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The Seven Deadly Sins:
Jewish, Christian, and Classical Reflections on Human Nature

by Solomon Schimmel
Free Press, 298 pages, $22.95

Professor of Jewish Education and Psychology at the Hebrew College, Boston, and a practicing psychologist, Solomon Schimmel here addresses the theme of the seven deadly sins. He argues that the category of “sin” has been neglected by “secularists,” whereas the “sins of tradition, and particularly the seven deadly ones, are primarily concerned with what it means to be human and humane and the responsibility that we have to fulfill if we want to be considered as such.” “Pleasure,” he says, “will give way to unhappiness because it alone cannot sustain us spiritually,” and “most sins … concern the core of what we are, of what we can become, and most importantly, of what we should aspire to be. Amoral psychology is uncomfortable with ‘oughts’—it prefers to think that it can deal with the facts about human nature, shunning values.”

To conduct his “reflections on human nature,” Schimmel calls upon three great moral traditions—Judaism, Greco-Roman moral philosophy, and Christianity—and, as he tells us, also “culls the psychological insights of poets such as Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton.”

The book opens with a brief survey of “the three great moral traditions on sin and vice,” and then proceeds to a chapter-by-chapter collection of thoughts on each of the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, anger, lust, gluttony, greed, and sloth—the last of which he defines as “the loss of one’s spiritual moorings in life” (where the discussion shades over into depression, anomie, despair).

The final chapter deals with “sin and responsibility.” Here the issue is free will vs. determinism. “My own view,” he avers,

is that the determinist model is more scientifically useful than the free-will one in the search for a better understanding of why we behave as we do. However, our use of the language of freedom remains valuable and even necessary. It enhances our self-esteem, encourages us to develop self-control, and reminds us how limited are our understanding of behavior and our ability to predict and control it.

In more concrete terms: “When considering the responsibility for certain sins or crimes, the free-will model will often be unjustifiably harsh, and the determinist model unjustifiably lenient.” Here is Schimmel’s conclusion:

We have seen that many discussions of sin and vice in classical and religious literature are aesthetic gems which make fascinating reading. Many great thinkers … were also brilliant stylists. They merged content and form to create powerful works that can be read repeatedly with profit and delight.… If contemporary therapists made greater use in treatment of the powerful appeal of art and imagination, they would probably have greater and more lasting impact. Perhaps the tantrums of the angry, the stinginess of the miser, the maliciousness of the envious, and the voraciousness of the glutton would decrease, if they periodically read literature or watched films in which the ludicrousness and self-destructive nature of their sins were portrayed. Therapists should at least test the hypothesis that the aesthetic-dramatic power of treatment programs can improve their chances of success.

Within the topical program at hand, the seven chapters that form the shank of the book follow a single pattern: an allusion to a contemporary event (often, the Gulf War), a case (“a patient of mine was …”), the particular sin as treated in Judaism, Christianity, Greco-Roman and medieval writings (very, very heavily quoted), contemporary “moralists, psychological comments [often: more cases], and so on.”

In other words, Schimmel has taken a perfectly good idea—indeed, a potentially fascinating one—and turned it into little more than a collection of banalities and commonplaces. That a book should, as this one does, appeal to aesthetics in such lifeless prose, announce portentously the discovery of the obvious, and propose a thesis that is never either fully analyzed or argued, leaves one wondering what both author and publisher might have had in their minds. One very special achievement, however, Schimmel must be credited for: he has managed to make sin boring.

How has he succeeded in turning an important, even fascinating, subject into a pedestrian one? By ignoring the creative thinkers of our own time who have conducted sustained and rigorous thought on Schimmel’s own theme: human nature on the one side, ethics and moral responsibility on the other. Schimmel treats the writings of Reform rabbis with their homiletical free association, but he ignores, for example, Bernard Gert’s great book, The Moral Rules—a work that has been in print for decades. Nor is this the only lacuna; there are even bigger ones in his strange canon. The name of Kant doesn’t appear in the bibliography, nor does that of Hobbes.

Why people commit the seven deadly sins doesn’t really interest Schimmel, despite his claims of “reflect[ing] on human nature.” Schimmel leaps over the great philosophers and moral theologians of our own day, as though no one but he were interested in why people sin or what sin is.

As far as he seems to be concerned, the vast academic literature of morality, both philosophical and theological, the enormous and vigorous debates on personality and culture, character and conscience, public policy and religious conviction—these might as well have taken place on the moon. Thus instead of addressing the issues on which, in real life, theological or philosophical debate raised controverted possibilities, and about which people such as Maimonides or Aquinas, Milton or Shakespeare, not to mention Jesus or Plato or Moses, took up what were, and were meant to be, highly partisan positions, he merely invokes, by quotation, the authority of this one or that one. So the honest debate of the past is transformed into a commonplace book of maxims and adages.

In the end, Schimmel’s failure derives from addressing a theological question without the tools of theology, and a philosophical problem without making a study of philosophy. He talks about religion, but his is an essentially secular mode of thought. He condemns secularists for ignoring the writers he reads. But how theological a mind do psychologists need in order to take the position that while “the determinist model is more scientifically useful,” it’s okay to “use the language of freedom” because after all that language is useful, too. In other words, you don’t have to believe in free will, but if you persuade people they have it, they can control themselves.

But the Judaic, Christian, and classical philosophers and theologians really believed in the things that they were saying. They did not argue that while there are better ways of thought or analysis, by writing nice religious prose they could solve problems. Judaic and Christian teaching on the seven deadly sins defined sin as rebellion against God. But in the pages of this book, God makes no appearance at all. Issues of authentic faith in the living, commanding God, who demands virtue and condemns sin, likewise never arise.

All Schimmel really shows us is, to borrow from the late Fats Waller, if you don’t know what theology is, don’t mess with it. He seems to think that sin has something to do with aesthetics, perhaps because some philosophers and theologians write great prose. But if they do, it is because they think great thoughts and find great words for expressing them. No wonder, then, that Schimmel reduces his message to advising other therapists to get patients to go see movies that portray their vices as ludicrous.

This finally silly book underscores the pathos of the instrumental theory of religiosity: you can’t have the advantages of religion if you’re not religious. Religion is not useful. It’s true. Or it’s not true. But it’s never meant to be merely useful.

Jacob Neusner is Distinguished Research Professor of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida, Tampa, and Life Member, Clare Hall, Cambridge University. His latest book is From Philosophy to Religion: The Transformation of Judaism (University of Illinois Press, 1992).

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash. Image cropped.