Sin and Virtue: Week Four of Lenten Observance

Hieronymus Bosch's "The Seven Deadly Sins and the Last Four Things," Netherlands, ~1500
Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Seven Deadly Sins and the Last Four Things,” Netherlands, ~1500
"Seven Virtues," Francesco Pesselino Workshop, Florence, 1400's
“Seven Virtues,” Francesco Pesselino Workshop, Florence, 1400’s

Recently, one of my amazingly intelligent, thoughtful and, of course, beautiful nieces (I have five, plus four equally remarkable nephews) asked me which two of the seven deadly sins I was most likely to commit. After a brief period of recovery (Who asks questions like this? Why– thoughtful, intelligent, beautiful nieces, that’s who!), I confessed to pride (ya think?) and gluttony. I knew my answer even before she rattled off all seven for my consideration.

Shall we review, then, for your consideration?

The seven deadly sins, depicted by Hieronymus Bosch in the first painting above, are (from the bottom of the large circle–“the eye of God”–and proceeding clockwise): wrath, envy, greed, gluttony, sloth, extravagance (later called lust) and pride.

You may be surprised that the “seven deadly sins” are not described as such in the Bible. According to (clearly a high-ranking source of biblical scholarship):

Proverbs 6:16-19 declares, “There are six things the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to him: 1) haughty eyes, 2) a lying tongue, 3) hands that shed innocent blood, 4) a heart that devises wicked schemes, 5) feet that are quick to rush into evil, 6) a false witness who pours out lies, and 7) a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.” However, this list is not what most people understand as the seven deadly sins.


According to Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century, the seven deadly sins are as follows: pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, and sloth. Although these are undeniably sins, they are never given the description of “the seven deadly sins” in the Bible.

Personally, I’m partial to the Old Testament version (although I’m a little confused about what God hates vs. what he finds detestable). In any case, the transgressions in Proverbs, reduced to single word entries like sins, might be as follows: pride (shoot, can’t get away from that one), deceit (x 2, I think), violence/murder, spite and disloyalty (also x 2, in my estimation).

Is there a philosophical difference here? Pride-deceit-volence-spite-disloyalty vs. pride-envy-gluttony-lust-anger-greed-sloth?

Maybe as an angry Catholic I’m predisposed to such an analysis, but I can’t help but feel judgment about matters of the body in the New Testament version of the deadliest sins. This would include gluttony and lust, certainly, but maybe also sloth. Envy seems to me to be a fairly petty transgression. And anger is a whole lot better than suppressing anger, as far as I can see.

There’s something a little more…what? Lofty? Godly?…in abiding by the basics, as is done in Proverbs. If we’re going to call out the worst of sins, isn’t it better to stick to violation of moral tenets like truth and loyalty and kindness than to prey on simple human weakness?

But then there’s still that snarky question of pride, isn’t there?

One scriptural definition of pride might be that it is a failure to accept and perceive the reality of our utter dependence on God. This is in the “Pride goeth before the fall” vein, and harps, I think, on the inevitably discovered–even by the proudest among us–inability of human beings to control fate. Eventually, we all discover that shit happens and that not money, power, intelligence or effort can save us from it. And ultimately, of course, we die–which kind of makes pride even more pathetic.

Or does it?

As a last ditch attempt to justify, or at least to ameliorate the negative connotations of pride (I am a writer, after all: my work lives in pride, in overestimating the value of my words, in hoping others also place excessive value in my words) I’d like to take a look at the second illustration above, the one depicting the Seven Virtues. (Let’s just ignore, for now, that only women are the beasts of burden to virtue, while only men are allowed to carry books. Topic for another 3,000 posts.)

According to Wikipedia:

In the Catholic catechism, the seven Christian virtues or heavenly virtues refers to the union of two sets of virtues. The four cardinal virtues, from ancient Greek philosophy, are prudence, justice, temperance (meaning restriction or restraint), and courage (or fortitude). The three theological virtues, from the letters of St. Paul of Tarsus, are faith, hope, and charity (or love). These were adopted by the Church Fathers as the seven virtues.

Prudence is “the practice of showing care and thought for the future;” temperance, “moderation or self-restraint.” I see both of these as sort of anti-pride, but neither exactly skewers pride, either. In fact, none of these seven virtues is absolutely anti-pride.

I guess I’m not entirely sure…well, about God, for one, but also whether God hates human pride. If you gave someone a gift, wouldn’t you want them to take good care of it? Wouldn’t you want them to celebrate it, too–not so much as “Look at how great I am?” but “Look at all I can do with what I am given?” And what if it’s not all in the “Look, look,” but more about the “Christ Almighty, how can I best use this bounty of gifts to make a life worth living?”

Prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope, love: I don’t know about you, but I’m going to forget the sins and try worshipping at the altar of the seven virtues for a while.

I’ll just be sure to avoid the haughty eyes.







  1. Another good one Donna!
    I may print this and pull it out whenever tempted toward self-flagellation at noting my “human weakness” sins of envy and sloth. Or at least I call it sloth when I don’t deem myself as hard-working and accomplished as my peers. Gah! Envy it is!
    Anyway, my take away from your great analysis is to focus on what we do well and continue looking for ways to be useful for the kingdom of God and to stop obsessing over our foibles. Amen and amen.
    Also, the bit about “overestimating the value of my words and hoping others also place excessive value in my words,” dear Donna, THANK YOU for letting me know I’m not alone in those thoughts. Oh shit. Maybe I struggle with pride too. :-p

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