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One common criticism of the theory of evolution that we hear from the Creationists complains that teaching children that they evolved from animals inhibits their moral growth. After all, they ask, if we came from animals, why would we not act like animals? On the shallowest level we can answer that question by pointing out that, although we all started life as children, we (with some exceptions) no longer act like children. Our moral sense has evolved as we have grown to adulthood.
But the question lingers, because it expresses a legitimate concern. So we must go deeper into the issue. We must ask Whence comes morality? Does the theory of evolution have anything useful to say about it?
Over half an eon of evolution has produced electrochemical networks, nervous systems, that respond to stimuli by instigating actions drawn from a set of stereotyped behaviors. Lower animals behave like automatons, organic machines guided by instinct to carry out more or less the same limited set of behaviors endlessly. As automatons, more or less, animals cannot be moral beings.
Humans, on the other hand, have evolved sentience. We possess the faculties of intelligence, imagination, and free will. Now certainly the idea of free will has vexed philosophers for centuries and they canít come to any agreement on what the phrase free will means, but I take a more practical approach: when I hear the phrase free will, I also hear the question, Free of what? What constraint on human volition must go away in order for us to have free will? Looking at the question another way, we ask How does human volition differ from animal volition?
Clearly humans have the ability to imagine new behavioral responses to environmental stimuli. If we are stimulated by thirst or the memory of thirst, for example, we can go looking for water, as an animal would do, or we can dig a well or build a cistern to capture and store rainwater or, if we have sufficient technology, desalinate seawater. Unlike animals, we have options, we have the freedom to choose among alternative behaviors. That fact gives us free will and thereby makes us moral beings.
Given that our remotest ancestors were animals, as the theory of evolution tells us, we must ask how we gained free will. How did we evolve sentience and the ability to devise morality?
The process started roughly two million years ago, when certain members of the genus Australopithecus discovered that they could improve their diet by throwing things. With bodies like those of modern humans and heads like those of chimpanzees, the australopithecines were scavengers, roaming the savannahs of East Africa looking for carcasses from which they could obtain meat and marrow. Essentially defenseless, the ape-folk generally stood last in line for access to a carcass: they had to wait until the hyenas, the vultures, and the other scavengers were finished, so there usually wasnít much left for them. Then someone discovered that throwing rocks would frighten the other scavengers away from the carcass, thereby allowing the ape-folk to move in while there was still substantial meat on the bones. Those ape-folk ate better, so the practice of throwing things became an important part of their culture.
William Calvin (of the University of Washington) has presented the hypothesis to the effect that the practice of throwing things promoted the mutations that gave humans their sentience. The mutations in the hypothesis are those that improve the act of throwing; specifically, the ones that enable the hominid to throw more accurately. In order to throw accurately the throwerís muscles must tense and relax in a way that puts the projectile onto the desired trajectory and then must release the projectile at the right instant. Those criteria necessitate that the nerves controlling the muscles discharge their electrochemical pulses with maximum temporal precision. A fraction of a secondís advance or delay in moving a muscle will send the projectile onto a path that deviates from the desired trajectory and makes the projectile miss the intended target.
Nerve cells possess the basic property of producing electrochemical pulses separated by a certain span of time (the period) plus or minus some deviation from the mean period. The deviation prevents single neurons from being of much use in timing the contractions of muscles. But if two neurons come together in the right way, they will pulsate together with a common period and a deviation smaller than the deviation that would apply to either of them individually. Adding more neurons to that network decreases the deviation even more, thereby improving the precision of the timing with which the network can control muscles.
Mutations that increase the size and number of neural networks will give the mutated creature a bigger brain and, thereby, improve the precision of the creatureís movements. Normally the mutation fades out of the population, even as it spreads, because the bigger brain needs more chemical energy in a given time and thus increases the creatureís liability to starvation. In hominids, though, the growth of the brain correlates with increased accuracy of throwing and, as a consequence, an increase in the acquisition of high-quality food (i.e. meat and marrow), so nutrition could keep up with growing demand, especially after people of the species Homo erectus learned to cook their food.
