Say what you like – and there isn’t much to like in the context – the old Christian theologians were pretty astute when it came to writing moral codes. The Seven Deadly, or Capital, sins are a fine example. After the Ten Commandments what to add to God’s Word? A philosophical gloss is what. The erroneous zones itemised are cleverly wide-ranging and embrace the motivations that prompt sin rather than castigating any specific sinful behaviour. As with Buddhism, the trick question is ‘yes, but what were you thinking?’ So the question is asked in a form that covers every human frailty.
Like many aspects of 21st Century life, sin is not as much fun as it used to be. For one thing, it has become quite complex in definition and elusive in the way it is punished. Time was, everyone knew the Ten Commandments and what the Seven Deadlies stood for. You made your choice, broke the rules and lived with the consequences of being a sinner. These were, in the first instance, the opprobrium of the prevailing moral authority. This would be accompanied, if confessed, by a variety of penances and heavy threats about eternity. Some sins of course would receive earthly punishment, which usually involved considerable pain if not death and dismemberment. In some cultures they still do. Perhaps the level of risk involved added real spice to the commission of the sinful act. Until quite recently in our own dear country, adultery risked the visit of a private detective and, if you were worth it, a News of the World reporter with cameras. Somehow, checking into a hotel as Mr and Mrs Smith and wondering if you had been followed had an aphrodisiac quality. Oddly, women especially liked this element of risk. Partly because it forced the commitment issue and also because it was an act of defiance in the face of social expectation. However, chaps were expected to do the decent thing, whatever that was. Either dumping the mistress or leaving the wife, I can’t remember.
Anyway, nowadays, being deemed a cad demands a lot more sustained effort and even then a result is not guaranteed. It is remarkable really, how different has been the fate of say, Angus Deayton compared to Wayne Rooney. Maybe it is a class thing: snide, posh chatshow bastard still struggling on the fringes of show business, versus the enduringly heroic spud-faced nipper from top footie club.
All this may seem as though Lust is what is being discussed. Yes, but there are many other sins potentially involved in illicit or promiscuous sex. There is Envy, Anger and even Gluttony (considering the role of lunch in adultery and alcohol in general promiscuity).
Notwithstanding the satirical treatment of celebrity sinners, modern civilisation has taken an increasingly relaxed view of sin and to some extent revised the definitions. This has made being a sinner more ambiguous. We no longer think in terms of broad concepts, but of very specific contexts; so far as morality is concerned, in the old legal phrase ‘circumstances alter cases’. One celebrity’s three-in-a-bed drug romp is different from another’s. So it is important to keep the definitions clear. ‘Being a sinner’ in the sense of oneself committing a sin, is totally different to the sinfulness of other people who contravene the prevailing moral code.
Gluttony is a good example. As a society we are obsessed with food, and have elevated its preparation, presentation and consumption to a pathological level. But it’s not our mania for food that is regarded as sinful, but its consequences. Obesity, the natural result of gluttony, is regarded as the cardinal sin. Spare flesh used to be regarded indulgently, if only because it suggested wealth, and it was generally associated with a jolly personality; hence Father Christmas and Mr Pickwick. Women claimed to fancy men with a bit of weight and substance and men liked women with something to get hold of. ‘Love-handles’ was the affectionate term used to describe the little rolls of fat between waist and hips. Nowadays fat people are regarded with contempt as weak-willed and self-indulgent. They don’t get promoted and airlines resent them. As a primary sin, ‘fat’ has become so deplored that the 60% of our population who are classed as overweight are forming anti-fatism movements. Maybe their slogan will be ‘death to anorexics’.
Pride is about the only sin to have retained its original subtlety of manifestation and interpretation. It must be indulged in sparingly. One’s country, team and appearance are all due a discreet measure of indulgence in this emotion. In the lust area, proud and jutting breasts or penises are to be applauded. However, pride does indeed come before a fall (or a war) and humans like nothing better than to see the proud brought low (unless on their side). Luckily, celebrity culture provides plenty of opportunity to witness the fun element – hence Piers Morgan, the England football team, and Peter Andre.
