How the Seven Deadly Sins Progress Civilisation

The Seven Deadly Sins are the engine of society.

In his book, Sex, Bombs & Burgers, Peter Nowak describes how the world as we know it is shaped by the three primal forces of lust, aggression and gluttony. This is not a new notion, as more than 2500 years ago, Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus wrote:

War is father of all things  (Πόλεμος πάντων μὲν πατήρ ἐστι)

Nowak takes the old saying from the ancient one a step further and adds lust and gluttony as major drivers for technological advancement. He argues that if it wasn’t for sex, bombs and burgers, what he calls the ‘Shameful Trinity’, we might all still be living in caves. From cars to high-definition televisions, from website logins to microwave popcorn, the origins of all technological advancement can be traced to sinful behaviour.

This books shows that progress is not driven by rational drives for progress itself, but that we are driven by our emotions. We can take dig a little deeper into Nowak’s Shameful Trinity and uncover what since early Christian times has been called the Seven Deadly Sins. Although Christian theology tries to eradicate these seven aspects of humanity from our lives, they are actually what drives us to be who we are. In The Divine Comedy, Dante describes the seven sins as:

Gula (gluttony)

Food is our primary need and has for millennia been the source of many innovations. Our stone age ancestors invented farming and started the neolithical revolution. An in our current times, high tech genetic technology is used to ensure people’s survival and high profits for food companies. The other innovation that food technology has introduced to contemporary society is the strict implementation of scientific management, following in the footsteps of Frederick Taylor. In fast food outlets every second counts and companies such as McDonalds have pioneered many management techniques that shave of those extra few seconds to deliver their fast ‘food’ even faster.

Luxuria (extravagance)

The original list of sins included fornication. But in AD 590 the pope of the time replaced it with extravagance. Lust, or porneia (Πορνεία) in ancient Greek, drives much of our culture. The pornography industry has played a major role in the proliferation of many technologies. Not as the progenitor, but as an early adopter and influence of the market. In the 1980s, when the Betamax and VHS video formats were battling it out for supremacy, the pornography industry played a big role in making VHS the most popular format. A similar ‘battle’ is currently being waged over which of the two blue-laser DVD formats — Blu-ray Disc or HD-DVD — will replace DVDs for high-definition content.

Avaritia (greed)

Unrestrained accumulation of wealth is the basic premise of capitalist philosophy. The idea of unbridled economic growth logically requires an unrestrained desire to buy stuff. Adam Smith postulated an invisible hand. This principle is what allocates resources in society through the conjunction of self-interest, competition and supply & demand. That this invisible hand can not fully self regulate has become apparent in the Global Financial Crisis, which was caused by greed in an unregulated financial system.

Acedia (sloth)

Sloth is a major driver in our quest for technology. Palaeolithic people decided it would be much better to stay in one place rather than moving around all the time so they invented farming. Technology is supposed to make our lives easier — from reclining chairs to snowmobiles, technology allows us to be extremely lazy.

Ira (wrath)

Wrath is the justification for many wars. The first World War started because of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and the current Middle Eastern wars are caused by the wrath incurred because of the terrorist attacks in 2001. The causes of war are, however, mostly more complicated. Long term motives such as colonial expansion in the first and the thirst for oil in the second examples,are possibly the real causes.

Invidia (envy)

The state of envy can be an amazing motivator to improve your own existence. Envying your bosses’ position might drive somebody to perform better and undertake further studies to improve the chances of a promotion. Envy can of course also result in destructive behaviour and is one of the causes of war. Germany envied the allies because of the wealth accumulated through their colonies and thought it would be a good idea to start a war.

Superbia (pride)

Last but not least, pride is one of the great drivers in the fashion industry. Sociologist Goffman agreed with Shakespeare that all the world is but a stage. Goffman described the world as one large play in which we are all actors. As such we need props to communicate our identity to the outside world. In an society where the old anchors have been cut everybody has to seek their own identity and shopping provides the perfect replacement for tradition and religion. We buy certain brands, nit because they are necessarily better than another brand, but because we identify with it. It is the pride in ourselves that is one of the major drivers in our shopping behaviour.

Beyond good and evil

You might think that I have a negative view of humanity by claiming that our lives are driven by what are commonly considered sins.

But this post is not about what is good or bad, it is merely stating the sociological facts of the human condition. The facts are that not our quest for world peace or the admirable aim to make poverty history are the real drivers of progress. It is those behaviours and states of mind that some seek out to eradicate from humanity that makes us human.

This illustrates that the world is much more complex than simple religious philosophy could ever encapsulate.

The boundaries between good and bad are often faded and we need to seek beyond good and evil to find philosophical truth.

Heraclitus and Freud

It dawned me a little while ago that the human condition is one of ongoing tension between the way the world is (ontology) and the way our mind works (psychology). The world is inherently unpredictable—even our best attempts to make it predictable ultimately fail. We have trouble predicting the weather more than a few days ahead and predicting earthquakes and volcano eruptions are even more unpredictable. Heraclitus had a great insight when he proclaimed that:

“You cannot step twice into the same rivers; for fresh waters are flowing in upon you.”

Heraclitus understood that the world is ever-changing and nothing is ever the same. Our human psychology, however, has difficulties accepting this eternal change. Sigmund Freud thought that we are not as free as we think we are, but are ultimately creatures of habit. Our minds are designed to find regularity, even where there is none. Hume’s sceptical argument of inductive inferences is a great illustration of how this works.

In this respect we also need to jump into the abyss, as argued in my earlier post. This does not imply that we should just accept the chaos and not use our mind to attempt to understand the world. We should, however, accept that all our attempts to grasp the world around us in neatly packaged theories will never succeed. All knowledge is practical knowledge and can only be judged in its ability to produce the desired effects.