Even though they had physiques similar to ours, australopithecines could never have played baseball. Yet a million years or so later Homo erectus could have played a fair game of it. Itís not just that Australopithecus couldnít throw well enough or swing a bat accurately enough to spank the horsehide, but among the australopithecines there was no one who could yell out, "Play ball!"
The fine-tuning of muscular responses by the enlargement of the brain gave hominids a new superpower. They could produce and distinguish a wider variety of sounds, so they did something that further enhanced their ability to find food Ė they created language. Itís not telepathy, but nonetheless it enables people to share their thoughts with other people. If I utter a noise that we have associated with a certain thing, then an image of that thing comes into your imagination. With that power Homo erectus could sit around their campfires and talk about their experiences. Those ape-folk evolved into creatures possessing imagination.
Language gave Homo erectus the ability to create morality. We know that all animals seek pleasure and act to avoid pain. If a creature has the words for them, then they can call pleasure good and pain bad, thereby establishing the possibility of judgement. But if I apply those judgements only to my pleasure and my pain, then I differ little from the lower animals and the behaviors that I enact in pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain have nothing to do with morality. In order for it to be meaningful, morality must take us beyond our basic animal nature.
Like other social animals, such as dogs, apes, elephants and others, we possess the faculty of empathy. We have the inherent ability to feel what other people feel and we also have a need to make others feel what they make us feel. Thus I know that what gives me pain will very likely give others pain and that if it is bad for me, then it must also be bad for others. In that knowledge we have the foundation of the Golden Rule, the most fundamental expression of basic morality. But we have it because of language, because we need words to express it and share it with others.
Because of language we possess the knowledge of good and evil and the unhappiness that goes with it. We feel that we have fallen short of some ideal that we ought to have achieved and, as a consequence, we feel guilty, if only unconsciously. Thus evolution gives us a perfect reflection of the Doctrine of Original Sin.
Our farthest ancestors were simple animals, innocent of any knowledge of good and evil. Guided solely by instinct, they lacked free will and could not be rightly regarded as moral beings. Some of our closer ancestors evolved larger brains and became sentient, thereby gaining the ability to transcend their animal nature through the exercise of free will.
"I swear that what I went through, no animal would have gone through," Guillaumet told Antoine de St.-Exupery. As St.-Exupery described the incident in Wind, Sand and Stars (Terre des Hommes), Guillaumet had crashed his mail plane in the high Andes and the only way for him to survive was to walk out of the mountains through the snow and ice. He only paused for short intervals to rest; he didnít dare go to sleep; he kept himself going by imagining the effect that his failure to return would have on his family. He used his human nature to control his animal nature, which wanted to lie down and go to sleep in the snow.
This is what evolution has produced. From our natal niche in East Africa we have spread across the entire world and taken the first tentative steps toward spreading our kind throughout the solar system. We have harnessed the forces of nature, brought other life, both plant and animal, under our dominion, and raised cities of all shapes and sizes. And we have devised magnificent moralities that enable us, if only we apply ourselves to the task, to construct societies in harmony with themselves and with each other.
Appendix: Seven Deadly Sins
Over the centuries that their church has existed, Catholic theologians have assembled a short list of behaviors that manifest the worst aspects of our animal nature. In those particular behaviors we see our animal nature laid out bare and see how it can interfere with our human nature. Theologically speaking, we say that acting out one of these behaviors so deforms the sinnerís soul that it will never be welcome in the Kingdom of God. The sin represents an idolatry of the self, in which the immediate satisfaction of the biological urges takes absolute precedence over all other considerations. Itís a generalized form of the Lombardi doctrine: winning isnít everything; itís the only thing that counts. In secular terms, we say that acting out one of these behaviors gives the sinner over to the urges of the id (representing their animal nature) and thereby prevents them from achieving their full humanity (the proper integration of id, ego, and superego).
The Freudian analysis concerns the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves in our minds. In the unconscious mind, the source of those stories (also called dreams), the id represents the personís biological urges (their animal nature) and the superego represents the demands that the personís society makes on them. The ego represents the part of the person that must mediate between the id and the superego. The ego is the fundamental part of our human nature and is also the part that protrudes into consciousness.
