CITY OF WORDS
For as long as we have been human, we have enumerated and ranked our wrongdoings
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.