Sins and Virtues

You may have heard of the “ seven deadly sins.” These seven sins, also called “cardinal sins” or “mortal sins” have elements rooted in greek philosophy and were later transformed into christian thought. In modernity these sins show up in a surprising amount of our media and pop culture.

Examples of references to these sins can be found in anime (Fullmetal Alchemist) film (the 1995 movie Seven) and even video games (Devil May Cry 3). Some references can be found in surprising places. Ever heard of Gilligan’s Island? The creator Sherwood Schwartz stated that he intended each of the characters to represent a cardinal sin. That puts the show in a much different perspective!

The sins have become all but entirely culturally ubiquitous. They can be identified, at least in part, by young and old alike. I distinctly remember in middle school taking a myspace quiz “What deadly sin are you?” and I know I am not alone in this. Or….maybe I am. Who knows. It was middle school. My point is, most of us can name at least one, if not all seven sins.

If, by chance, you are not aware of these sins they are as follows: Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, and Pride.

What brings this subject to mind is, surprisingly enough, the virtues. Those virtues being: Temperance, Chastity, Charity, Patience, Kindness, Diligence, and Humility.

Now, if you are very astute, you will have noticed something about these vices and virtues: they correspond with each other thematically. The theory behind the virtues is that each has a matching sin, which is exactly where the big seven come from. These virtues, also finding their roots in greek philosophy, are actually the predecessor to these cardinal and malignant sins, philosophically speaking. Surprise surprise!

The way these themes have naturally folded themselves into pop culture is no surprise. However, what I do find thought-provoking about these themes is that I, personally, have only really ever had exposure to the sin part of the deal. At least culturally speaking. It took me listening to a lecture on the Divine Comedy to realize that each sin had a corresponding virtue, and that the concept of universal virtues have their roots much deeper than the sins. Am I alone in this? I am going to wager a bet and say, probably not.

Maybe this says something about the state of media and culture today, or maybe it is simply a lack of oversight on my part. To be fair, the virtues and subsequent sins are (modernly) a primarily catholic idea. I grew up firmly Protestant, so maybe that has something to do with it. Or, perhaps sins are just “sexier” and sell more than the effervescent and morally rooted virtues ever could in pop culture.

Regardless of the cause, what I aim to do is to write a series on the Virtues in order to shed some light and further educate myself on this fascinating topic.

But first: a history lesson.

We know what a sin is, culturally. The word comes from a few sources, but the biblical version translates from the greek term Hamartia, meaning “to miss the mark.” Nowadays, it has much heavier connotations and generally means “An offense against religious or moral law” (Merriam-Webster). We are familiar with sin, but what exactly is a virtue? How did the two get so firmly juxtaposed to each other?

A virtue is a quality, and also a philosophy: a mode of living, if you will. The word comes from the latin word Vir meaning man, with variations being vertut and virtus both having very manly connotations of strength and valor. It was first used in its modern context, meaning “conformity to a standard of right” or “a particular moral excellence” (Merriam-Webster) in the 13th century.

The origins of the virtues were regarded by the greeks Aristotle and Plato to be Temperance, Wisdom, Justice, and Courage. In the greek myth of Hercules at the crossroads, our hero encounters the personifications of vice and virtue and is forced to make a choice between the two women and what they offer. Does he choose a life of expedience and pleasure (vice) or one of long-suffering and glory (virtue)? After much deliberation, he finally chooses virtue. This parable is an important fragment of culture which can be perhaps traced to our modern ideas of sin and virtue, and could explain why they are so intertwined.

While the themes of the virtues and the sins are heavily talked about in biblical scripture, there seems to be a few origins to the iconic seven sins and virtues we are familiar with today. There are sins that can be derived from the ten commandments, as well as a variety of other passages. Most notably, the virtues can be easily traced to the fruits of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Galatians 5: 22–23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”

The epic poem Psychomanchia , meaning “Battle of Spirits” or “Soul War” was written by the late roman christian Prudentius and seems to be one of the earliest written references to the list. This poem personifies the virtues and sins as women who battle each other.

Evagrius Ponticus, christian mystic and ascetic monk, writes of the “eight evil thoughts”. This, along with the poem Psychomanchia, are some of the first times the sins and virtues are compiled in one place. Later, his student would disseminate his writings including those regarding the evil thoughts to other members of the church. Pope Gregory I rearranged these eight thoughts and brought them to the public eye in the 6th century, where they flourished.

The virtue took on its sevenfold and distinctly theological form when medieval christian scholar Thomas Aquinas arranged them in the order that we are familiar with today. It’s to be assumed that these sins and virtues were culturally relevant for quite a while as the Psychomanchia influenced and was transformed into a genre of public entertainment called Morality Plays in the Middle Ages. Later we see a love for virtue embraced as a cultural value by the victorians. Even today’s fascination with the seven deadly sins should be seen as a cultural through-line to something tremendously old that is perhaps a fixture of human nature: a fascination with and need for morality, or moral standards.

Regardless of your religious or spiritual position, I think it is worth looking into these cultural concepts in order to learn from them. This is why I am embarking on this series.

To follow this series, feel free to follow this blog and subscribe to receive email notifications. I will be linking each post back to this one when they are eventually published for ease of use and cohesiveness. I really do hope you will join me on this fascinating journey.

That’s all for now!

JJC

Originally published at http://imperfectionfreak.wordpress.com on July 14, 2021.

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Imperfection Freak

Imperfection Freak

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A lifestyle blog detailing my expedition into slow living, poetry, wellness, spirituality, and motherhood.