That system evolved in a social animal possessing imagination. Ideally an individual can get along well with the other members of their social group and at the same time gain satisfaction of their basic urges. Often the first part of that pattern necessitates the temporary or partial suppression of the second part. In the individualís unconscious mind the superego suppresses the id. If that suppression is excessive, the id reacts and the individual becomes neurotic: in an effort to gain some satisfaction of the idís demands they begin acting out behaviors that interfere with their proper functioning in society. They fall into sin, which alienates them from others.
Virtue is the activity that unites us with other people. It weaves us, like threads, into the grand tapestry of human society acting out the history of Humanity. It is the means by which the ego mediates between the demands of the superego and the urges of the id. When the ego overindulges the id the sinner becomes a loose thread and believes that he is the tapestry. In that case we see one or more of the sins described below.
Each of these sins also has an antimatter counterpart, a shadow, which consists of the overdoing of virtue. That overdoing of virtue represents the complete suppression of the id by the superego. Such suppression can also lead to neurosis, so it also constitutes a sin. Again we see an error in judgement that appears to originate in an overly powerful superego. That abstraction of the surrounding society infiltrates our private stories and tells us that weíre not good enough, that we must strive harder, ever harder, to gain acceptance. It oppresses us, much like the malicious giants that appear in many fairy tales. Here, too, we benefit from adhering to the Aristotelian admonition to pursue moderation in all things. By practicing the relevant virtue in appropriate moderation we can transform an animal urge into something like a human grace.
Theologians usually list the sins in the order suggested by the mnemonic SALIGIA, which comes from the initial letters of the Latin names of the sins: superbia (Pride), avaritia (Avarice/Greed), luxuria (Lust), invidia (Envy), gula (Gluttony), ira (Wrath), acedia (Sloth). We might also use the English names in the mnemonic WASPLEG.
This is the mother of all sins, the source of self-degradation. As with all seven of the deadly sins, it is a parody of a normal part of our animal nature. In Freudian terms it is a hypertrophy of the id, the part of the unconscious mind that connects our biological urges to our higher mental processes. The animal urge becomes a neurosis, an obsession that alienates the sinner from the rest of Humanity and interferes with their ability to function properly in a normal human society.
Every animal conceives itself (to the extent that it can do so) as the center of the world. It canít do anything else. It canít consider another animalís point of view because it has only what it perceives through its own senses.
As a parody of a natural feature of animals, then, pride is the belief that one has that they are the only person in the world who counts for anything and that all other people only exist in order to endorse that belief. As with the other sins it originates in a sense of deficiency; in this case, a sense of worthlessness. Pride gives the sinner emotional compensation for their feelings of inferiority.
But weíre all born worthless, incapable of doing anything that would benefit another person. As we grow older, though, we gain knowledge and develop skills that enable us to do beneficial things and thereby find ourselves a place in society, a place in which people value us. Itís a natural process, so what prevents it from working for some people?
I once worked with a man who had given himself over completely to the sin of pride. He was one of the most incompetent people Iíve ever met and yet he believed that he was superior to everyone around him. How is that possible? Why didnít he work to overcome his inadequacies instead of trying to hide them? One day the prospect of him being criticized for something came up and he told me that he didnít want to pull his pants down for anybody: he actually compared being criticized to being raped. And thatís how he prevented himself from growing into a fully competent human being. Instead of seeing criticism as a signal (albeit an annoying one) that he had to change something about himself, he conceived it as a terrifying ogre that would destroy him by throwing him down from his high perch above the rest of Humanity.
But pride goes beyond self-exaltation and promotes evil. The proud one seeks to push others down, to diminish them in their social status.
As with the other spiritual poisons, this one has an antidote. The disease of pride succumbs to the virtue of humility, the belief that I am no better than anyone else. Only through the practice of humility can one overcome the alienation that pride inflicts upon its victims and connect properly with the rest of Humanity. Here the ego must overcome the idís impulse to self-aggrandizement as a means of hiding its feelings of inferiority. The superego wonít be of much help in this case, because itís the source of the idís anxiety, the source of the social judgement that the id fears.
