Sin is a funny thing, if one can say such a thing, for the deeper it goes the more mundane it gets. But most of the time we are so caught up on looking at the big sins that we fail notice the myriad of little missteps that lead us into the big ones. Somewhere along the way the unthinkable has come within reach and has a million justifiable reasons that litter the path behind.
Some segments of modern Christianity propose the rather obnoxious truism that sin is sin, meaning that any sin is full-stop as bad as any other sin, thereby leveling the moral landscape. Of course, even though people often say this they obviously don’t really believe that something like telling a half-truth is as bad as murdering your wife.
St. Thomas Aquinas notes that the Stoics and certain heretics held to this opinion, since they considered privation only as simple; for example, darkness is a privation of light and in this privation nothing remains of the opposite (in this case, light). In this manner of privation there is no such thing as more or less. Hence:
For there is a simple and pure privation, which consists, so to speak, in “being” corrupted; thus death is privation of life, and darkness is privation of light. Such like privations do not admit of more or less, because nothing remains of the opposite habit; hence a man is not less dead on the first day after his death, or on the third or fourth days, than after a year, when his corpse is already dissolved; and, in like manner, a house is no darker if the light be covered with several shades, than if it were covered by a single shade shutting out all the light. (ST, I, II, 73, 2)
But Aquinas notices another form of privation, one which is probably more insidious for its oft-times subtlety: that which consists in “becoming corrupted:”
There is, however, another privation which is not simple, but retains something of the opposite habit; it consists in “becoming” corrupted rather than in “being” corrupted, like sickness which is a privation of the due commensuration of the humors, yet so that something remains of that commensuration, else the animal would cease to live: and the same applies to deformity and the like. Such privations admit of more or less on the part of what remains or the contrary habit. For it matters much in sickness or deformity, whether one departs more or less from the due commensuration of humors or members. The same applies to vices and sins: because in them the privation of the due commensuration of reason is such as not to destroy the order of reason altogether; else evil, if total, destroys itself… (ST, I, II, 73, 2)
Insofar as one can become corrupted, the corrupting nature of this second mode of privation is this: little sins can quickly lead to bigger ones. Very few of us suddenly decide to kill someone or become addicted to pornography or cheat on our spouse or whatever other really bad thing one would want to mention. Rather, the usual path is to get there inch by inch, compromise by compromise. The ‘big’ sins far more often catch us unaware because they have become so familiar. As C.S. Lewis writes in the Screwtape Letters:
Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters)
It is therefore with good reason that certain sins have gained the distinction of being deadly sins. They are:
In classical jargon the deadly sins are referred to as the cardinal sins. The terms deadly and cardinal can give the impression that these are the ‘big’ sins, but in reality they usually tend to rate down fairly low on the hierarchy of sins.
The term cardinal comes from the Latin cardinalis which means principle. Etymologically, cardinalis flows from cardo, which refers to that around which something turns. An earlier usage appears to refer to the hinge of a door. As such, the cardinal sins are those around which other sins turn, the source from which other vices flow. Aquinas notes that:
Accordingly therefore, those vices are called capital, whose ends have certain fundamental reasons for moving the appetite; and it is in respect of these fundamental reasons that the capital vices are differentiated. (ST, I, II, 84, 4)
These sins are so deadly not simply in and of themselves but principally because the insidious nature of sin is that it tends to beget other sins. The deadly sins set one down the road to even greater sin, forming in the heart a habitual attachment which is incredibly difficult to sunder. The deadly sins make the tiny cuts that can bleed the soul dry. These cardinal sins can lull one into death, like the frog being boiled alive. All of a sudden one may realize what has happened, oblivious to the small steps that have led to this moment. Far too often the realization comes too late and there is no chance of escape.
The especially deadly aspect of the cardinal sins is that they arise directly from the appetite. The natural appetite desires good insofar as it is directed towards some good, but when not subordinated to reason the appetite can quickly run amok and lead the person into disaster. Deadly sins are therefore mainly disproportionate loves.
Things like gluttony and lust and sloth and envy all have some ostensible good to which they seek to attain; for example, gluttony takes the natural good of eating and drinking and forms a disproportionate attachment to it. Interestingly, gluttony can be just as much in a lack of the proper use of food (e.g., in starving oneself) as in the excess, for any disproportionate use is actually an excess since the appetite is not subordinated to the reason. Likewise, lust takes the natural good of sexual desire and holds it in disproportion to its natural end of procreation in matrimony. This sin is particularly vicious in that we are too easily led to think that such a natural and powerful desire justifies its use as far as the appetite desires, and in this sort of mindset we can readily perceive St. Paul’s discourse on the conflict between the flesh and the spirit:
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. (Romans 7:21-23 NRSV)
He continues this thought:
So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. (Galatians 5:16-17 NIV)
Our appetites are naturally unrestrained, but this does not make them an unrelenting evil in and of themselves. Much of the world during the nascent period of Christianity perceived the physical body (and thus its desires and appetites) as evil in and of themselves, the soul trapped within and (depending on one’s philosophy) subject to its travails. The Christian understanding of the body and its desires stands in marked contrast because God is the creator of both body and soul, and thus there is an intractable union between the two. In other words, we are meant to be joined- body and soul- in this way, and the original state of humankind was to have the reason and the appetite living in harmony.
The loss of original righteousness in the fall created dissonance between the will and the appetite. If the will and appetite are meant to be in harmony, this loss would be like playing badly out of tune or playing notes in a different key. It is not that the appetite is intrinsically evil, but rather that it is meant to be restrained, like musical notes on a staff. But if those notes have no structure or rhythm, all one is left with is noise, and noise that can quickly overtake any other melody. What was meant to form a harmony can instead create a cacophony.
In this manner every single thing we do and every single choice we make has the potential to lead us down the road to sin. The deadly sins do not seem so deadly in and of themselves, but they are- as the fiend Screwtape relates- the safest road to hell. When we are gradually lulled into greater and greater sin we can be deceived into thinking that nothing is wrong, that no one is getting hurt. But even worse we may begin to see our sin as something good, as something due us, and the road to hell becomes even more luxurious. The words of the prophet are apropos:
Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter. (Isaiah 5:20 NIV)
But just as there are cardinal sins, so there are also cardinal virtues. If cardinal sins are deadly, cardinal virtues are ‘lively’ in the sense of leading into and being the source of greater virtues and thus greater life. Virtue arises from the subordination of the appetite to reason, whereas sin arises from the appetite untethered to reason.
But one interesting thing is that virtue is not therefore necessarily opposed to the appetite but rather brings the appetite into order and by doing so allows it to function in proportion to its nature. What could be a deadly sin can actually become a way to move into greater virtue. Virtue can take the appetite and direct it towards a greater good, and by doing so bring about the consummation of the appetite’s desire. Far too often we settle for lesser goods, snacking on feces when we are invited to a feast.
Given that there is no such thing as moral neutrality, one is either diving deeper into sin or rising higher into virtue. The deadly sins can lead the soul into ruin inch by inch, making every choice we make one more step on the ladder to heaven or on the soft-padded road to hell.