CITY OF WORDS

For as long as we have been hu­man, we have enu­mer­ated and ranked our wrong­do­ings

Geist - - News - Al­berto Manguel

Count­ing Sins

We are noth­ing if not num­ber­ing crea­tures. Lists, li­braries and codes, cat­a­logues and year­books, ranks and hi­er­ar­chies give us the il­lu­sion of a map­pable uni­verse and a sem­blance of knowl­edge. With charts in hand we can tell that the el­e­ments that com­pose the cos­mos are 98, that Ham­let’s melan­cho­lia is num­ber F32.3 in the in­ter­na­tional Clas­si­fi­ca­tion of Men­tal and Be­havioural Dis­or­ders pub­lished by the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion in Geneva, that only nine over­worked Muses watch over our en­tire imag­i­na­tion.

Even our errings are, fol­low­ing this urge, not only ac­count­able but count­able. In the thir­teenth cen­tury, Saint Thomas Aquinas, fol­low­ing the ob­ser­va­tions of Saint Gregory, de­ter­mined that of all our sins, only a cer­tain hand­ful are truly nox­ious. Like the mar­vels of the world, like the sor­rows and joys of Mary, like the days of cre­ation, like the sol­diers against Thebes and the hon­our-seek­ing Sa­mu­rai, like the ages of man, like the Ja­panese Gods of Luck, like the hills of Rome and the seas of the known world, the sins that ac­cord­ing to Aquinas we must call “deadly” be­cause they poi­sonously give rise to oth­ers, are merely seven: Pride, Cov­etous­ness, Glut­tony, Lust, Sloth, Envy and Anger. In Dante’s geography of Hell, the list of sins varies, and the sin of trea­son, em­bod­ied in Satan, ranks first in dead­li­ness and is trapped in the ice of Hell’s very cen­tre. Lust, for the car­nal Dante, barely de­serves a sec­ond place.

For the ear­lier church, the sins were eight. In the fifth cen­tury, for in­stance, the as­cetic John Cas­sian ig­nored the sin of envy and in­cluded in­stead the sins of vain­glory and de­jec­tion. Closer to our time, the poet Edith Sitwell

de­manded that hypocrisy be counted as the dead­li­est sin of all. In the six­teenth cen­tury, the Ger­man re­former Philipp Me­lanchthon ar­gued that the num­ber of sins didn’t mat­ter: what mat­tered was that all sin was deadly be­cause it in­ca­pac­i­tated the heart. For Me­lanchthon, a sin was more than an ex­ter­nal act of evil: it was a rot that reached be­yond rea­son into man’s will and emo­tions, cor­rupt­ing the roots and mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble to do good.

Cen­turies ear­lier, Saint Au­gus­tine, hav­ing some­what vaguely de­fined sin as “a word, deed or de­sire against the eter­nal law,” noted that sin, in or­der to be sin­ful, must stem from our own will. “Un­less sin is vol­un­tary,” wrote Au­gus­tine, “it is no sin at all.” For Au­gus­tine, sin con­tra­dicted Na­ture; for Aquinas, it con­tra­dicted the Law. Na­ture, for Au­gus­tine, was not to be con­tra­dicted, a con­cept that led him to see sin as op­posed to “that which is nat­u­ral.” The Marquis de Sade (who tac­itly agreed with Aquinas) re­futed Au­gus­tine’s ar­gu­ment by show­ing the hor­rific char­ac­ter of that which we call nat­u­ral.

For the pre-chris­tian Greeks, sin was not nec­es­sar­ily a de­lib­er­ate vi­o­la­tion of the rules set out by the gods, but a fail­ure to achieve the true ex­pres­sion of one’s self as part of the com­plex uni­verse. Like some­one suf­fer­ing from a sick­ness of the soul, the sin­ner’s pun­ish­ment came from that very sick­ness; each in­di­vid­ual wrought his or her own hell that no other could share. To Sartre an­nounc­ing “Hell is other peo­ple,” Oedi­pus replies “Hell is in me,” and Orestes is pur­sued by pri­vate fu­ries that are for him a Hell that even his sis­ter Elec­tra can­not see. For these an­cients, a seven-part clas­si­fi­ca­tion of sins generous enough to ac­com­mo­date the whole of hu­mankind would have seemed in­com­pre­hen­si­ble: Clytemnes­tra and Medea don’t share the same in­fer­nal realm. For us, af­ter Hiroshima, af­ter the Holo­caust, af­ter eth­nic cleans­ings, the seven deadly sins fall short of their colos­sal call­ing. The story of the Holo­caust, for ex­am­ple, can­not be di­vided by seven.

On a smaller scale, how­ever, as an at­tempt to cat­e­go­rize the con­vo­lu­tions of bad be­hav­iour, the set­ting aside of seven sins for our ter­ror has, through­out the ages, in­spired less ap­pre­hen­sion than cu­rios­ity. To de­ter from its at­trac­tion, the­olo­gians com­piled a par­al­lel list of seven virtues—faith, Hope, Char­ity, Jus­tice, For­ti­tude, Pru­dence and Tem­per­ance—but, as with most se­quels, the sec­ond septet was far less suc­cess­ful and, ex­cept as fe­male names in Spain and in Vic­to­rian Eng­land, the virtues found lit­tle for­tune in the imag­i­na­tion of the world. The seven sins, how­ever, flour­ished. For­mal­ized into a use­ful vade mecum of il­licit con­duct, they be­came an inspirational source for count­less gen­er­a­tions of artists and writ­ers from Jean de Meun and the Ro­man de la Rose to David Fincher and his blood­thirsty film Seven, all of whom ex­plored the de­grees and hues of these vast for­bid­den ar­eas, the tan­gled forests of Cov­etous­ness and the burn­ing deserts of Anger, and jus­ti­fied in their own way Saint Au­gus­tine’s as­ser­tion that hu­man so­ci­ety is not as much an assem­bly of saints as a school for ac­com­plished sin­ners.

Per­haps ev­ery one of our ac­com­plish­ments and choices de­ter­mines our perdi­tion or sal­va­tion in the eyes of whim­si­cal gods. In her “Re­port on Heaven and Hell,” Silv­ina Ocampo con­cluded: “The laws of heaven and hell are flex­i­ble. Whether you’re sent to one place or the other de­pends on the slight­est de­tail. I know peo­ple who be­cause of a bro­ken key or a wicker bird­cage have gone to hell, and oth­ers who for a sheet of news­pa­per or a glass of milk went to heaven.”

Al­berto Manguel is the award-win­ning au­thor of hun­dreds of works, most re­cently (in English) Cu­rios­ity, All Men Are Liars and A His­tory of Read­ing. He lives in Buenos Aires, Ar­gentina, where he serves as di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Li­brary. Read more of his work at al­berto.manguel.com and geist.com.

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