Wrath on the other hand is now especially difficult. Time was when a bit of righteous anger – in homage to the God of Abraham who was always in a state of incipient rage – would be positively approved. Poachers, Huns, insulters or seducers of our womenfolk, oiks: all were legitimate candidates for serious crossness involving shotguns, cannon fire and horsewhips. Nowadays, even telling some idle labourer he is a useless git and hence fired is enough to bring down the police because an expression of anger accompanied by a pithy insult and an admonitory finger wagging – however merited – is seen as assault. On the other hand, women and minorities of any sort (ethnicity, body type, political persuasion and cause if leftwing) are allowed to be as angry as they like and scream vile calumnies against men, Tories or white people and anyone with enough money to shop in Waitrose.
Anger is often driven by Envy. This is no longer seen as a sin because the envious are now redefined as the poor and needy. People who own four bedroom houses or large cars or second homes or have holidays in the Caribbean or speak quite nicely are hated because they are enviable. Africans and Bangladeshi villagers envy Europeans. Celebrities are envied for being famous and women with big tits are envied for being envied. Of course, when society was so ordered that the rich man was in his castle and the poor man was at his gate, there was a clear hierarchy of envy. But nowadays, those who do the envying are to be supported and subsidised and the objects of their envy are to be despised. Oh, and don’t you think that your friend Rupert’s wife Lucy – who he is so rude to – is doubly desirable because he is so fucking rich it makes you sick?
Lust is as ever the most entertaining sin. Sexual desire and those things that promote it cheer up the day and lead to many adventures. Sadly, modern morals and manners have emulated the Commandments in proscribing even imaginative lust – not on the grounds of adultery in the heart but because it is insulting to women. You can’t even look, let alone touch. There are some Orwellian undertones to contemporary feminist mores regarding the essentially physical element of the sexual urge. Without a female-controlled context or culturally sanctioned romantic overlay this impulse is crude and primitive, the argument runs. There is an order of people who indulge in an animalistic way: they are most often found on cheap flights to even cheaper holiday resorts. They will contract STDs, and having carelessly bred and abandoned their progeny they will at some time in the future rise up in envy and wrath. Thus causing a lot of trouble for those of us who are trying to keep Gordon Ramsey’s restaurants going and prop up the property market by buying more holiday homes. Luckily, there are still lots of fine women who are up for good sex. They are up for respect too, but not at the expense of pleasure. Lily Allen has a very jolly song on this topic.
Avarice is extremely interesting as it was once an exclusive sin, confined to the able and ambitious. But over the years it has become much more democratically available. In the old days only the rich could actually afford avarice and truly enjoy the large mansions, yachts and furs that their constant accumulation of wealth bought for them. By the end of the 20th century, thanks to banks and credit cards, everyone was encouraged to be avaricious and buy as many houses, TVs, cars and holidays as they wanted. If you were called Hefner or Berlusconi you could buy other accoutrements as well.
Greed indeed became good, yet sadly the dream turned sour and only the bankers could continue to indulge their fantasies of richness. Except perhaps for professional footballers. Ultimately, avarice is a sin we can only recognise in those whom we envy for the manifestation of their superior cleverness and hence wealth. In our own way of life it is an unnecessarily puritanical critique of the motivational force that causes us to work eighteen-hour days and apply for Platinum Charge Cards.
And so, as our eyelids droop, we come to Sloth. If the media are to be believed, this sin has completely vanished. Everyone is too stressed out and filled with work to even take the weekend off. Oh, except for the undeserving poor who refuse to get jobs and loaf around watching daytime TV – along with all those pensioners too feckless to get out and volunteer for something. This must be the audience for all the sofa ads that clutter ITV3 during the day. As I am told they do. Sofas are of course there to lie about on waiting for the Domino’s pizza while watching the shopping channels. Ideally this would be with a companion who is a terrific shag and with whom to share envy of that lucky sod next door who won the lottery.
Bruno Phillips’s book, The Main Point: The Life and Work of a Porno Film Maker, is available now at Amazon.