The seven deadly sins: Gregory the Great


Here’s another sample of what we’re doing here at the Calvin seminar on the seven deadly sins, at Calvin College. What are we talking about? , on the deadly sins (better: “capital vices”) in the thought of Gregory the Great. He mentions all of them in only one place, in the Moralia on Job. But other mentions are scattered throughout. Bob Kruschwitz mentioned between sessions today that Aquinas, in “On Evil,” his own most thorough treatment of the capital vices, cites Gregory 500 times, mostly from all over his Moralia. It is Gregory who reduces Evagrius’s & Cassian’s eight down to seven, and sets a number of the ways that thinkers thereafter (including Aquinas) will talk about the seven. I was getting sleepy (and recording the session with my digital audio recorder for later review) and less was said about Gregory than Evagrius and Cassian, but what I scribbled down is here:

Presenters: Rebecca Konyndyk Deyoung (Calvin College) and Robert Kruschwitz (Baylor University):

Gregory’s Moralia In Iob

There is one big 19th-century translation, being scanned in sections onto the computer. Google Books has a searchable version.

The Moralia on Job is a medieval commentary. Strange bird. Baptists preaching verse by verse—even the most dedicated don’t preach some verses. But Gregory always has a clue for every verse. He always does a moral interpretation, five pages on each one! Not anagogical. But moral, about how you’re supposed to live. So the capital vice stuff is scattered all over this big honkin’ commentary on Job.But the section Aquinas refers to almost half the time when he quotes Gregory is the one in our pack (Moralia Book XXI, 84-91).

This’ll preach!

Job is whining. God shows up: doesn’t say “I’m OK, you’re OK.” Gets in his face, says “I created the world. Do you have any idea what you’re doing.” And goes several more verses: I made Leviathan for fun. Take the war-horse.” And Job says Gotcha: you made the horse. But we made the war-horse, culturally.

And God replies: here’s what’s important about the warhorse–it’s things you humans can’t do, Job! When the trumpet sounds it smells the battle from a distance . . . What makes it valuable is not that it carries you into battle. Cowboys & Indians: the Indians were good at sticking ear to ground. But they also watched their horses: the bad guys coming, your horse heard them. Or if your horse snorted, he was smelling the bad guys or their horses from way off. And you can’t train a horse to do that, because you can’t do that! So the image that God is throwing up in Job’s face is the natural created capacities that God has given the warhorse that you can’t possibly do. That’s what a warrior of God has to learn to do, says Gregory: smell the battle, etc. He will elaborate the seven deadly sins: this is the ur-passage on the seven deadlies: the daughter vices come from this, the particular list, etc.

How does it work? Bottom of p. 1. This is a list for a person who is Christian, elect, firmly rooted even in the peace of virtues (reference to apatheia, purity of heart)—these are the folks who like the warhorse do not rest secure—they place themselves bitternesses: they constantly call to their attention, which is painful, the very possibility of the destruction of the self and its relationship through love to other people and God.

So if you’re that sort of person, where would you start looking: the vice that will get you when you’re good, precisely. Pride. The person who has that accomplishment in spiritual friendship, community, who will get grabbed.

How will this work? You get this on p. 3: one leads to the other. Pride to vainglory, etc. Just the opposite from Serapion in Cassian, starting with gluttony. And it keeps rolling.

The first vices forced themselves into the deluded mind as if under a kind of reason. Like the fall. Never strikes you as a bad move. Looks good because you’re under the thrall of the prior vice. “the first vices force themselves . . .” the only way a vice can engender another vice, says Aquinas, is to change the intellect will system so another end looks tasty to you that didn’t look tasty before. Which becomes a motivation for a  new way of thinking, investigating the world, acting, discovery, planning. That comes right from Gregory’s account of why, for a good person, you start with pride.

