It occurred to me to write this reflection because a short time ago, I learned of the existence in my country of the national day dedicated to Dante Alighieri. He was an Italian writer, poet and politician who was born in Florence in 1265 and died in Ravenna in September 1321. Among his works, I have always been struck by the part of the Divine Comedy that describes the seven deadly sins: Hell.
Some time ago in a letter, a person from another nation asked me what values guided my life. He did so fully aware of my age and critical thinking. It is not a question you can ask a young boy because he is still too conditioned by example and all the trends of the moment.
Although it is undeniable that even slightly more seasoned people like me can undoubtedly be influenced by traditions and beliefs, with time, a critical sense guided by empirical experience should develop. Such a model many times interferes with the notions we have acquired in the past and gives us an idea, if only temporary, of what others are and what we would like to be.
I answered that I could write down what I would like to avoid doing and being because the complexity of the world, in my humble opinion, cannot be harnessed in an overly rigid code of behaviour. We could be restricted where we don’t need to be and certainly, in a world where we don’t share the same values, that would inevitably be a huge disadvantage.
At this point I was pressed for a less general answer and then I had to reflect, in more depth. I would therefore like to share with you the fruit of this thought. Firstly, one would say that my code of conduct is limited to laws, but it is my opinion that these, by their nature, cannot be based too much on the moral aspect.
It was therefore necessary to draw up a decalogue that was additive to the regulations imposed in a given place, and Dante Alighieri immediately came to mind with his Inferno. Like many earlier and immortal works, it bases the understanding of its contents on a metaphorical journey whose stages can be summarised with the famous seven deadly sins.
Of course, there are graduates, specialists, doctoral students and professors who would put their hands in their hair if they were to read what I am about to tell you. But this is just my opinion as a common mortal. Although the writings of this poet could be expounded in a more organic and appropriate manner, I hope that you also share with me the assumption that these contents are the heritage of mankind and should not be the prerogative only of the learned.
Studying a certain subject can mean devoting one’s whole life to it without fully understanding its meaning. I don’t have that kind of time, there are so many topics to ponder in the universe, so I’ll just make a superficial reflection with all due respect to those who are in the industry and who know more than I do.
These are elements that make up the human soul and certainly have to do with our animal nature, which does not fit in well with living in a civilised society.
The Sin of Sloth
The word acedia in my language would express the tendency that an entity may have to be constantly bored, indifferent and inoperative. The meaning of this word is certainly the absence of the joy of living and of enjoying all the wonders that life on earth or beyond can offer us. The consequences of this habit may lead a person to negative tendencies, criminal behaviour and depression.
Those who are slothful usually tend to do things in the worst possible way if they can find a job. The lack of ability to appreciate the joys of creation and of a healthy, regulated life can lead the person to seek other means of filling the emptiness inherent in their soul. Those who feel this way usually do not set themselves a goal or are too disappointed in themselves and others to believe that they can achieve it methodically and consistently. In this sense, one is in danger of becoming cynical and indifferent to one’s surroundings.
A society in which acedia thrives is a society of bored, depressed, sad, selfish people who do not help each other. The slothful person is the one who always has to invent new, alternative and stupid ways to give his life purpose. It is that person who does not help his neighbour if he sees him on the side of the road in trouble. Acedia is also called the vice of monks or the night demon.
It is not uncommon for the slothful to indulge in anger, lust or gluttony as a substitute for the ability to enjoy and share the joy of life. Dante Alighieri no doubt, following Christian precepts, sees life as a divine gift that it is a sin to waste. Throughout history this vice has undoubtedly hidden in the shadows millions of talents that could have enriched humanity both spiritually and scientifically.
The sin of Avarice
Avarice is usually understood to mean a person’s poor attitude to spending his or her wealth. You don’t necessarily have to be rich to be stingy. Being stingy is a word that belongs in common parlance. A person may be stingy because he does not spend his money on a good or service and he may be stingy in lending or donating his money or time to a charitable cause. One can be stingy with whatever one can give to others and therefore it is not essential that it be material goods.
