The Seven Deadly Sins Revisited

I have noted before my interest in the Oxford Press series on the Seven Deadly Sins. Here is what I had to say the first time:

Part of me wonders whether these aren’t simply elegant excuses for ignoring the reason for listing of the Seven Deadly Sins in the first place, that is to avoid them. But the reader in me finds the subject interesting and the packaging attractive.

Abram Van Engen’s Books and Culture review of the series so far (there are three books not yet published) has reinforced my original instincts. I have far too many books to read wihtout adding books that dance around a subject, no matter how witty or elegant. You can feel Van Engen’s frustration coming out in the review:

An editor’s note explains that these books are intended “to chart the ways we have approached and understood evil, one deadly sin at a time.” The problem, however, is that the series lifts seven names from an old and closely detailed map in order to draw a new and rather vague one, occasionally replacing what once was a warning with a blessing . . . Joseph Epstein’s thoughts and anecdotes concerning envy are in the same vein. Epstein—the lapidary essayist who was for many years editor of The American Scholar—defines envy by a question: “Why does he have it and not I?” And while he poses the fine line between actual and perceived injustice, he does no more than that. Nowhere in Envy do we actually find out what envy is—much less, why it constitutes a sin; what is missing is a conceptual analysis of the vice proposed. The book feels quite sophisticated, but the feeling is belied by its limited claims. Regarding the place of envy in human nature, for example, Epstein is unprepared or unwilling to comment. Some say this, some say that, no one really knows. In the end, Epstein sends us out on our own: “one must decide, finally, whether envy is or is not a part of human nature.” It would be nice if he could help. Yet swept along by brilliantly smooth prose full of wit and panache, the reader almost forgets that the writer is hardly making a substantive, ethical claim.

He finds the Phyllis Tickle volume on greed a bit more on target but still lacking in depth and context. Given my gut feeling and this review I think I will save my money. The last think I need is a sophisticated reason to indulge in greed, envy, or lust.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).