In the fourth century, a Christian monk named Evagrius Ponticus wrote down what’s known as the “eight evil thoughts”: gluttony, lust, avarice, anger, sloth, sadness, vainglory and pride.
Evagrius wasn’t writing for a general audience. As an ascetic monk in the Eastern Christian church, he was writing to other monks about how these eight thoughts could interfere with their spiritual practice. Evagrius’ student, John Cassian, brought these ideas to the Western church, where they were translated from Greek to Latin. In the sixth century, St. Gregory the Great—who would become Pope Gregory I—rearranged them in his commentary on the Book of Job, removing “sloth” and adding “envy.” Instead of giving “pride” its own place on the list, he described it as the ruler of the other seven vices, which became known as the seven deadly sins.
“They’re called ‘mortal’ or ‘deadly’ because they lead to the death of the soul,” says Richard G. Newhauser, an English professor at Arizona State University who has edited books about the seven deadly sins. “Committing one of these mortal sins and not confessing, not doing penance and so on, will result in the death of the soul. And then you’ll be in hell for eternity, or your soul will be in hell for eternity.”
Thomas Aquinas Revisits the List
Fast forward to the 13th century, when theologian Thomas Aquinas again revisited the list in Summa Theologica (“Summary of Theology”). In his list, he brought back “sloth” and eliminated “sadness.” Like Gregory, Aquinas described “pride” as the overarching ruler of the seven sins. The Catechism of the Catholic Church’s current capital sins are basically the same as Aquinas’, except that “pride” replaces “vainglory.”
The seven deadly sins were a popular motif in medieval art and literature, and this likely helped them persist as a concept through the centuries, eventually entering film and television. The movies Se7en (1995) and Shazam (2019) both deal with the seven deadly sins. Even on Gilligan’s Island, the American sitcom that aired from 1964-1967, each character was supposed to represent a different deadly sin, according to the show’s creator (Gilligan was “sloth”). Here, we take a look at the list that has fascinated people for so long.
1. Vainglory / Pride
Lists of the seven sins often use vainglory and pride interchangeably. But technically, they’re not the same thing, says Kevin M. Clarke, a professor of scripture and patristics at St. Patrick's Seminary and University who has edited a book of historical writings on the seven deadly sins.
“Vainglory is kind of like that vice that makes us check our ‘like’ counts on social media,” he says. “Vainglory is where we seek human acclaim.” In contrast, “pride is a sin where I essentially take spiritual credit for what I’ve done,” instead of “ascribing one’s good deeds to God.”
“Gregory the Great wrote that avarice is not just a desire for wealth but for honors [and] high positions,” Newhauser says. “So he was aware that things that we would consider as immaterial could also be the object of avarice.” While some of the sins may vary between lists, avarice or greed shows up on all of them.
“Evagrius doesn’t have envy in his list,” Clarke says, but Evagrius did include sadness. “Sadness is closely related to envy because envy concerns really two things: One is joy at another’s misfortune and [the other is] sorrow at the fortune of someone else.”
Gregory articulated this when he added envy to his list of vices, writing that envy engendered “exultation at the misfortunes of a neighbour, and affliction at his prosperity.”
Anger can be a normal reaction to injustice, but wrath is something more. The Catechism says that “If anger reaches the point of a deliberate desire to kill or seriously wound a neighbor, it is gravely against charity; it is a mortal sin.” Medieval artists depicted wrath with scenes of people fighting as well as scenes of suicide.
Lust is so broad that it encompasses sex outside of heterosexual marriage as well as sex inside of heterosexual marriage. The Catechism defines lust as a “disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure. Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes.”
Of all the sins, this is probably the one on which public opinion has changed the most. Although the Catholic church officially opposes birth control and same-sex marriage, polls by Gallup and the Pew Research Center show that the majority of Catholics in the United States believe the church should permit birth control and that same-sex marriage should remain legal.
Early Christian theologians understood gluttony to include drinking too much alcohol and desiring too much fine food, in addition to overeating.
“If I just simply have to have the most delicate food, the most expensive food, that can be a form of gluttony,” Clarke says.
Sloth has come to mean “laziness” today, but for early Christian theologians, it meant “a lack of care for performing spiritual duties,” Newhauser says. Although Gregory didn’t include sloth in his list of seven sins, he did mention it when talking about the sin of sadness or melancholy, writing that melancholy causes “slothfulness in fulfilling the commands.”
When Aquinas replaced sadness with sloth in his list of capital sins, he maintained a connecting between the two. “Sloth is a kind of sadness,” he wrote, “whereby a man becomes sluggish in spiritual exercises because they weary the body.”