Here we see the value of the human faculty of imagination. We canít actually see the world through another personís eyes, but we can imagine doing so. Through imagination we can shape and reshape our self-image. We can go wrong through self-obsession, but we can also put ourselves right by imagining what others see.
In fairy tales the Simpleton stories, such as "The Queen Bee", provide a good dose of the antidote. In those stories the self-important characters, who seek to assert dominance over others, fail to win the prize while the Simpleton, the humble character who helps others (human and/or animal), achieves the impossible goal and gains the social status that the other characters had tried to gain by force. But the stories donít try to teach a lesson, as Aesopís fables do, rather they allow the listener to participate vicariously in the charactersí adventures and thereby gain a feeling for whatís right. The id thus gains the confidence to abandon its vanity and express a greater humility.
It can be as simple as encouraging others and acknowledging the benefits that they confer upon their society. To do that right takes genuine humility, the attitude that others are just as good as, and in some ways better than, I am.
As with the other virtues, it is possible to overdo humility in a kind of spiritual anorexia. Fearful of appearing arrogant, the victims of this sin abase themselves, seeking inferior social status. Here the diminution of the self is obvious, so the urge that drives it must be a potent one. Again the superego has gained too much influence over the id-ego combination. That abstraction of the society in which we live and of the demands that it makes upon us has become a source of oppression, much like the malicious giants that appear in many fairy tales.
In the wild good things are rare, so animals take advantage of opportunities whenever they can. Think of a squirrel hoarding nuts. Every animal has an instinct to grab any and every good thing that they see. As animals we also have that instinct, but as sentient beings we have the ability to make it go very wrong.
Commonly known as greed, this is one of the sins that leads its victim to work great evil against others. And in it we can see how evil justifies itself. In the 1987 movie "Wall Street" the lead character, Gordon Gekko (named after a reptile?!), says,
"Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures, the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind and greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the U.S.A."
But greed comes from a deficiency; in particular, an obsessive sense of not having enough of something. Ask yourself why any sane person would want to have one billion dollars as personal wealth. While normal desire also comes from a sense of not having enough of something, that sense can be extinguished relatively easily: with greed that sense can never be extinguished and thatís the neurosis. One possessed by greed can never get enough of what they desire. A billion dollars is not enough; a trillion dollars is not enough; nothing is ever enough. And that obsession leads to evil. Weíve all heard the statement that "Money is the root of all evil". But the actual statement, from the Biblical text of First Timothy 6:10, says "For the love of money is the root of all evils;...." Our culture has shifted responsibility for the sin from the lover of money to the money itself: itís all the moneyís fault for existing and beckoning to us, so we donít have to feel guilty for being greedy. Thatís one way in which the sin promotes itself.
But in a certain sense money is the source of the problem (though greed can certainly have other targets). Money was invented when direct barter became too clumsy as a means of distributing goods and services. Pebbles of gold or silver stamped with certain patterns came to represent the production of goods or services and made trade much more convenient. Once people came to associate money with the ability to acquire whatever they desired they could conceive the idea of having enough money to buy anything and everything they could possibly want and in some people the imagination went insane.
Greed can also promote itself by seeming harmless. Consider gambling: whoís being hurt when people wager money on games of chance? The desire to gain money for no effort certainly conforms to the basic idea of avarice. The desire for easy riches, the "get-rich-quick" mentality, corrupts us, nurtures any feelings of worthlessness we may have by promising to overcome them.
And greed goes beyond simple acquisitiveness. Itís not enough for the miser to be rich: he also wants others to be poor, he wants to diminish others, and thatís evil. He justifies that desire through the doctrine of Social Darwinism, the evolutionary spirit that Gordon Gekko referred to in his speech. Of course, Social Darwinism is based on a corrupt understanding of the real theory of evolution. If we look at how Humanity actually throve in and came to dominate this world, we can see the antidote to this poison.
