The Eight Deadly Sins

The Eight Deadly Sins April 11, 2019
Jacob van Swanenburg – The Last Judgment and the Seven Deadly Sins /Wikimedia Commons

In the Western tradition, the seven deadly sins are listed as pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Each of these sins are deadly, not just because of the injustices involved with all of them, turning those who engage them away from the true good found with God, but also because those who fall for them find them encouraging and developing further sins, further acts of injustices, in their wake. They help form structures of sin which keep those touched by them turned away from the good, and therefore, away from truth and justice.

Because of the more universal promulgation of the Western (Latin) tradition in comparison to the Eastern (Greek and other non-Latin traditions), the Western presentation of the seven deadly sins is what most people call to mind when they hear discussions about “the deadly sins.”  However, it is important to note that the Western tradition came out of, and indeed, developed from, and Eastern monastic tradition, where the number of sins was listed as eight, and in that list, we find a slightly different presentation as to what those sins are. [1]Thus, in Eastern texts, the deadly sins are : 1 Avarice, 2 Gluttony, 3 Lust, 4 Sloth, 5 Despair, 6 Anger, 7 Vainglory,  and 8 Pride. Envy was not in the list, although it could be seen as coming out of and connected with avarice and lust (depending upon what kind of envy was suggested). Likewise, because of the similarity between vainglory and lust, the Western tradition put them together as one and the same, which is why they often are used as equivocal terms, even by those who understand the distinction between the two.[2]

While we tend to think of the deadly sins as separate, because they have their own distinguishing characteristics and temptations which we must fight, we must also recognize that they often work in tandem. The more we give in to a particular sin, the more likely we will give in to others which will reinforce that sin. We can find ourselves in a downward spiral of sin as we find ourselves engaging one of the deadly sins after another.

Thus, for example, we can give in to anger at someone, acting unjustly out of wrath; seeing ourselves so distraught from our anger, we can find ourselves giving in to despair, thinking we cannot control our anger, and therefore, we cannot do what is good and just. Thanks to the despair, we find ourselves seeking a way out of the pain and sorrow which comes with that despair, and so we can find ourselves giving in to those things which we think will give us pleasure, and so some limited, temporary forms of happiness, as suggested by gluttony or lust. Seeing ourselves turning further away from the good, we might give further in to sloth, thinking there is nothing we can do to combat our inclinations: they are who we are, and even if it means we act unjustly, harming others, who are we to think we can be different?

Or, we can find ourselves thinking highly of ourselves. We have done good. We think we deserve to be honored and respected for what we have done. People should listen to us and heed our wisdom. Here, pride and vainglory come together. When, however, we fail to get the desired effect, when people ignore us, or worse, revile us, we find ourselves growing angry, and so begin to overturn whatever good we have in that anger as we unjustly seek to harm those who we think ignore our greatness.

Likewise, we can begin with the “root of all evil,” the love of money. Why is it loved? Because of the goods people believe money can bring to them. Thus, St. Thalassios explains: “The amassing of money fuels the passions, for it leads to increasing indulgence in all kinds of sensual pleasure.“[3] We love money for the pleasure it can bring to us, and so the more we have, the more we are presented with temptations. We turn away from the common good as we pursue various inordinate pleasures, indeed, turn away from our own spiritual good and the virtues which we should follow. The more we acquire money, which might take a lot of work to do so, the more slothful we become, as we turn away from working out our own salvation.  And if someone were to accumulate a great amount of money, becoming wealthy, pride and vainglory easily follow, as they will be seen boasting in their riches. They will easily be lad to look down upon the poor and mistreat them, thinking money determines one’s worth, ignoring that true wealth is found in virtues which lie beyond all material wealth.  As such wealth is transient,  and will not follow us in our death, the poverty of spirit which lies behind avarice will eventually be revealed; one day, those who put their faith in material wealth will understand the words of the Psalmist: “”See the man who would not make God his refuge, but trusted in the abundance of his riches, and sought refuge in his wealth!” (Ps. 52:7 RSV). Hopefully it will not be too late.

