Sunday, March 14, 2010

Seven Deadly Somethings

Recently I found that Mahatma Gandhi had identified what he called "Seven Social Sins":

1. Commerce without morality
2. Politics without principle
3. Wealth without work
4. Pleasure without conscience
5. Education without character
6. Science without humanity
7. Worship without sacrifice

What a powerful indictment of our culture! In particular, items 1-4 could function as a complete explanation of our latest economic troubles.

I wrote a weekly column for three years, from January 2007 through December 2009 for a local newspaper. In all of those columns, perhaps the most popular was one from 2007 called "The Deadly Sins are now Virtues." I'll quote some of it here:

A few years ago I read Kevin Phillips’ Wealth and Democracy and a passage has stuck with me ever since. A research firm called SRI International had written that what were once the “seven deadly sins”—pride, gluttony, envy, sloth, greed, lust, and wrath—are capitalism’s virtues.

I think this is a profound observation about our culture. For some time now I have felt there is a flaw in capitalism but struggled to find a way to express it, and this may be it.

Early in its history the Christian Church developed a classification system for sins: some were minor and could be forgiven easily but others were “mortal”; these carried the threat of eternal punishment. These mortal sins are the seven deadly sins and were obviously extremely serious transgressions...

What do we think of these “sins” today? Are they virtues to us?

Let’s face it: our economy couldn’t function without gluttony. The whole basis of our economic system is constant and increasing consumption. The first thing that might come to mind with gluttony is overeating. Most of us do our share of that, and it seems the entire American food industry is busy thinking up new things for us to eat and drink. We are also constantly bombarded with new products that we never heard of but all of a sudden can’t live without. Capitalism’s theme: more, more, more.

Greed is enshrined as a necessary component of a capitalist society. I read a book a few years ago (unfortunately I can’t remember its title), which argued the genius of capitalism is that it harnesses people’s survival instincts, which are inherently selfish. In other words being selfish actually makes the economy work. How lovely!

What would music videos, movies, television, and advertising do without lust? Sexual desire is one of the main foundations of our media culture.

Certainly many of us are guilty of sloth in the medieval sense of neglecting our relationship with the Divine. But I would imagine that most people would say sloth is one sin they can’t be accused of in the modern sense of the word: statistically, Americans work harder than people in any other developed country. However, sloth is many people’s goal in life. The ideal rich and famous lifestyle involves a whole lot of doing nothing. Recently I watched the TV series “Brideshead Revisited” and the sloth of the wealthy was incredible. These rich people did nothing except lounge around, hunt foxes, and dress for dinner.

Envy is another engine driving the economy. The TV show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” perhaps typifies this sin/virtue, but the entire celebrity worship culture is an envy-machine.

Wrath, or anger, might seem on the surface to be the one sin that is still a sin, but not really. Modern psychology teaches that it isn’t healthy to bottle up anger, we need to express our rage, there is such a thing as healthy anger, etc.

Today it is believed that without pride in self you cannot be healthy. Pride is currently defined as “a sense of one’s own proper dignity or value; self-respect.” We’re told to have pride in ourselves, our school, our town, our country. We’re positively bulging with pride.

Before I started writing this I didn’t know there was an opposing set of “seven heavenly virtues”: faith, hope, charity, fortitude, justice, temperance, prudence. Imagine an economic system built on these—maybe hard, but surely not impossible!

The Medieval Church also posited remedies for the seven deadly sins. Humility cures pride. Kindness cures envy. Abstinence cures gluttony. Chastity cures lust. Patience cures wrath. Liberality cures greed. Diligence cures sloth.

I can envision a future in which our economy is based on kindness and liberality. Can you?

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