‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for… I agree with the second part,’’ says the ageing detective in Seven, paraphrasing Ernest Hemingway as the movie reaches its grisly conclusion.
The 1995 film starring Morgan Freeman explored the concept of the seven deadly sins as a frightening exemplar of the worst excesses of human behaviour. It points us to a nightmare scenario resulting from a softening in our attitude to sinning and the lack of judgment imposed on it. It spawned a genre, with other movies such as Saw, in which disturbed psychopaths take up the slack left by a too tolerant society to wreak vengeance on the morally sloppy.
Such films, while gory, speak to our inner need to impose moral order where there is none. For sin is disappearing as a concept, to be replaced by a range of civic freedoms, inclusivity and self-expression. So much so that as we enter Lent, resolved to practise moderation, it’s a struggle to think of something to give up that society still frowns on.
Here’s a recap: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Just saying them out loud feels like it will earn you a telling off from the Commission For Equality and Human Rights. But from Dante’s Inferno to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the list has permeated Western culture for hundreds of years, and as far as I can see, served us well by giving us benchmarks to aim for, or rather avoid. It needn’t mean we rack ourselves with guilt in pursuit of perfection, but at least we have a useful checklist of human traits that can become dangerous if allowed to run riot.
It is precisely because they are so psychologically powerful that many Twelve Step treatment programmes still use the seven sins as a way of helping addicts identify which self-seeking ‘‘defects of character’’ have made them a hazard to themselves and those around them.
For Catholics, sinning is a big part of our theological tradition, of course. Some say the seven deadlies post-date the Bible. But in the Book of Proverbs 6:16-19, it states: “These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.”
And in Galatians 5:19-21 the Apostle Paul warns: ‘‘The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.’’
All clear then? Well, no. Not any more. Fast forward to 2016 and Kate Moss is starring in a ‘‘sizzling’’ ad campaign with other supermodels posing as personifications of the seven deadly sins. Moss sprawls on her back on a scarlet throne in lewd underwear posing as “lust”. And in an accompanying article, the reader is informed how they can buy her red knickers.
The campaign itself is a personification of pride and greed. But the concept of sin as something glamorous to be admired, a selling point, is the really degenerate thing.
Indeed, you could take each of the sins and show not just how we have ceased to see that particular defect as wrong, but how we have come full circle to applaud it.
When we tell children to be proud of themselves for just taking part we call this bolstering self-esteem. Later, as teenagers they are encouraged by their favourite stars to buy hairspray because they’re worth it. And when they get on to The X Factor, they all parrot ‘‘I’m just so proud of myself! It’s been an amazing journey!’’ and other self-aggrandising guff, as they are voted off to hysterical applause for not being able to sing.
Plastic surgery, fad diets, dental veneers – all used to be optional acts of vanity. Now they are routinely cited as essential. I recently told a friend I didn’t want Botox only to have her snap that I should be ashamed for letting myself go. Pride is not a sin. It is a sign of self-respect.
Meanwhile, greed is still good. We may not like bankers in our age of austerity. But what about false whiplash claims, or the estimated £1.6 billion stolen annually by benefit cheats so they can stay at home and not work? Yes, there are those who need help and should get it. But why do we froth with self-righteous fury whenever ministers suggest we should clamp down on bogus claimants as this takes money from the desperate?
Let’s call it what it is. From big firms taking assets offshore to those playing the National Lottery in the hope of winning an obscene sum of untaxed money, rich and poor pursue the same bent dream. We want something for nothing. It’s greed and sloth institutionalised.
When it comes to wrath, the self-help books are united. ‘‘Get angry’’, say the New Age therapists, while all over Twitter the masses bay for blood and mob rule prevails. As for gluttony, that’s a branch of medicine called bariatrics with NHS staff under orders not to use the term obese, never mind fat, to describe any 20-stone patient who requires specialist equipment to move because they have eaten too much.
Yes, I know I’m sounding judgmental. It’s deliberate. I’m exploring a way of looking at excessive conduct that has gone out of fashion. I’m frowning on behaviour that is not always illegal but which used to be seen as immoral.
Where the law doesn’t always clamp down, but religion used to, the edges are becoming blurred. A side effect of equality legislation is that the state won’t let religion do its job any more. Eventually, the lines will blur until we become so unable to make moral choices that we’ll have to be monitored at all times. Cars will be fitted with sensors to stop them speeding. Perhaps a Minority Report-style policing system will detect and imprison those likely to commit crime before they do so.
If at that point man is offered a revival in the concept of sin as the price of having his freedom to make moral choices returned, I would like to think he would take it.
Melissa Kite is a journalist and author
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