The virtue that curtails greed is called charity or generosity. We give of our strength to heal and to enlarge others. In so doing and in showing genuine concern and caring for another person we strengthen our social bonds to that person and others around them. It thereby creates and strengthens a social safety net whose existence can assuage the anxiety that underlies greed.
It includes the encouragement that we give others. A certain generosity of spirit helps to assuage the ache that underlies greed. The understanding that we have something of value to offer others, if only kind words, enhances our sense of belonging to a good and decent society.
Because greed originates in a sense of inadequacy we see it manifested often in children, in whom it is not yet so much of a neurosis but an acknowledgment of their powerlessness in a world of adults. An appropriate fairy tale, such as "Jack and the Beanstalk", offers the child subconscious reassurance that acts to prevent the natural over-acquisitiveness from becoming a neurosis. Of course, the child must be treated properly as well, while the fairy tale works its magic and gives the child the unconscious means to interpret their experiences in a positive way.
The antimatter counterpart of greed is waste. Itís generosity taken to an extreme. If I discard so much of my wealth that I diminish myself to the extent that I can no longer function properly in my society, then I am guilty of committing the sin of waste. To avoid getting trapped into this particular sin we must temper our generosity with prudence.
All animals need an attraction to the opposite sex in order to ensure reproduction of the species. But when sexual behavior is not intended for reproduction it can transform into a neurosis. Also known as lechery, the sin of lust denotes an obsession with sexual desire.
Fundamentally we are animals and even more fundamentally we are chemical- processing systems. All of our behaviors are rooted in our animal needs and are brought about through acts of organic chemistry. Information about our environment comes to us through our sense organs; electrochemical impulses carry the information to the brain, which processes the information and sends an appropriate response out into the nervous system; glands secrete, muscles twitch, and blood flows faster or slower in response to the nervous commands. Thus, for relevant example, when a man sees a naked woman his heart rate increases, his breathing deepens, and his penis swells and stiffens, all in response to the excretion of certain hormones and in preparation for sexual intercourse.
The sexual response is necessary for the continuation of the species, so itís a powerful urge. But while the lower animals require the presence of the actual sexual signal to become aroused, we humans can do something else. A man can become aroused by looking at a picture of a naked woman or by creating the image of a naked woman in his imagination. That fact enables the sin.
We know that just as we can strengthen muscles by exercising them, so too can we strengthen patterns of thought and feeling by exercising them. In the latter case the mental/emotional pattern becomes a habit. And when the habit becomes obsessive it becomes a neurosis, a pattern of behavior that interferes with a personís normal functioning as a social being. The neurosis (a psychological term) is identical to the sin (a theological term).
Normal sexual desire becomes the sin of lust when the urge to achieve sexual arousal becomes so obsessive that it leads to abnormal behaviors. Among those behaviors we may find an expression of the range of images that will stimulate sexual arousal, a fascination with womenís underwear being a common example. Antisocial behavior, such as voyeurism, telling dirty jokes, or exposing his genitalia to women, provide another example of how the sinner goes into neurosis. The evil that the lecher does consists in diminishing other people to little more than sex toys, playthings rather than playmates.
Again the sin originates in the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. In this case the stories are all about sex and the sinner tells himself far too many of them, to the exclusion of other topics. He develops a thoroughly pornographic mind.
The antidote to this spiritual poison, according to the theologians, is practicing the virtue of chastity. We see that virtue encoded in the admonition to think clean thoughts. In a fairy tale that admonition might be encoded in a character representing the over-libidinous id being led out of a pornographic trap by a character representing the ego. But certainly, in order to follow the admonition above, the sinner needs to tell himself stories that do not involve sex, stories perhaps of athletic achievement or of engineering achievement. Such stories might begin as imaginary means of gaining the attention and favors of the opposite sex, but eventually they may have a broader social acceptance as their target and thereby take some of the chemical heat out of the driving urge.
Each of these sins also has an antimatter counterpart, which represents the complete suppression of the id. Such suppression can also lead to neurosis, so it also constitutes a sin. In the case of lust the flip side of the coin of sin is celibacy, the complete suppression of sexual urges. The only justification for such behavior would be the natural cessation of sexual desire, as in menopause.