The miser thinks he has control over the mechanisms of life because the need for money has always marred the social fabric of people. Fear of illness, of the unexpected, may lead us to be predisposed to stinginess. The main characteristic of this vice is an aversion to sharing. The more one has, the more one is attached to possessions. Take, for example, disputes between families over inheritance.
Some say that the poor are less attached to material things and tend to share more with their neighbours. I personally think, at the risk of being proved wrong, that in reality the poor are less attached to things because they have very little to attach themselves to. You only have to visit the poorest countries that are plagued by wars to realise the constant struggle for survival. This image is somewhat at odds with the stereotype that circulates.
There are people in the world who fight violently for even a sip of water. Moreover, the poor person who shares is making a kind of investment because he knows that if he shares a sandwich between two people he will not die of hunger and the other person might one day decide to share it as he did. We have to be very careful not to get carried away by those stereotypes that are shared in good faith but that do not give us an idea of the cruelty of life, making us weaker, more helpless and naive.
I think there is no doubt that this way of doing things is rooted in selfishness. Negative experiences and information can lead people to distrust others and think that they do not deserve our goods or actions. The ever-increasing tendency to accumulate capital is the result of forgetting that money and possessions are only functional elements, without conscience or soul. However, without being hypocritical and keeping our feet firmly on the ground, we all know that money is needed to live, but if we keep it for ourselves, the economy does not work.
Some Eastern philosophies preach that avarice is the result of the mistaken belief that material wealth necessarily equals happiness. But everyone knows that money does not make for happiness. I used to think that money was a kind of metaphorical umbrella. What I used to say to myself was: “It’s always raining on everyone, but whoever has the biggest umbrella gets the least wet”. Then I realised that it is better to have lots of friends and umbrellas arranged like the tortoises of the ancient Romans. An umbrella can get lost, deteriorate or break over time, even if it is a big one.
The Sin of Gluttony
Gluttony, or the consumption of food and drink beyond the normal needs of the individual, has for centuries been condemned as an example of a predisposition to lasciviousness (an aptitude for vicious behaviour). It is not uncommon for a greedy person to be labelled as lustful, toxic, stupid and generally prone to vice. It has always been thought that those who are not able to control their eating will not be able to control their other primal and animal instincts.
Unhealthy, excessive and unhealthy eating and drinking causes human beings health and sometimes economic problems that cannot be ignored. The impact on national health systems is also significant. The advent of fast food with cheap food has encouraged the spread of habits which on the one hand have interfered with the income of other competing businesses selling food and on the other hand have had a major impact on the health of the population in the countries where they are most widespread.
In my opinion, however, fast food is not the cause of the increase in diseases related to overnutrition. As we all know, there are simple salads in these chains. In classic restaurants you can usually find superlative desserts. Let’s say that the problem from a macroscopic point of view is due to the fact that the availability of food and sugar has increased in some countries. The interesting thing is that fast food, in my opinion, owes its success to the fact that things are cheaper and therefore it makes no difference from an economic point of view for the worker to go and eat there or to bring a meal from home.
In the days when poverty was more evenly distributed geographically, contrary to stereotypes, the fat person was equated with gluttony and was viewed very badly because of a particular human trait called envy. From a global point of view, there are very few cultures that tolerate the fat person without stereotypes. The fat person appears as the personification of gluttony in the sense of selfish abuse of others’ right to eat.
In fact, Dante Alighieri also relegates gluttons to the third circle of hell, where they can feed on black sludge devoid of assimilable nutrients. These poor souls wander around inskeletal from hunger and the presence of trees full of juicy fruit that they will never be able to harvest makes the situation worse. It is seen as a kind of divine justice. The poor man could cherish the hope that all the feelings of envy he had experienced on earth could be avenged by the suffering of the object of that envy in the next world.
Gluttony, at a superficial analysis, may appear to be the least serious of the vices we have mentioned so far, but it is not so. Although gluttony is a personal matter that may seem to harm only the individual who falls prey to it, if we focus on the macroscopic field, we immediately realise what an enormous impact it can have on society.
