Reading · Teaching

Life, a User’s Manual

A friend asked what he said was a Dante question—what are the seven deadly sins, and was that Kevin Spacey movie right.  I started explaining the difference between the Seven Deadlies and the levels of Dante’s Inferno, and it got me thinking about life, the universe, and everything.

The Seven Deadlies as most modern folk think of them (including the crazy serial killer Kevin Spacey plays in the film Seven) are Pride, Anger, Envy, Greed, Gluttony, Sloth, and Lust, and that list has been in use for centuries, deriving from medieval patristic sources, the earliest of which was probably Pope Gregory I.
As the Middle Ages wore on, penitential handbooks were produced that offered models of the sins growing out of one another (the “concatenation” of sins). Medieval manuscripts show the sins as the fruits of a tree, the root of which, in the Gregorian tradition, was Pride. From pride all other sins proceeded one from another, like fruit on branches. Later medieval authors would argue greed was the root, as the Feudal System crumbled and the working class argued for wages.
Penitential handbooks were like the rules to get to heaven.They explained what kind of penance was appropriate for particular sins.They outlined the seven deadlies and gave corresponding virtues that one could practice to combat a tendency toward sin.
We have a number of different examples of these handbooks with varying specifics, but the point was that we could fight our sinful nature. Sin may damn us, but virtue might save us. The oldest set of virtues were the four Cardinal Virtues (inherited from the classical tradition) of Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice, plus the three Theological (read: Christian) virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love.  Penitential handbooks drew out the smaller divisions of these big sins and virtues, and offered solutions almost like a doctor would prescribe a remedy—practice humility if you want to avoid pride, and so forth.
Dante used these sins and virtues to structure his Divine Comedy, but he had more circles to fill and more axes to grind. He made use of those subdivisions in the penitential handbooks (like separating pride in to hypocrisy, fraud, despair, and others), and then he took them even further.
Fraud was the worst for him—a purposeful misuse of our God-given reason. Simple fraud (stealing, seducing, counterfeiting, and others) is punished in the 8th circle, but the 9thcircle, where Satan himself resides, includes treacherous fraud—purposeful, planned deceit of family, of countrymen, of benefactors, of God.  Dante’s Purgatory and Paradise, of course, have corresponding virtues, in probably the most elaborate extension ever of the ideas in those penitential handbooks.
The idea that we can combat the evils of the world and in ourselves remains attractive. And the idea that there are always rules to follow (I think also of Apollo’s Creed, that people should “Know themselves” and have/do “Nothing in excess” as well as the Golden Rule or the Ten Commandments–heck, even Little Red Riding Hood’s rules of “Stay on the path,” and “Don’t talk to strangers”) means that we’re pretty consistent about wanting things spelled out for us.
There is comfort in knowing there is a remedy. And there is comfort in knowing that the evils you see have a name. That is old, old power—naming something so you can control it.
As usual, I find we haven’t changed much over the millenia. We still find strength in identifying evil, naming it, and working to undo it. We still work efficiently with rules to follow; it’s just that the rules shift some with new contexts and culture. We still try to improve on certain scales—practice gratitude to be happy (that’s a splinter of humility, by the way); cultivate a practice of generosity by volunteering and donating; practice, defend, and enact justice.
People haven’t changed, really. I find that comforting too.
(I stole the title for this post from Georges Perec’s novel, but I expect it’s been used elsewhere as well; it’s all connected. And the image is a creative project for my Epics class this spring–a pinata depiction of Satan’s head as described by Dante. It was glorious.)

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