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the seven deadly sins or cardinal sins

What does the seven deadly sins mean?

Originating in Christian theology, the seven deadly sins are pride, envy, gluttony, greed, lust, sloth, and wrath. Pride is sometimes referred to as vanity or vainglory, greed as avarice or covetousness, and wrath as anger. Gluttony covers self-indulgent excess more generally, including drunkenness.

image of the seven deadly sins

Where does the seven deadly sins come from?

While the concept of an inventory of moral offenses has roots in antiquity, Pope Gregory I first enumerated the seven deadly sins in the late sixth century. For his list, Gregory drew from the ideas of Evargius Ponticus, a fourth century Christian monk who identified eight evils humans should resist. Broadly speaking, the seven deadly sins function as ethical guidelines.

In his influential 13th-century text Summa Theologica, Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas further expounded on the seven deadly sins, which he called “capital vices.” To Aquinas, the seven deadly sins were the cause of all other offenses: “In this way a capital vice is one from which other vices arise.” Capital comes from the Latin caput, “head,” Aquinas explains. The head leads the body as the capital vices, chief among them pride and greed, lead to further immorality.

About a century after Aquinas published Summa Theologica, capital meant “deadly” in English. A capital crime or punishment, for instance, involved the loss of life, or the head, metaphorically. A “deadly” sin thus suggests a grave and destructive act. The seven deadly sins are also called cardinal sins, with cardinal meaning “fundamental” and echoing capital’s sense of causation.

The seven deadly sins also have counterparts, the seven heavenly virtues: humility (opposed to pride), kindness (envy), temperance (gluttony), charity (greed), chastity (lust), diligence (sloth), and patience (wrath).

Many great works of literature have explored the seven deadly sins, including Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Dante’s Purgatorio, and Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene. 16th-century Dutch-Flemish Renaissance master Brueghel the Elder strikingly painted all seven deadly sins, as did American painter Paul Cadmus some 400 years later. In popular culture, the seven deadly sins inspired the plot of the 1995 thriller Seven and a manga/anime series, The Seven Deadly Sins.

A few things to note…

Outside of art, literature, and theology, writers and presenters often employ the seven deadly sins as a device to advise against poor practices in a particular line of work, activity, or phenomenon. For instance: the Seven Deadly Sins of American Politics, the Seven Deadly Sins of Punctuation, the Seven Deadly Sins of PowerPoint Presentations, the Seven Deadly Sins of Financial Management. The seven deadly sins also enjoy wide use as a common cultural reference, often with playful variations on the classic sins, across a variety of registers.

For example…

“The concept of the Seven Deadly Sins has at least this to be said for it: that it does not allow us to compartmentalize our lives, any more than it lets us image we can sin in compartments.”

Henry Fairlie, The Seven Deadly Sins Today (2015)

“They will ultimately be discomfited by the fact that envy is the only one of the seven deadly sins that does not give the sinner even momentary pleasure.”

George Will, “What Bernie Sanders doesn’t understand about economic equality,” The Washington Post (October 16, 2015)

“The Seven Deadly Sins: 1) neediness 2) boring 3) negativity 4) insecurity 5) predictable 6) logical-communication 7) submissive”

pickupartist101 @sexmanipulation Twitter (March 12, 2017)

This is not a formal definition of the seven deadly sins like most terms we define on Dictionary.com, but is rather an informal word summary that touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of the seven deadly sins that will help you expand your word mastery.