We can talk about becoming better men because that’s exactly the sort of high-minded, feel-good nonsense we like to do. It makes us feel like we’ve done something though we haven’t, as though being oriented toward progress is the same as progressing.
Let’s not talk about it. Unless we understand the nature of the fight, we won’t get far, so let’s start at the beginning. Let’s demarcate the battlefield and define the enemy.
The enemy is twofold: the enemy within and the enemy without.
The enemy without can be thought of as diabolical or demonic forces, the malevolence of others (supernatural or natural) enacted upon us. We should be aware that they exist, that we might be catching some hell from them, and that there are circumstances we might find ourselves in, through no fault of our own, that they have orchestrated. But, if we take care of ourselves, prepare ourselves, by taming the enemy within, the enemy without has little influence.
The enemy within is our primary concern and the result of our fallen nature. If we do not actively seek good we passively practice evil and chaos. Not always and in everything, but it’s our general tendency. We have dispositions that lead us toward disordered uses of ordered things, things which do not hinder us in any way when properly conceived and utilized and loved, but which destroy us when we try to appropriate them outside of their natural use. The disordered use of ordered things can be thought of as sin, which infects us. In order to be better, we must constantly battle against this tendency within ourselves.
Solzhenitsyn wrote that the line between good and evil is drawn not between classes or races or tribes or nationalities, but right down the middle of every human heart. The entrenched sinner can have cultivated fields of evil there, but still retain one small plot of good. Likewise, the saint can have cultivated fields of goodness, but still retain one small plot of evil. This temptation toward evil can’t be eradicated in this life, but it can be beat back to nearly nothing, and that’s what we must work toward.
If our principal enemy is our natural disposition to do what is wrong and disordered then it’s clear that the battlefield is sin, or rather the eradication of it. You cannot improve yourself in any meaningful sense if you are not prepared to define sin and address it.
Luckily, our battlefield was defined and demarcated back in the fourth century by an Eastern monk named Evagrius Ponticus. To address his faults, improve himself, and draw nearer to God, he developed a list of the types of disordered or assaultive thoughts (called logismoi in Greek) that caused him to fail and how he might address them when they showed themselves. This list was further elaborated on by Saint John Cassian, who introduced it to Western Christianity.
The list was eventually compressed and codified by Pope Gregory I in 590AD, and has come to be known as the Seven Deadly Sins. Knowing and being able to recognize the Seven Deadly Sins allows men to be able to curb their evil inclinations and to defeat assaultive thoughts before they cause dire consequences.
We cannot try to become better men without knowing what better might mean. Perhaps I’ll write more explaining why eradicating sin and cultivating virtue is the obvious method, but trust me when I say it is the starting point. Better means being more virtuous and less sinful. So it is important to know exactly in which ways we are most likely to fail.
There are seven. Here I will briefly introduce each and in the coming weeks elaborate on them and how to combat them.
I list pride first because pride is the essence of all evil. Any other kind of sin will have pride at its root. What is pride? Saint Augustine wrote that, "It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels." Pride is a disordered view of oneself, respecting oneself for the wrong reasons, having an excessive belief in one’s own abilities. It is the opposite of humility and obscures one’s ability to recognize the Grace of God. All sin is accomplished through the belief that one knows better than the Logos which ordered all.
Lust is an inordinate craving for pleasure of the body, mostly sexual pleasure. Lust is a disordered view of romantic love, one which sees the physical pleasure of the act entirely divorced from the self-sacrifice and procreative ends that ought to accompany it.
Gluttony is a preoccupation with the body. It’s often thought of as overeating, which is one case of gluttony, but eating too little can also be an expression of gluttony. Gluttony is an excessive obsession with food and drink, either too much or too little, as well as an obsession with physical fitness or physical beauty.
Sloth is laziness or despondency in the face of goodness. It is an indifference to the gifts of God, the commandments of God, and to God Himself. It is a laziness of spiritual pursuit, which may not look like what we typically regard as laziness. It’s possible to mask this laziness toward spiritual work as busyness or "workaholism". It is the avoidance of important hard work by any means, including unimportant hard work. It is a desire for ease, spiritual and physical. Sloth often manifests itself in a boredom in attending Mass or church services, or a boredom in praying or otherwise nourishing the soul. For that reason, Saint Thomas Aquinas called it "the sin against the Sabbath."
Envy is a sadness in the presence of the goodness of others, often accompanied by the thought, "They should not have that because I do not have that." Envy is the justification of our deficiencies in light of those who do not have them. Instead of a desire to emulate the good in others, we would rather defend ourselves for not having that good. The primary way Envy is manifested in the world today is through moral relativism. If there is no moral standard or objective truth, then everyone is absolved of any potential sins and no amount of my neighbor’s goodness can trump my own goodness. In this case, Envy is excusing yourself from attaining the goodness of those who are good by denying good exists at all.
Covetousness or Greed is an excessive desire for material wealth, a desire for that which we do not possess, and a disordered and excessive desire to control people, places, and things. It is entrenching oneself in the world and condemning the eternal for the sake of the temporal. The love of money is an obvious manifestation of Covetousness. A less obvious manifestation I’ve read about is the contraceptive mentality that has exploded since the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Father Stephen Torraco writes:
"The contraceptive mentality is the distorted attempt to control one’s own as well as another’s body, including the human capacity for sexual loving and procreation… [It] has reduced woman to a merely passive receptacle of male predatory tendencies."
Wrath or Anger, first of all, should not be confused with the emotion of anger. The sin of Anger is not an emotion, but the emotion is often present in it. Wrath/Anger is a mix of sadness and hatred in the presence of objective truth. It’s a reaction of cognitive dissonance, of recognizing something as true while not wanting it to be. When someone tells you that you believe wrong or you are doing wrong and there’s any inkling of doubt within yourself about the rightness of what you believe or do, you might hate that person and become angry with that person. Because they might be right and you know it and you don’t want them to be.
What To Do With This Knowledge
We know what the battlefield is, we know what we are facing, but how do we use it? In the coming weeks I’ll delve deeper into each of the Deadly Sins and elaborate on what should be looked for and what should be done more specifically regarding each.
Until then, practice recognizing each sin in yourself and remember what situations trigger them.
You should also know that all sins start first as disordered cognitions, so start learning how to recognize those cognitions and how to engage with or ignore them. I’ve written an article called, Defeating Assaultive Thoughts, which lays out some ancient wisdom about doing just that.
Prepare yourself for battle daily. This is the start.
More from "The Seven Deadly Sins" series:
- Fighting Sloth: How to Acquire Diligence
- Fighting Greed: How to Acquire Liberality
- Fighting Envy: How to Acquire Contentedness
- Fighting Wrath: How to Acquire Patience
- Fighting Lust: How to Acquire Chastity
- Fighting Gluttony: How to Acquire Temperance
- Fighting Pride: How to Acquire Humility
- An Introduction to the Seven Heavenly Virtues