peacetime. Eventually, the word virtue came to mean any good characteristic. In contrast, the word vice came from the word vitium, which is Latin for defect. Vices are bad behaviors. Someone who had many vices would be described as vicious.

The word capital refers to the head or source. To medieval Roman Catholic theologians, a capital sin was a form of self-worship that gave rise to bad behavior, as the headwaters of a river give rise to a river. The capital sins were also called deadly sins because they lead to the death of grace within a person. Each of the seven capital sins had its opposite in a heavenly virtue:

Capital Sin Heavenly Virtue
Pride Humility
Lust Chastity
Gluttony Temperance
Greed Charity or generosity
Sloth Diligence
Wrath Patience
Envy Kindness or benevolence

Pride and Humility

Pride (in Latin, superbia) was the worst of the seven deadly sins because it was considered to be the source of the rest. It is the excessive admiration of the self. People commit the sin of pride when they forget their own lack of divinity and refuse to acknowledge their limits, faults, or wrongs. The Greeks had a related concept called hubris, which meant dangerously corrupt selfishness. In particular, hubris consisted of acts, such as rape, in which a person gratifies himself by humiliating another person. Other concepts related to pride include vanity and vainglory. Vanity means excessive belief in one’s own abilities or attractiveness. Vainglory is unjustified boasting. People who are suffering from excessive pride may qualify for a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder.

Humility (humilitas in Latin) is the opposite of pride. Humility does not mean irrationally low self-esteem. (Irrationally low self-esteem can be a symptom of depression. It is also a feature of dependent personality disorder.) Instead, humility means that you understand your proper place. You recognize your flaws and shortcomings, and you show proper respect to those who outrank you in some way. For example, students must recognize their own ignorance, and they must respect the knowledge and wisdom of their teachers. Students who lack this humility are unlikely to learn much in school.

Lust and Chastity

Lust or lechery (luxuria in Latin) means uncontrolled desire. Lust could mean uncontrolled sexual desire, but it could also mean desire for money, power, etc. Lust is generally considered the least serious of the seven capital sins because sins of the flesh are less grievous than spiritual sins.

Chastity is the opposite of lust. It did not necessarily mean strict abstinence. Instead, it meant wholesome appetites. The Latin word castitas came from the word castus, meaning pure. Many people think that chastity means virginity, but the word originally meant that you did not engage in improper sexual activities. In other words, a person would not have premarital or extramarital sex. For Roman Catholic monks and nuns, this meant complete abstinence from sex. Some Eastern religions have similar rules.

Gluttony and Temperance

Today, we think of gluttony as eating too much food. However, gluttony (gula in Latin) originally meant taking more than your fair share of anything, especially to the point of waste. As a result, other people might have to go without. In other words, wanting more than is good for you is lust, but taking more than your fair share is gluttony.

In the United States, the word temperance came to mean abstinence from alcohol. However, temperance (temperantia) originally meant moderation or self-restraint. It could mean making reasonable sacrifices so that others can have what they need.

Greed and Charity

Greed (avaritia) is also known as avarice, cupidity, or covetousness. It means desire for objects and material wealth. In particular, it means a desire to get and to have more than you really need. Greedy people hoard things instead of sharing, and they take things that they do not deserve. Sometimes, they take things through trickery or even through violent acts.

Charity (caritas) or generosity is the opposite of greed. Faith, hope, and charity were regarded as the three theological virtues. Charity in that sense is sometimes taken to mean love, but Thomas Aquinas felt that it really means friendship. Charity and generosity mean that you are not tied down by your possessions but that you are willing to help other people by giving freely to them.

Sloth and Diligence

Sloth (in Latin, tristitia or acedia) means a failure to do what you are supposed to do. In other words, sloth leads to sins of omission. Sloth can imply laziness, such as failure to do your fair share of work. It can also imply a failure to act. As Edmund Burke wrote, All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

Diligence (industria) means hard work. Diligent people work hard, and they fulfill all of their responsibilities.

Wrath and Patience

Wrath (ira) means uncontrolled feelings of anger, rage, or even hatred. It can range in intensity from ordinary impatience to a self-destructive desire for revenge. Wrath can persist long after the person who was the target of the anger has died. As a result, wrath can give rise to feuds that last for generations. Note that wrath arises out of anger, which is one of the seven basic emotions. Wrath means that the anger is being allowed to have bad effects on behavior, rather than providing the motivation to achieve something good.

Patience (patientia) is the opposite of wrath. Patience means self-control under trying circumstances. A patient person tries to find peaceful, mutually acceptable solutions to conflicts.

Envy and Kindness

Envy (invidia) is similar to lust and greed in that it involves uncontrolled desire. Envy means that you are sad or resentful because someone else has something that you want, whether it is some sort of material possession or some trait. Envy is bad enough. Jealousy is worse. Envy means that you want something that someone else has. Jealousy means that you hate the person for having it.

Kindness (humanitas) is the opposite of envy. A kind person is concerned for others and pleased when they are doing well. A related concept is benevolence, which means that you wish to do something good for someone else.