Good Against Evil
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In this we have the classic melodrama of human existence. Our ancestors ate the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil a very long time ago and weíre still struggling with the consequences of that act. We would normally think that the decision on whether to become a purveyor of good or a perpetrator of evil would be an easy one to make, but in fact the decision is not simple enough to be easy. Nonetheless, children must make that decision as they grow up. How do most make the right choice and why do some make the wrong choice?
To answer that question we must start by giving ourselves a working definition of good and evil. Of course, itís a foolís errand: philosophers have argued for two and a half millenia and still have no definition of good and evil that wins universal assent in the way that, say, Newtonís laws of motion do. But I will contrive definitions anyway in order to see whither they lead us in this discussion of the growth of childrenís morality.
I say that the word good denotes any act that enlarges a person and that the word evil denotes any act that diminishes a person. I exclude from that definition the connotation of changing physical size; rather, I want to include only connotations involving a personís ability to participate, with proper dignity, in a human society. That latter proviso should be sufficiently indeterminate to enable us to tweak my definition of good and evil as needed.
Let me also make another distinction. We generally divide evil into crimes and misdemeanors, depending on the severity of the offense. But in a spiritual sense we have the concept of sin and we need to find a place for it in our discussion. I say that sin is simply an evil that one commits against oneself. That definition conforms closely to the theologiansí definition of sin as a falling short of some ideal. Itís a self-inflicted diminution of the self.
So why do some people choose to be evil? According to Plato, they donít. In the dialogue titled Protagoras, Plato has Socrates claim that people do wrong only if they are deluded into thinking that they are doing right or if they are rendered incapable, either by reason of ignorance or mental defect, of knowing right from wrong. The latter part of that statement gives us the legal definition of insanity, but the whole statement takes us slightly off course: the dichotomy of right and wrong does not fully overlap the dichotomy of good and evil.
Consider the jerk, who believes heís a good person when all evidence says heís not.
So how do some people delude themselves into being evil? To consider a specific example, letís ask how the witch in Hansel and Gretel could possibly believe that she was not evil. Well, what did the situation look like from her point of view? Two children came, unbidden, out of the forest and began, in a real sense, to eat her out of house and home, thereby diminishing her by acting to deprive her of her shelter. The witch had good reason to believe that she was the aggrieved party and that the children were evil. Granted, her reaction to the attack seems excessive, but thatís a judgement made from an objective point of view: the witch may have felt so vulnerable that her reaction seemed to her as a reasonable means of protecting herself.
As an aside, letís ask how someone who worships the Devil can not know that they are evil. The answer says that the witches didnít worship the Devil. What we commonly know (or believe we know) about witches and witchcraft is a Christian parody of the Celtic nature religion that occupied northern Europe for millenia before Christianity came north. Instead of worshiping the Christian Devil, the witch would have been worshiping an alternate god, one just as good as the Christian God. But the parody makes such a perfect villain for the tellers of fairy tales, so thatís what we get.
The above reference to the witchís feelings of vulnerability gives us a clue to finding the root cause of evil. Just as evil acts to diminish a person, so evil comes from a feeling of having been diminished. Evil seems to come primarily from a sense of impotence, such as Hitlerís fantasy of all-powerful Jews destroying Germany. An evil person feels impotent, weak, inadequate, or deficient in some other way from what they should be. He sins by diminishing himself in his own estimation.
How does one get into that condition? Consider the common bully. He enjoys hurting people and pushing people down for his own self-aggrandizement, so how can he not know that heís evil? It begins at birth.
Fundamentally human nature consists of two opposing principles: an expansive impulse that seeks liberation from all constraints (our basic animal nature, the id) and an inhibiting force that imposes self-discipline and restraint (our social nature, the superego).
When we are born our psyches consist only of the id and a reptilian one at that, one concerned solely with the satisfaction of the most basic of biological urges. As the infantís brain grows the id elaborates into a more mammalian form, including the social urges that we see in so many animals. The psyche begins to develop a superego and an ego to mediate between the id and the superego in accordance with the Reality Principle. Because the superego exists in the childís unconscious mind as an abstraction of the demands that their social environment makes on them, the foundation of the superego comes from the parents (or other primary caregivers).
Every bully Iíve ever known has come from one particular kind of family, one that revolves around a domineering, even abusive, father and an overindulgent mother (note that this is the kind of family in which Adolf Hitler grew up). That combination produces a deformity in the Oedipal process, the process by which the boy solicits and justifies his motherís love by becoming like the man she loves and married. Unconsciously the boy comes to conceive belligerence, even sadism, as normal and as a proper basis for fundamental morality. This explains the self-righteousness that we see in bullies with regard to their violence: the bully conceives himself as the only person in the world who counts for anything and others existing solely to serve his happiness and pleasure.
That kind of narcissism is certainly appropriate in infants and toddlers, but in the bully it persists through childhood and into adulthood. It represents a lack of control over the id, which the child inherited with his fatherís lack of self-control: it becomes a kind of mental retardation. Where other children are beginning to develop their egos, the bully fails and thus lacks the means of meeting the first great challenge of childhood Ė encountering and interacting with people outside his immediate family.