If one animal has something good, another animal will want it and will try to take it if they can. That fact seems natural enough. But in a social animal having something good also correlates with social status. The best things belong to the members highest in the social hierarchy.
"You shall not covet your neighborís house; you shall not covet your neighborís wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighborís" (Exodus 20:17). The Tenth Commandment thus provides a brief operational definition of envy. More formally, envy consists of the desire to possess some advantage that belongs to another person and the distress that comes from not having that particular advantage.
How is envy a sin? In what way does it diminish the sinner? On first impression it seems harmless enough. But covetousness is merely the clothing that hides the true ugliness of what the Romans called invidia. The animal urge that drives envy is the desire for social status. Obsesso does not covet what his neighbor has for the material benefits it would confer, but rather for the social status that it marks: he wants to aggrandize himself at the expense of his neighbor. That desire is aimed at compensating a sense of social inferiority: the sinner simply despises himself and seeks the material trappings of social status in order to gain self-respect.
In addition to covetousness, schadenfreude gives us another outward sign of envy, one that shows more clearly the desire for high social status. The joy that one feels on becoming aware of another personís misfortune or downfall, aware of another personís loss of social status, reassures the envier of his own social superiority.
And then we have the resentment. The envier resents people who have what he wants. He comes to hate them, even though they have done nothing to wrong him. In the stories that he tells himself those superior people look down on him and ridicule him. "They think theyíre so much better than I am," he complains, as if such thoughts could hurt him.
Envy diminishes us by alienating us from other people. If everyone I meet is a potential rival, then I cannot have friends and I dare not love anyone or allow anyone to love me. I can only interpret other peopleís motives through a filter of cynicism. In an environment permeated by envy human civilization quickly degenerates into Francis Baconís war of all against all, a gargantuan version of the childrenís game King of the Mountain.
This spiritual poison does, of course, have an antidote. Itís the practice of kindness. We think of kindness as merely denoting a gentle demeanor and for the most part we believe truly. But the word actually refers to the nature of being akin to something or someone, of feeling a kinship with others, as in the Siblinghood of Humanity (formerly known as the Brotherhood of Man, which ignored half of the human race). In order to gain that nature and the demeanor that comes with it we must sacrifice our dreams of social superiority and find peace in a desire for social equality. The ego must convince the id to give up its fantasies of social dominance by assuring it that such a sacrifice will not lead to harm.
The story of "The Lucky Fisherman" offers a good example of what envy does to a person. The fishermanís wife exercises no restraint on her social striving, even demanding at one point to be made co-equal with God. But when the fisherman expresses a wish that she be truly happy, all of her social status and the status symbols that go with it are stripped away from her and she is put back into a somewhat improved version of the cottage that she and her husband occupied at the beginning of the adventure.
Like the other deadly sins, envy has a shadow, the sin of subservience. To empty the soul of all ambition certainly diminishes a person. It prevents the person from attending to their legitimate interests, primarily by devoting too much time and effort to the interests of others. Again we see how a virtue, taken to the extreme, becomes a sin.
All animals need to eat and drink, to replenish chemical energy and the liquid necessary to process it. They thus possess the urges of hunger and thirst. Because the stomach has a limited capacity, we might think that overeating and drinking to excess would be difficult at best. But we humans can be too clever for our own good. We need only recall the Romansí use of induced vomiting at orgies to see one rather disgusting way in which humans can enable overindulgence in food and drink.
As animals we certainly need to eat and drink in order to stay alive. As chemical-processing systems we must ingest substances that will provide the chemicals in the quantities that our bodies need to grow, to maintain themselves, and to repair themselves and also provide the energy needed to run the bodyís processes (e.g. generating body heat). We must also take in enough water to provide the solvent in which the chemical reactions can take place. Our ancestors struggled mightily just to get enough food and water to survive. Today most of Humanity has access to more food and drink that they need for bare survival. That fact enables the sin of gluttony.
