The Seven Deadly Sins: A Very Partial List

November 13, 2008

The notion of sin may be unfashionable, but the publication of Susan Emanuel's translation into English (in collaboration with the author) of this short, accessible book is rather timely, since it coincides with the recent condemnation of the "greed" of bankers in the City of London, which seems to have made sin suddenly relevant again.

Aviad Kleinberg begins with the uncontroversial claim that "there is no sin without context", and his discussions of the specific sins generally move from a medieval context to a modern one, highlighting shifts and continuities between different cultural settings. He also roams quite freely between religious traditions, although Judaism and Christianity are evidently his main interests.

Following two short and rather haphazard introductory chapters, the book focuses on each of the traditional sins in turn - sloth, envy, lust, gluttony, greed, anger and pride. The author then adds to these an eighth sin of self-righteousness.

Typically, each chapter begins by examining the sin in question in a variety of ancient texts, then considers it from a contemporary secular perspective, and concludes with a personal anecdote or a very general reflection intended to provoke further thought in the reader.

The chapter on gluttony, for example, starts with the Church's definition of the sin and with Seneca's condemnation of over-eating, and then proceeds to discuss Christian asceticism.

The well-known case of Catherine of Siena leads naturally to reflections on modern-day anorexia and comfort eating, and on phenomena such as plastic surgery, obesity, dieting groups and going to the gym. "The body has been liberated", writes Kleinberg; "as it turns out, however, this liberation from old guilts has given rise to new ones. The new, liberated Western body has become a master that often proves more exacting than the medieval soul."

He concludes the chapter with a cheerful description of his teenage son's guilt-free happiness after eating a huge portion of steak, and this exemplifies the author's liberal, non-judgmental perspective.

Kleinberg describes Seven Deadly Sins as "an essay on the human passions", and situates it not within modern academic discourse, but rather within an ancient tradition of Jewish writing in which authors avoid saying too much in order to "let the reader complete the sentences". Combining elements of psychology, comparative literature, history, philosophy and autobiography, Kleinberg writes in an engaging style, although his endnotes reveal a wealth of scholarly resources underlying his populist project. He is not aiming to offer a history of sin, or to engage in theological debates, nor yet to develop a psychological analysis of transgression and guilt - but exactly what his purpose is in writing this book is perhaps less clear.

The range of this essay, given its short length, is impressive, and aspects of Kleinberg's discussion of the sins are both fascinating and entertaining.

However, on the whole it appears opinionated rather than rigorously argued, and many of the opinions offered are not particularly striking or profound. The author lapses too often into generalisation, blithely attributing views or attitudes to "the Church", "society", or "the West", and telling us what "we" think, as though author and reader can be assumed to constitute a homogeneous body of secular humanist post-Enlightenment liberalism.

Readers with any theological sensibility will no doubt feel dissatisfied with the way in which sin is treated moralistically - that is to say, as a moral category concerned with actions judged unacceptable - rather than spiritually, in terms of a person's relationship to God or some other transcendent power.

Perhaps the book would be more successful if its tone were even more irreverent: as it is, it seems to be stuck somewhere between amusing and insightful.

The Seven Deadly Sins: A Very Partial List

By Aviad Kleinberg
Harvard University Press
208pp
£14.95
ISBN 9780674031418
Published 1 November 2008

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