Beyond Good and Evil; How vanity became “confidence,” and wrath a reason for therapy, rather than moral condemnation.

April 12, 2013, 3:07 p.m. ET

Beyond Good and Evil

How vanity became “confidence,” and wrath a reason for therapy, rather than moral condemnation.


Sin isn’t what it used to be. St. Paul counted 17 things that would automatically scupper a sinner’s chances of getting into the kingdom of heaven; by the fourth century, that catalog had shrunk to eight: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust and gluttony, as well as sorrow and boasting. Pope Gregory I dropped the last two offenses and added envy, giving us the shortlist of seven that we have been feeling guilty about ever since. Or at least professing to.

The Seven Deadly Sins

Edited by Rosalind Porter
Union Books, 203 pages, $24.95Have Another A panel from Martin Rowson’s cartoon treatise on ‘Gluttony.’

“We’re a lot easier on ourselves these days,” Alex Clark notes in her preface to this frisky anthology of modern musings on the cardinal vices. “Should someone, perhaps in the process of opening up to you, confide that they’re feeling a bit guilty about something they’ve done, or not done, or said, or not said, then your reply might default to a variation of: ‘Come on: don’t beat yourself up about it.’ ” A different sort of reply would in fact be unsupportive—itself a far worse modern sin.

Dylan Evans points out, in a supremely elegant essay, that “gluttony is now a psychological problem for which we should feel sympathy, rather than a vice that must be condemned.” Pride has become self-esteem, fostered by the self-help industry. “And lust is positively de rigueur.” Mr. Evans, however, is here to put the case for greed. Capitalism is usually denounced as a promoter of conscienceless acquisition, but he neatly skewers the assumption that greed and capitalist civilization necessarily go hand in hand.

Interestingly, the presence of trade and markets in a society appears to stimulate rather than inhibit the spread of norms concerning sharing and fair exchange. Remember Marx’s vision of a primitive communist society, in which noble savages distribute the spoils of the hunt to each according to his need? In real foraging societies, meat is shared through “tolerated theft” or “demand sharing.” (Everyone begs the person with the meat to share a bit, and the loudest wins.) In other words, “meat is distributed to each according to his greed.” The desire to acquire more than others seems to be an essential human trait, which we eliminate at our peril. Without it we would lack the drive to compete, and, Mr. Evans concludes bleakly, “all forms of individual excellence and self-expression would vanish.”

If greed is simply another form of individualism, then lust, David Flusfeder suggests, “is sexual desire with a bad press agent”—in the English-speaking world, at least. He contributes a poignant memoir of an erotically charged encounter with a female friend, a relationship that teeters on the edge of becoming an affair, but doesn’t, thanks to inertia (his) and ambivalence (hers). Along the way he delivers a telling etymology of lust: The word used by Augustine, next to St. Paul perhaps the loudest railer of all against lust, is libido, which translates into English as “desire.” Today, equating desire and transgression seems to be a phenomenon peculiar to English-speaking cultures. Mr. Flusfeder rather wistfully quotes Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s indictment of prudes in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”: “At the very heart of rapture they remain aloof, offering you only half-delights. That absolute self-abandon, that ecstasy of the senses when pleasure is purified in its own excess, all that is best in love is quite unknown to them.” Exactly.

“The Seven Deadly Sins” is full of such seductively subversive insights, some of them sociological but most of them psychological. Ali Smith contributes a tenderly humorous short story about envy, and Nicola Barker a spiky one about vanity that taps into the word’s two senses of self-regard and futility. John Sutherland, in his overview of our changing cultural perceptions of wrath, swoops nimbly from the Old and New Testaments to Seneca and Shakespeare before alighting on Rousseau and Blake. The very gravitas of the word “wrath,” he argues, sets it apart not only from lightweight synonyms (would we be as moved by the “peevishness” of Lear?) but from the other sins. Wrath, after all, is the only sin owned up to by God (as Psalm 7 has it: “God is a righteous judge, a God who expresses his wrath every day”). Today we call it anger and have classes to teach us to manage it.

Only political cartoonist Martin Rowson seems earnestly determined to point the finger back to the reader, dealing with gluttony in a brilliantly emetic piece of graphic art that shows where your burger came from and that will put paid to any cravings for a Big Mac for some time.

What about sloth? The self-confessedly slothful Todd McEwen offers a quirky riff on the topic that includes a trip to the zoo, where he comes face to face with his animal counterpart, Choloepus hoffmanni. “Was there something admirable in this little chap, I thought, or at least some slap in the face for the Bible?” Well, sloths don’t put much energy into reproduction, typically managing only one offspring. They are too lazy to be gluttonous: Instead of searching for food, they wait for the wind to waft them across to the next tree. (“Surely this is the apogee of calmness, if not out-and-out Buddhism.”) It soon becomes clear that if universally applied, the sin of sloth could, with a minimal outlay of effort, disable the other deadly six, leaving a world of harmless couch potatoes. And there we have it, sinners: the problem of human morality solved.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

One Response to Beyond Good and Evil; How vanity became “confidence,” and wrath a reason for therapy, rather than moral condemnation.

  1. Otrazhenie says:

    Very good post. So true.

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