What’s The Deadliest Sin?

The wonderful magazine, Intelligent Life, is having a symposium. The indispensable Ann Wroe (see her astonishingly good biography of Pontius Pilate) considers the deadliest sin ingratitude, “a sin against charity, which otherwise warms the heart and, in the truest sense, makes the world turn”:

The incidents seem trifling. After the dinner party, no note is sent. (Well, you were busy, and the dinner Crostwight_Seven_Deadly_Sinswasn’t that elaborate.) The solicitous e-mail gets no reply. (Again, you’re busy, and don’t feel like chatting.) A driver gives way to you at a place where there is no clear priority; you don’t acknowledge him. A fellow pedestrian steps into the road for you, or holds a door; you breeze on by. On holiday, you give your smallest and most worthless coins to the woman who has carefully cleaned your room. …

No blood is spilt in any of these cases. Nothing is stolen. No one’s life is ruined. The prick of pain passes soon enough. Yet a tiny seed of ice has been sown, formed of arrogance on one side and, on the other, a sense of worthlessness. That ice spreads, and creeps into the veins and crevices of life: so that on the next occasion the door is not held, the room is cleaned carelessly, the car does not give way and the e-mail is never sent. As the opportunity for kindness is ignored, so the chance of reciprocal kindness, in the form of thanks, never comes to be. What is never given can never be repaid.

I have to say I love that insight. One of the great curses of fundamentalist Christianity is its obsession with sexual sin above all others. I recall the great Malcolm Muggeridge’s line about why lust may be the least un-Christian of the sins: because lust is so often about “give, give, give!” But the small acts of mutual disregard, gracelessness, and distancing from the other – which we all do every day – can be far more corrosive. Passion is more forgivable in my book than indifference.

Will Self thinks pride is worse: “While you can perfectly well be proud without being avaricious, or slothful, or covetous, it’s absolutely impossible to transgress in these ways without first being proud.” But for Richard Holloway, no sin is deadlier than envy:

Every other sin offers some gratification, if only in its early stages, but envy is an empty and desolating experience from beginning to end. It is the meanest sin in the book, which is why few people ever own up to it. François de La Rochefoucauld captured its joyless secrecy in 1665: “We often pride ourselves on even the most criminal passions, but envy is a timid and shame-faced passion we never dare acknowledge.” Virginia Woolf thought it was the besetting sin of writers, and Gore Vidal agreed with her. Whenever a friend succeeded, he wrote, a little something in him died; for him it was not enough to succeed—others had to fail. Vidal’s spleen captures both aspects of envy: sorrow at another’s good and satisfaction at another’s misfortune, what the Germans call Schadenfreude, shame-joy, pleasure in the distress of others. …

Is there any remedy for this nasty little sin? There are two steps we can take to get it under control. The first is to acknowledge its presence and admit our own meanness of spirit. The other step is to recapture our capacity for sharing the joy of others.

So much easier to say than do – especially in that crowded, talented island off the north of Europe. My favorite poem on modern literary envy is by Clive James: “The Book Of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered.” It’s from his fantastic poetry collection, Opal Sunset.

(Image via Wiki: “‘The Seven Deadly Sins’, medieval wall painting in the nave of the parish church of Crostwight, Norfolk. Date c.1360-80”)