Some years ago I saw a scene that matches most peopleís idea of gluttony. I was doing some grocery shopping in the Lucky supermarket that used to stand near the intersection of Palms and Sepulveda Boulevards in West Los Angeles. As I was walking through the store I saw a fat woman pushing a shopping cart and stuffing cookies from an open box into her mouth. That kind of compulsive and unnecessary eating is the image that usually comes into our minds when we hear the word gluttony.
We see that image clearly in the tale of Hansel and Gretel when the children immediately attack the witchís gingerbread house and begin eating the pieces that they break off. We see the lack of self-discipline that we expect in children. But gluttony is a bit more than that.
Theologians define gluttony as an excessive indulgence in and consumption of food, drink, or wealth. Taking in those things in such quantities as to constitute extravagance or waste would certainly seem to indicate neurosis overwhelming good sense. As an expression of narcissism, gluttony removes the glutton from a proper engagement with the world. Like the other deadly sins, gluttony ultimately comes from, to put it politely, the sinner kissing the mirror. This is what the theologians mean when they say that it is a defect of the personality to eat through the sole motive of obtaining sensual gratification.
The antidote for this particular soul poison is the virtue of temperance. We can express the idea of temperance in the admonition that we must eat to live and not live to eat. That admonition seemed to guide Snow White when she first enters the dwarvesí house and takes only enough food and drink to quell the pangs of hunger and thirst that were vexing her. In this case Snow Whiteís temperance indicates her growing maturity: sheís no longer a child. Again, in psychological terms, we see the ego gaining control over the id to their mutual benefit.
We also have an antimatter counterpart to gluttony, exemplified by anorexia. We have the antithesis of overconsumption in underconsumption. When a young woman who looks like something that stepped out of a Nazi death camp claims that sheís still too fat, we may reasonably suspect that she has been overwhelmed by a neurosis. She had sinned grievously against herself. Again the cure is temperance.
Centuries ago people would have said that the woman was possessed by a demon who was eating her soul and they would have called in a priest to conduct an exorcism. Today we say that she has been overwhelmed by a neurosis that is inhibiting the proper functioning of her psyche and we call in a psychiatrist to perform the modern equivalent of an exorcism. According to Bruno Bettleheim, a properly crafted fairy tale could offer much the same benefit as does the talking cure (psychiatric analysis) devised by Sigmund Freud. Thatís why these major sins figure so prominently in many of the classic fairy tales.
All animals will defend themselves, so anger is definitely a part of the animal psyche. Defense of course extends to territory and possessions (such as a bone). In animals anger is an immediate thing, quickly come and quickly gone. We humans can imagine things that make us afraid and thus we can trigger anger gratuitously. By telling ourselves that we are weak and that others wish to exploit our weakness to abuse us we promote the sin of wrath.
From simple anger to inarticulate rage, the sin of wrath will diminish anyone who gives in to it. In the 1955 movie "Bad Day at Black Rock" one character says, "I believe a man is as big as whatíll make him mad". That statement gives us a fair summation of Christian doctrine on the sin of wrath. Again we see a clear case in which people abandon their proper human nature in order to embrace their animal nature.
As with other aspects of our animal nature, evolution gave us the basis for the sin. Anger prepares an animal for violent action and it is triggered by frustration: the animal is frustrated by something preventing it from achieving a goal, for example, and the anger directs the animalís violent response against that something. Our human nature, our intelligence, evolved to come between the impulse and the action, to give us what we might call a strong temper that would eventually mitigate the impulse itself. That would seem to be a good thing that all people would appreciate.
So what can we say then about those who cultivate their wrath, especially those who cultivate the chronic wrath of hate? Why would anyone want to feel a surge of anger at the mere sight of a person with dark skin, for example, and feel no shame at it? Anxiety plays a foundational role in bigotry: the inchoate fear that members of a certain ethnos want to harm him or those he loves leads the bigot to express wrath against all members of that ethnos. Certainly rationalization plays its role in supporting the anxiety, though it usually involves more than a little self-deceit. The rationalization is meant to cover up feelings of inferiority and vulnerability rather than overcoming them, as is proper.