Having said that, from a certain point of view, one cannot but appreciate how paradoxical it is that fast food has levelled the playing field between rich and poor. And so if being overfed was a right, they would have given the poor the right to be too. I prefer quality restaurants typical of the area but I don’t have the money to go there every day.
The Sin of Lust
Lust is referred to as an excess of those thoughts or actions without which our species would have long since become extinct. Like so many of the deadly sins, excess is obviously condemned and is understood in Christianity as a kind of opposite to temperance. Let us not forget that the Divine Comedy is a book rooted in religion and that it contains characters who, according to the author, were prey to these sins.
These people, in one way or another, were antagonists or enemies of the writer who described them in this way. From my point of view, the concept of lust extends not only to the physical sphere of those who carry out thoughts or works related to this vice, but it is certainly also related to those who, based on such thoughts unknown to the most naive minds, judge others badly.
To give an example in the image above, an innocent person, completely devoid of lustful thoughts, would simply see a woman enjoying a strawberry. For Dante, lust and gluttony are considered two types of carnal and not spiritual incontinence. Reference is therefore made to the realm of actions and not the realm of thought. Wrath and avarice are seen as two types of spiritual incontinence.
On modern analysis, we also note the presence of sodomites in the circles of hell linked to this vice. At the time, they were persecuted by Christian laws, and with today’s modern view, where there is no longer any talk of ‘sins against nature’, this is a work that is not intended to be politically correct but is nevertheless consistent with the spirit of the time.
The Sin of Envy
Envy is one of those human feelings that are unaffected by social change and modernity. From a literal point of view, it is the suffering that an individual feels because of his or her perception of not being able to achieve what is desired and which would belong to others. From a Christian point of view, envy is seen as the opposite of charity and therefore condemned.
Those who believe that they cannot achieve or possess certain things often end up hating those who do or have achieved certain things. Instead of admiring the person and possibly working with all his or her might to achieve that goal, the envious person tends to project all his or her frustration onto the person, resenting someone’s happiness, prosperity or well-being.
This is a very dangerous state of mind because history and the present have taught us that it is capable of polluting the most enlightened minds and undermining the most fraternal relationships. In fact, it is not uncommon that within the same family there may be more privileged individuals who are constantly despised and opposed by all the others.
From a social point of view, envy has always been used to move the masses and manipulate the minds of human beings. This is still done today and I am quite sure that it will be done in the future as well. It is a sin that is unlikely to abandon human beings in spite of time.
The sin of wrath
I believe I am right when I say that no human being is immune to this feeling. Nature has endowed all animal species to varying degrees with a mechanism by which the organism prepares itself for action for competitive purposes. Like avarice and envy, this vice has been at the root of the most heinous errors of mankind. A clear example is wars and all other kinds of violence.
Unlike the other sins, however, anger is a so-called quick vice. Many times it takes years to harbour other kinds of negative feelings. Since anger arises from the natural, animal need for a quick hostile reaction, it usually ceases as quickly as it has taken possession of the subject’s soul. Those who have succumbed to anger usually regret what they have done, all too often, when it is already too late.
With the progress of modernity and society, anger has become an increasingly unacceptable type of behaviour that precludes man from becoming an enlightened being far removed from the mindlessness of wild animals. With increasing population, there is a growing need for regulations that inhibit those expressions of aggression that are inherent in the human soul. In some cases, this can generate frustrations which, if not properly managed, can unfortunately lead to anger.
From a Christian point of view, anger is the exact opposite of the virtue of meekness, which is the cornerstone of some religions and also of a harmonious and happy life in a society. In the course of time, anger has been defended by various “cultured” people to justify the hypocrisy of their own or others’ actions.
It is never a good thing to lose control, sometimes it can happen because we are human but a healthy upbringing, the wisdom to stay away from certain temptations and a good dose of will, can save ourselves and others from the scourge of violence (of any nature).
The Sin of Pride
The proud person has a tendency to think that it is right for him or her to occupy a prominent place in society. This is a very common thought among powerful people, but not only among powerful people. One can be proud for empirical reasons such as having achieved a certain goal or for ideological reasons such as racism.