At this stage the superego undergoes a growth spurt, incorporating new social demands that the child must face. The child who has begun to develop an ego, has begun to learn self-restraint, can accept those demands, albeit reluctantly, as a normal part of the world. The bully, who has been conditioned by his mother to expect full gratification of his desires, conceives those demands as acts of hostility, signs of a world in which everyone is against him and opposed to his happiness. The difference between the world as he expects it to be and the world that he actually experiences inflicts upon him a crippling Weltschmerz and that distress transforms readily into hate and rage. To the other children he meets he becomes like the ogres and trolls that they hear of in their fairy tales, but in his mind itís the others who are figures of anxiety and horror, perpetrators of evil.
Whoís right? How can we know? One of the first mechanisms to be incorporated into the childís growing ego is the principle of fairness and reciprocity, a principle encoded in what we commonly call the Golden Rule. It enables the child to rein in the impulses of the id and it mitigates the demands of the superego. The Golden Rule enables children to discover for themselves what constitutes good behavior.
Of course the judgments of the Golden Rule are consistent with our definition of evil. If a child treats others worse than they treat him, we can see that he is diminishing them more than they diminish him (if, indeed, they diminish him at all), so we can say that the child is perpetrating evil (or, at least, relative evil). But as the Golden Rule becomes part of a childís ego it does something more.
A commitment to adhering to the Golden Rule makes a child tougher, gives the child the ability to endure the little knocks and jolts of their day-to-day social lives. That statement may seem strange in light of our cultureís current assertion that violent people are tough guys, but the culture is wrong. Violence is a response to the fear of being hurt, either physically or psychologically, so wanton violence is a sign of inner weakness. Here we discern the bullyís fundamental deficiency.
Itís the narcissism, along with the abstraction of his father in his superego, that creates the deficiency. The superego abets the free running of the id and intensifies it. Obsessed with the sanctity of his own feelings while disparaging the feelings of others, the bully lives in fear of anything that even vaguely resembles an insult or criticism. He has ensured that he can be hurt easily and thereby alienates himself further from others.
The normal child, on the other hand, discovers something wonderful in the Golden Rule. In order to abide by the rule, the child must sacrifice their own feelings for the sake of others. The ego achieves that sacrifice by conceiving others as equal partners in the childís society and thus also conceiving othersí feelings as having the same value as the childís own. By thus discounting the value of their own feelings the child becomes less sensitive to any act that would otherwise hurt them: the child becomes tougher. In practical terms, the child has achieved a certain inner strength through a commitment to respect the rights of others.
In fairy tales we see this moral reciprocity played out again and again. In "The Queen Bee", for example, Simpleton protects a colony of ants, a flock of ducks, and a hive of bees from harm and those creatures come to his aid when he needs help. This is not a lesson to be learned, as one might learn how to solve the quadratic equation, but is, rather, a pattern to be absorbed into the growing ego: not a matter of conscious moral calculation, the pattern simply feels right to the child.
Again we see that we can solve a problem in a good way or we solve it in an evil way. The good way makes us tougher and stronger and weaves us into the fabric of our society. The evil way weakens us and alienates us from the good part of society.
As Bettelheim noted, fairy tales lay out both the good way and the evil way and allow the child to explore both of them: thereís no moral exhortation as we find in Aesopís fables. Such exhortations lie properly in the domain of the superego and the child doesnít need them. Quite the contrary is true. Those exhortations can strengthen the superego and interfere with the proper growth of the childís ego. No, the fairy tale gets it right, so set the stage, draw back the curtain, and let a drama older than civilization play out in a childís imagination.
Appendix: The 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 and that includes fairy tales. 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. By using something like dream imagery, fairy tales participate in the unconscious processes that coordinate the activities of the three parts of the psyche.
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. The need to make other people look and feel small comes from the proud oneís sense of inferiority and it is an effort to cover up rather than overcome that inferiority. Itís a reflection of that fundamental need we all have to make others feel what we feel.
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.
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. The truly humble person seeks to enlarge others in order to share in that enlargement, while the proud soul seeks to diminish others in order to enhance their feelings of superiority.
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 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. Being rather irrelevant to the social development of children, this sin does not appear explicitly in the classic fairy tales but it does give us an opportunity to examine the mechanisms behind these bad behaviors.
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 of 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, thereby ignoring 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 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.
So let me ask a small question here. Is a gourmet or a connoisseur a glutton? We know that they attend meticulously to the sensual experiences of eating and drinking. But they do so in a social setting, sharing their feelings with like-minded others and seeking to enlarge the art of food preparation. Theyíre dancing on the edge, certainly, but most do not fall over that edge because the also take the antidote for the sin.
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 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 wish 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 energy, an animal will certainly follow the easiest way of achieving its goals. But sloth involves too much rest for not enough exertion. But 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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