Why, then, doesnít shame, the sense that we have diminished ourselves, come into play and act against the sin? Here we see the operation of the abstraction that we commonly call Satan, the complex of ideas and beliefs, most of them deceitful, that promote sin and evil.
In this case the fraud consists of the idea that wrathful people are tough, that violent men are tough guys. The fraud persists in our culture because the statement "You canít hurt me" has two meanings: 1) "I donít get hurt easily, so I can endure the insults of the world with some equanimity" and 2) "You donít dare hurt me, lest I throw a violent tantrum". Confusion of those two statements has enabled the growth of a macho culture, in which men who get hurt easily can hide their vulnerability behind a cloak of wrathfulness and show disdain for anyone who would show sympathy for another person (something that the macho man dares not do, lest someone see his weakness).
But if a commitment to the sin of wrath comes from emotional weakness, how can the sinner be induced to develop the inner strength necessary to treat people no worse than they treat him? How does anyone overcome the frightened animal inside them and become genuinely tough enough to follow the Golden Rule?
The antidote to the sin of wrath is the virtue of patience. Cultivation of patience allows intelligence to intervene between stimulus and response, moderate the response, and perhaps transmute rage into determination. It prepares us to receive the blessing of inner peace.
Here again the ego must find a way to control the id. In "The Fisherman and the Jinni" the ego (the fisherman) at first suppresses the wrathful id completely (traps the jinni in the bottle) but understands that itís the wrong thing to do. After reminding the id of the fearsome power of the superego (represented by Allah) the ego frees it again. The calmer id responds by nurturing the ego (the jinni shows the fisherman where he can catch fish every day to support himself and his family). To use the metaphor of the steam engine, some of the heat of the idís passion is transformed into useful work for the sake of the ego.
But one must take care not to let patience become excessive and degenerate into the sin of apathy. We must remember the aphorism "All that is needed for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing". Of course, the antidote to apathy is the virtue of charity, understood in the original sense of caring for others. Thus we can transmute the urge to anger into patience and the determination to stand up for others, transforming an animal urge into a human grace.
Although we commonly think of sloth as simple laziness it refers more broadly to apathy and dejection: It promotes inactivity. Of course, we all need an appropriate amount of rest in order to recover from our exertions; to conserve hard-won chemical energy, an animal will certainly follow the easiest way of achieving its goals. But sloth involves too much rest for not enough exertion. Sloth is fundamentally mental and the surest sign of the slothful is the cry, "Iím bored!"
We can see sloth exemplified in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30), in which a servant entrusted with a talent (a silver coin used in Ancient Judea) hides it and then returns it to his master while the other servants invested their talents and returned them to their master with profits. The first servant committed the sin of sloth in his refusal to do anything useful with his talent while the other two servants displayed the virtue of diligence. Now the talent has become a metaphor for innate ability and we conceive sloth as a refusal to develop that ability and use it for the betterment of Humanity.
In fairy tales we see sloth as a cause of failure. The laziness of Aschenputtelís stepsisters certainly makes them unworthy of the Princeís attention. Sloth makes the witch weak and unable to resist when Gretel shoves her into her own oven. In that form, a source of weakness, we incorporate sloth into our personal stories and guide ourselves accordingly.
As hinted above, the antidote for the poison of sloth is the virtue of diligence. Where sloth diminishes a person, diligently developing their talents and applying them to making the world, in some way, a better place enlarges a person, makes them better able to participate in the grand adventure of human civilization. In the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves diligence appears as a source of strength and of grace.
And, of course, one can overdo diligence to the point of neurosis. Just as the anorexic woman believes that sheís too fat, so the workaholic believes that heís too lazy. Again we see an error in judgement that appears to originate in an overly powerful superego infiltrating our personal stories and telling us weíre not good enough. Here, too, we benefit from adhering to the Aristotelian admonition to pursue moderation in all things.
Thus we have the seven deadly sins, seven patterns of behavior that diminish us and alienate us from the rest of Humanity.
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