Those who are dominated by this feeling usually have little inclination to self-criticism and have, like other vices, a tendency to self-indulgence in their behaviour. Because others are regarded as inferior, the person suffering from pride believes that it is right that they should be treated differently. If the proud person’s aspirations are higher than his or her abilities or possibilities, he or she has a tendency to lower others.
In some behaviours, pride can appear very similar to envy, but distinctions must be made between the two. The proud person is not necessarily envious of others. For example, an emperor is unlikely to envy the peasant’s standard of living, but he will think it right that he lives in such conditions because the ruler thinks he deserves more.
Throughout history, there are almost no actors in life who, once they have achieved a certain status, remember and pursue values such as humility, charity and equality without manipulative or hypocritical intentions. Pride is antithetical to the modern political concept of freedom and equality and is in direct opposition to the doctrines that see the deity as the only superior entity.
As with the other vices, it can be mitigated through education and culture. Indeed, it is observed that there is no greater arrogance than a poor, humble and ignorant person who for some reason attains a position of power.
Regardless of the reasons that may have prompted the author of The Divine Comedy to immortalise the fruit of his imagination in enchanting verse, I find myself grateful for the opportunity to reflect on myself so that I can focus on improving myself every day.
I consider this work to be one of the foundations of Western philosophy, and it is remarkable how much these aspects of the human soul have contributed to who we are. Let us not forget that the Divine Comedy also includes Paradise and Purgatory.
I feel lucky and I would like to express my gratitude to those authors who, like Dante, wanted to share their own key to analysing the human soul. In fact, he is not the only one to have focused on these issues, before him there were several collections of sacred and philosophical books that attempted to give a name to the tendencies of the human soul.
The predisposition of our species to these feelings, without the help of the writings of these authors, would appear to us as an incomprehensible and incontemplable amalgam of the most disparate behaviours. Vices and virtues are so intertwined that the work of classifying them is extremely important for a correct analysis of ourselves and the world around us.
However, as is the case with all things, any analysis needs a purpose in order to make sense, hence the question at the basis of my reflection. I agree that values and dis-values must be considered in order for it to be possible to improve our species from a social point of view. But how can we manage to do this if the world behaves differently?
To give an example that gives a better idea of what I mean, let us think of a person who does not lie for any reason. In a world of liars he would be like a feather in a stormy ocean and so either he defends himself by adapting to the behaviour of others or he succumbs. This has been the justification we have used for centuries.
We are self-indulgent because we give up our values because others do not apply them and disappoint us. It is not by chance that we are born innocent and with time become more and more distrustful. Experience tells us that beyond fine words lies real life. The problem arises when certain attitudes lead to results of an irremediable and permanent nature.
As a defence against this kind of tendency, mankind has over time put in place a set of moral and social codes. A clear example of the former is religion, and of the latter is the law. Of course, man, being corruptible and not immune to the seven deadly sins, sometimes fails when he tries to impose or enforce these rules, and this leads people to believe in them less and less.
So how can we interrupt this dog that keeps trying to bite its own tail? On reflection, I could only think of one solution that has always been hidden in front of our eyes. It is the education we give to the younger generation. I know what you are thinking. Filling the minds of young people with values may not be a good service since others would not do it.
In my humble opinion, however, it is enough to focus on an aspect that has always been too undervalued. Conscience. Those who do not believe in anything cannot have a conscience. This is not a status that is necessarily achieved through religion, it is more of an environmental and educational factor. Conscience is the child of compassion and a sense of honour.
If we consider the fact that we are naturally predisposed to suffer more for those closest to us, it is immediately clear that by moving further and further away from our neighbour, we limit our ability to develop a conscious conscience. In this way, we are pushing the new generations further and further into the abyss, as they could be manipulated by the absence of conscience or by the establishment of a false conscience based on values that might suit the manipulators best.
I realise that I am talking about things that are bigger than myself, it is in fact only a reflection, I would be happy to read your thoughts on the matter in the comments.
Happy Easter to all