Recently Matthew Fox spoke at Jubilee, in Asheville. He spoke of an affliction of our time: “Couchpotatoitis.” He also used an old word for this condition, “sloth,” and it reminded me of an article I had written years ago:
When I read Kevin Phillips’ Wealth and Democracy a passage jumped out at me: A research firm called SRI International had written that the Catholic Church’s “seven deadly sins”—pride, gluttony, envy, sloth, greed, lust, and wrath—are capitalism’s virtues.
I think this is a profound observation. For a long time 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 Catholic 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.
In the Medieval era artists helped to warn Christians of the peril of committing one of these sins, for an example see “Seven Deadly Sins,” by Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1480, above). In Inferno (written around 1315), Dante Alighieri envisioned nine circles of Hell. Sinners condemned for the relatively less serious sins of the flesh (lust, gluttony, and avarice) were in the upper circles, while those condemned for sins of the spirit (sloth, anger, envy, and pride) were placed in the deepest circles of Hell.
Why did the Church consider these feelings so deadly? By looking at them in terms of relationship to God we can discover some answers. Three can be seen as choosing the material world over the spiritual: greed, gluttony, and lust all imply an unhealthy desire for more money or food or sex than the body needs.
The other four can be seen as sinning in thought against God. Envy means you desire something someone else has and you don’t—in other words you are saying God made a mistake in your creation. Wrath likewise implies a judgment that something is wrong with God’s creation. In medieval times sloth didn’t mean general laziness like we think today, it meant laziness towards the things of the spirit. Thus it was a rejection of God. Pride has been called the “deadliest sin.” Pride means wanting to set yourself above everyone, including God.
What do we think of these “sins” today?
Let’s face it: our economy couldn’t function without gluttony. The whole basis of a capitalist 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 appears to be a necessary component of a capitalist society. Proponents of capitalism argue that the genius of this system is that it harnesses people’s survival instincts, which are inherently selfish. In other words being selfish actually makes the economy work. How lovely!
Lust: what would advertising, movies, television, and music videos do without it? 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 people did nothing except lounge around, hunt foxes, and dress for dinner.
Envy is another engine driving the economy. The old TV show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” perhaps typifies this sin/virtue, but the entire celebrity worship culture is an envy-machine. We buy magazines and products that help us emulate our favorite star’s lifestyle, and we don’t increase taxes on the rich because we have the delusion we’ll be rich one day.
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. Wrath leads to violence and destructiveness, and it can be easily argued that the basis of capitalism is violence; it is inherently exploitative of humans and nature.
Pride is currently defined as “a sense of one’s own proper dignity or value; self-respect.” Today it is believed that without pride in self you can’t be healthy. We’re told to have pride in ourselves, our school, our town, our country, and, perhaps most of all, our possessions. We’re positively bulging with pride.
The Medieval Church 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.
Before I started writing this I didn’t know there was an opposing set of “seven heavenly virtues”: faith, hope, charity, fortitude, justice, temperance, and prudence. Imagine an economic system built on these—maybe hard, but surely not impossible!
Note: In 2008 the Vatican published an updated list of deadly sins for our globalized world:
1. “Bioethical” violations such as birth control2. “Morally dubious” experiments such as stem cell research3. Drug abuse4. Polluting the environment5. Contributing to widening divide between rich and poor6. Excessive wealth7. Creating poverty
A version of this article was published in the Highlands’ Newspaper on April 5, 2007 (p. 7).