Once you have the daughter vices, you have the shouting of the captains, and the bedlam of the daughter vices . . . Pride becomes the super-vice, and these warring armies come pouring in. Degenerates to the point where it’s not just a thought process . . . yeah, once someone is eaten up by avarice (e.g.) it gets crazy.

But notice even gluttony and lust operates on our reason. Not just through the body. Carole Straw in Garden of Evil talks about Evagrius, Cassian as having a bubble-up schema from bodies, passions. Gregory is opposite: this is a progressive dehumanization of the person. First thing to attack is pride, which wipes out the mind, so it becomes slave of all these other things, until you are a slave of gluttony and lust, becoming bestial at the end of the day. The idea being in Gregory that once reason is taken out of the battle, the devil has gotten his way, and you can rationalize anything. And reading Boethius’s Consolation, you get this same picture of how sin works.

Akedia is cut out of Greg’s list, with tristitia, sadness, making the cut. Tradition in Aquinas to use tristitia, Akedia as equivalent “tristitia sive acedia” means “sadness or akedia.” He slips in Akedia every place Gregory says tristitia. For Evagrius sadness comes from incomplete renunciation, avarice. Gregory breaks that link.

Glenn: there’s no similar sense of embodiedness (in the fact that Cassian starts with gluttony). Bob: he’s addressing a pretty elite audience (monastic) who have their act pretty much together. And they’re damn proud of it. That’s the very place we think Christians have avoided going: self-righteousness. That’s where Gregory always starts. So with the Pastoral Rule, the second book, before you get to all the pairs of vices in the third section, you have a whole book on pride. Some article that Rebecca likes that says “the reason Gregory does that is he’s trying to get control of all these unruly priests.” Pride and submission in the Episcopal hierarchy a big deal in his time.” Bob: I think he’s talking to those who think they have their act together.

Justin: any reason for favoring one way of ordering the vices, Cassian’s or Gregory’s way? Or is it a matter of indifference, where it is relative to your audience: any single vice could be the gateway of all the others?

Bob: one argument for pride as the root is the case of Satan. Aquinas starts with “I’m not sure whether demons have bodies or not. But let’s say they’re purely intellectual beings. They have subtle bodies in the earlier tradition—don’t know the future, but move faster than the human report could come. But we must think of some vice you could have without a body as the entryway: wasn’t gluttony or lust for the demons. So assumption is that they thought they were so good they didn’t need God . . . (and so fell).” But human beings, we have vulnerabilities all over the place. Satan opportunistic. Gluttony, vainglory, pride seem to be the three that Adam and Christ are faced with (or variations thereon). A friend of Jay, therapist, just wrote Signature Sins. Michael Mangis.

Aaron: Equifinality and multifinality. Multiple ways to get at same disorder (equi) or starting point gets you to many places (multi). Or, says Rebecca, you can run the tree in any direction. Look at the medieval images: no particular order, progression. Aquinas does give envy and sloth a progressive reading, but that certainly doesn’t work for the whole system.

Jonathan (around 3:00): Different progressions: there’s spiritual to carnal . . . Bob: don’t know if there’s one that is worse or not. Some may deal with more strenuously than other. (Discussion: conclusion: gateway doesn’t mean necessary condition. You don’t HAVE to start at a particular gateway. You could start with pride, not gluttony, or what have you. Like pot and heroin in drug use. Bob: and don’t take these stories as evidence you don’t have this particular problem: I’m not using pot, so my pharmaceutical habit is ok. I’m not into gluttony, so I don’t have to worry.)

David: Is there a “unity of the vices” corresponding to the traditional “unity of the virtues.” Rebecca: not really. Some will code them all as manifestations of pride. But that’s not terribly clear in the tradition. Actually, says one student, Aquinas denies that. Unity of virtues pointed toward same end. But with vice, different objects with different vices. (Like the whiny rat-creatures in Bone or the Orcs in LOTR. Going many directions.) Tolstoy: happy people happy in one way. But miserable people miserable in so many ways.

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