Vices, all of them, are sins because of the injustices involved with them. They pervert the person who engages them, though the taint differs from those who see them and understand them to be vices to be overcome, and those who see them and think of them as virtues to pursue. The more discord, the more injustice a person commits, the more spiritually deprived (or worthless) they will be, not because their nature is evil, but because of the wounds they have done to themselves and their otherwise good nature. A person is called worthless, then, according to their deeds, and so long as they hold on to those deeds, they will suffer the consequences of their actions. That is, as long as they hold on to vices, they can be said to be beyond healing:

A worthless person, a wicked man, goes about with crooked speech, winks with his eyes, scrapes with his feet, points with his finger, with perverted heart devises evil, continually sowing discord; therefore calamity will come upon him suddenly; in a moment he will be broken beyond healing (Prov. 6:12-15 RSV).

Obviously, what is impossible for us is possible for God: what we cannot do ourselves, God can still do for us.  “Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25 RSV). We should never give in to despair and think we cannot be forgiven. We must understand our need for God. So long as we try to overcome our vices all by ourselves, as long as we let pride take control and make us think we do not need any help, the vices will keep coming, we will keep slipping from sin to sin, from injustice to injustice. Our hearts, attached to the vices, will encourage us to follow our inordinate desires, so that even the best of us, by ourselves, will find it is as if we are climbing out of a deep sand pit, where the sand keeps falling down as we try to climb up, pushing us back down to the bottom every time. We need to fight, we need to resist, and we can do some good when we do, but then we need the aid of God, who makes what is impossible possible, as if he lowers down a rope which will allow us to get out of the pit. Then, we can act by climbing out, without falling down.

Reflecting upon the deadly sins, the temptations and vices which we fall for, time and time again, will help us recognize them and hopefully help us cast them off from our lives. “Constant meditation,” Walter Hilton told us, “gives birth to knowledge; knowledge once engendered repels ignorance and gives birth to compunction; compunction once born puts sloth to flight and gives birth to devotion. Devotion in turn perfects prayer. “[4] We need to see what is holy and just, what is good, and that is God. Without God and his aid, we will not be able to overcome the bad habits which we have developed in our lives, but without the recognition of the harm they have done to us, and the harm which they will bring to us, it is easy for us to fall for them and to be turned away from the good which we truly desire. We all desire, after all, what is good: the deadly vices, the deadly sins, gives us false hopes, lesser goods. Once we see through them, even when we find ourselves tempted by them, we will be able to reject them and look for the greater good which they would otherwise hide.  This is why it is important to see them for what they are, to see the danger associated with them, to see the injustices which they cause, so that they do not need to divert us from God, who alone is able to offer us the good which truly satisfied, not for a limited time, but for eternity.

[1] Evagrius Ponticus (345-390) originally brought the eight together as eight deadly thoughts or temptations, with a special emphasis on how they represent temptations for ascetics. St. John Cassian, in his works, continued with the list which Evagrius presented, but turned them into actual vices instead of mere thoughts which we have to confront and overcome. The two, of course, are related, for giving in to the thoughts takes us to its related vice. For Evagrius, the key is to confront the thought before it turns into a vice. With Cassian, recognizing that the fight is with actual vices and not just thoughts, we find a more practical examination of the vices. Cassian’s writings influenced St. Benedict and the Benedictine communities, and through them, were taken up and revised by St. Gregory the Great, who provided established the tradition of the seven deadly sins for the West.

[2] Even when the distinction is recognized, it is easy to see how the two connect with each other as the main virtue which is used to oppose them, humility, is the same.

[3] St. Thalassios, “On Love, Self-Control and Life in Accordance with the Intellect,” in in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume Two. Trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, Kallistos Ware et. al. (London: Faber and Faber, 1990),309,

[4] Hugh of St. Victor, “On the Power of Prayer” in Writings on the Spiritual Life. A Selection of Works of Hugh, Adam, Achard, Richard, Walter, and Godfrey of St. Victor. Trans. Hugh Feiss OSB. Ed.  Christopher P. Evans (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2014),  333.


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