Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Seven Deadly Neuroses

The dirty little secret of religious people – a whole list of sins they commit without even realizing it

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One of the most popular subjects for books about morals is the Seven Deadly Sins. This taxonomy of vices, first drawn up by Eastern Christian monks, is such an accurate device for diagnosing human behavior that even atheists like to read such books – and write them, too. One of the best was penned by the broad-minded humanist, Henry Fairlie, who didn’t choose that topic out of deference to old monks, but because he found their insights useful. Other fine books on the subject were penned by Solomon Schimmel, Fulton Sheen, Robert Barron and George Rutler. I added to this pile myself, with The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins.

But I decided to do something a little different. I adopted something I found in St. Thomas Aquinas’ treatment of these evils. Yes, he laid out the sin, and the “opposing virtue.” But as a good Aristotelian, he knew that moral reasoning is not a one dimensional line that runs from right to left, with the sin at one extreme and the virtue at the other. Instead, he saw a triangle, with one kind of vice at one extreme, an opposing vice at the opposite pole (of the sort we’d nowadays call a “neurosis”), and above them, at the top of a pyramid, the virtue that looms as the “golden mean.”

Each deadly sin involves the abuse or perverted use of a good thing made by God. But there’s more than one way to abuse something, and typically one straightforward way for each of us (given our state in life) to use it well. To choose just the most crowd-pleasing example, let’s look at sex: One might indulge in the deadly sin of Lust, and engage in or obsess about illicit sex. Or if you’d mastered Chastity, you’d confine its use to its proper context, marriage. Or—and here’s the kicker—if you were consumed by fear of sin or disdain for fleshly creation, you might well conceive a phobia for the good thing God had made, and fall into the neurosis of Frigidity. Sexless marriages that end in divorce grow out of this particular vice. Celibates who look with contempt upon the married are equally guilty.

The same calculus applies to each of the other six deadly sins:

The Greedy have too strong an attachment to the good things that come from hard work and wise stewardship. The Generous love wealth in due proportion, and have mastered the art of sharing it. The Prodigal, on other hand, treat wealth with jaded disdain and lavishly waste it—certain that more will somehow come to them down the pike.

Gluttony amounts to consuming fleshly pleasures like food or wine in the wrong quantities or the wrong way—and it doesn’t matter if you’re a sucker for quantity or quality. A sane Temperance keeps every appetite in check by the force of reason and self-restraint—while gnostic Insensibility learns to see food as interchangeable nutrition units and wine as evil in itself.

At the opposite pole from deadly Wrath is not holy Patience, but masochistic Servility, which teaches us to let aggressors win and bullies triumph, whatever the cost to the next victim that blunders into their paths.

Sloth is not so much a sin of laziness but of apathy, of the sort that can lead to despair. The Diligent learn how to apply themselves with sane resignation, and a realist’s appreciation of their limitations and weaknesses—while Fanatics hurl themselves headfirst into walls, torment the people who love them, and if they don’t blow themselves up, they burn out and slump into… Sloth.

Vainglory teaches people to preen themselves and be proud of nothing real, or nothing for which they really deserve any credit—for instance, they’re proud to be pretty or white or tall. You can counter this vice by the starkly honest practice of Humility, which takes a frank account of one’s actual pluses and minuses. Or you can panic at the prospect you might, just might, be proud—and learn to rip yourself to little, despairing shreds through Scrupulosity. (That was the sin that goaded Martin Luther to leave the priesthood.)

The opposite of Envy, the devil’s own sin which hates the good for being good, is not the large-souled virtue of Magnanimity, but the timid, vacuous sin called Pusillanimity—the kind of thing that drives a servant to bury his master’s treasure in the yard. So the opposite of starkly ugly modern religious art is accidentally ugly, cloying devotional art. Good religious art that can find beauty in our fallen state transcends them both, because its creators have stretched their souls and refined their techniques.

Much of the trouble and most of the self-torturing craziness we find in religious circles comes less from people sunk in deadly sins – though we’ve got our share of those – than from well-meaning people who have carelessly overreacted to a sin by embracing the opposite vice, just to be on the safe side. (For a sobering example, recall how the Church Father Origen dealt with lust by “cutting off” the sin at its root.) Perhaps the reason we see so much mediocrity and neurotic backbiting in faithful Christian circles is that we’ve lost sight of St. Thomas, and his awareness that virtue is complex, fragile, and typically active. We must work to form ourselves rightly, pray for good guidance, and use the minds God gave us to figure out – in the light of reason – what God really wants of us. It might not be exactly what you expect. He’s full of surprises.

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