Week 2: The Seven Deadly Sins

Thomas Aquinas

Photo courtesy of Hiart, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) lived at a critical juncture of western culture when the arrival of the Aristotelian corpus in Latin translation reopened the question of the relation between faith and reason, calling into question the modus vivendi that had obtained for centuries. This crisis flared up just as universities were being founded. Thomas, after early studies at Montecassino, moved on to the University of Naples, where he met members of the new Dominican Order. It was at Naples too that Thomas had his first extended contact with the new learning. When he joined the Dominican Order he went north to study with Albertus Magnus, author of a paraphrase of the Aristotelian corpus. Thomas completed his studies at the University of Paris, which had been formed out of the monastic schools on the Left Bank and the cathedral school at Notre Dame. In two stints as a regent master Thomas defended the mendicant orders and, of greater historical importance, countered both the Averroistic interpretations of Aristotle and the Franciscan tendency to reject Greek philosophy. The result was a new modus vivendi between faith and philosophy which survived until the rise of the new physics. The Catholic Church has over the centuries regularly and consistently reaffirmed the central importance of Thomas’s work, both theological and philosophical, for understanding its teachings concerning the Christian revelation, and his close textual commentaries on Aristotle represent a cultural resource which is now receiving increased recognition. The following account concentrates on Thomas the philosopher.[1]

Selection from Summa Theologiae: 

Article 2. Whether pride is the beginning of every sin?

Objection 1. It would seem that pride is not the beginning of every sin. For the root is a beginning of a tree, so that the beginning of a sin seems to be the same as the root of sin. Now covetousness is the root of every sin, ….  Therefore it is also the beginning of every sin, and not pride.

Objection 2. Further, it is written (Sirach 10:14): “The beginning of the pride of man is apostasy [Douay: ‘to fall off’] from God.” But apostasy from God is a sin. Therefore another sin is the beginning of pride, so that the latter is not the beginning of every sin.

Objection 3. Further, the beginning of every sin would seem to be that which causes all sins. Now this is inordinate self-love, which, according to Augustine (De Civ. Dei xiv), “builds up the city of Babylon.” Therefore self-love and not pride, is the beginning of every sin.

On the contrary, It is written (Sirach 10:15): “Pride is the beginning of all sin.”

I answer that, Some say pride is to be taken in three ways. First, as denoting inordinate desire to excel; and thus it is a special sin. Secondly, as denoting actual contempt of God, to the effect of not being subject to His commandment; and thus, they say, it is a generic sin. Thirdly, as denoting an inclination to this contempt, owing to the corruption of nature; and in this sense they say that it is the beginning of every sin, and that it differs from covetousness, because covetousness regards sin as turning towards the mutable good by which sin is, as it were, nourished and fostered, for which reason covetousness is called the “root”; whereas pride regards sin as turning away from God, to Whose commandment man refuses to be subject, for which reason it is called the “beginning,” because the beginning of evil consists in turning away from God.

Now though all this is true, nevertheless it does not explain the mind of the wise man who said (Sirach 10:15): “Pride is the beginning of all sin.” For it is evident that he is speaking of pride as denoting inordinate desire to excel, as is clear from what follows (verse 17): “God hath overturned the thrones of proud princes”; indeed this is the point of nearly the whole chapter. We must therefore say that pride, even as denoting a special sin, is the beginning of every sin. For we must take note that, in voluntary actions, such as sins, there is a twofold order, of intention, and of execution. In the former order, the principle is the end, as we have stated many times before (I-II:1:1 ad 1I-II:18:7 ad 2I-II:15:1 ad 2I-II:25:2). Now man’s end in acquiring all temporal goods is that, through their means, he may have some perfection and excellence. Therefore, from this point of view, pride, which is the desire to excel, is said to be the “beginning” of every sin. On the other hand, in the order of execution, the first place belongs to that which by furnishing the opportunity of fulfilling all desires of sin, has the character of a root, and such are riches; so that, from this point of view, covetousness is said to be the “root” of all evils, as stated above (Article 1).

This suffices for the Reply to the First Objection.

Reply to Objection 2. Apostasy from God is stated to be the beginning of pride, in so far as it denotes a turning away from God, because from the fact that man wishes not to be subject to God, it follows that he desires inordinately his own excellence in temporal things. Wherefore, in the passage quoted, apostasy from God does not denote the special sin, but rather that general condition of every sin, consisting in its turning away from God. It may also be said that apostasy from God is said to be the beginning of pride, because it is the first species of pride. For it is characteristic of pride to be unwilling to be subject to any superior, and especially to God; the result being that a man is unduly lifted up, in respect of the other species of pride.

Reply to Objection 3. In desiring to excel, man loves himself, for to love oneself is the same as to desire some good for oneself. Consequently it amounts to the same whether we reckon pride or self-love as the beginning of every evil.

Article 4. Whether the seven capital vices are suitably reckoned?

Objection 1. It would seem that we ought not to reckon seven capital vices, viz. vainglory, envyanger, sloth, covetousnessgluttonylust. For sins are opposed to virtues. But there are four principal virtues, as stated above (I-II:61:2). Therefore there are only four principal or capital vices.

Objection 2. Further, the passions of the soul are causes of sin, as stated above (I-II:77). But there are four principal passions of the soul; two of which, viz. hope and fear, are not mentioned among the above sins, whereas certain vices are mentioned to which pleasure and sadness belong, since pleasure belongs to gluttony and lust, and sadness to sloth and envy. Therefore the principal sins are unfittingly enumerated.

Objection 3. Further, anger is not a principal passion. Therefore it should not be placed among the principal vices.

Objection 4. Further, just as covetousness or avarice is the root of sin, so is pride the beginning of sin, as stated above (I-II:84:2). But avarice is reckoned to be one of the capital vices. Therefore pride also should be placed among the capital vices.

Objection 5. Further, some sins are committed which cannot be caused through any of these: as, for instance, when one sins through ignorance, or when one commits a sin with a good intention, e.g. steals in order to give an alms. Therefore the capital vices are insufficiently enumerated.

On the contrary, stands the authority of Gregory who enumerates them in this way (Moral. xxxi, 17).

I (Ellen) answer that, As stated above (I-II:84:3), the capital vices are those which give rise to others, especially by way of final cause. Now this kind of origin may take place in two ways. First, on account of the condition of the sinner, who is disposed so as to have a strong inclination for one particular end, the result being that he frequently goes forward to other sins. But this kind of origin does not come under the consideration of art, because man’s particular dispositions are infinite in number. Secondly, on account of a natural relationship of the ends to one another: and it is in this way that most frequently one vice arises from another, so that this kind of origin can come under the consideration of art.

Accordingly therefore, those vices are called capital, whose ends have certain fundamental reasons for moving the appetite; and it is in respect of these fundamental reasons that the capital vices are differentiated. Now a thing moves the appetite in two ways. First, directly and of its very nature: thus good moves the appetite to seek it, while evil, for the same reason, moves the appetite to avoid it. Secondly, indirectly and on account of something else, as it were: thus one seeks an evil on account of some attendant good, or avoids a good on account of some attendant evil.

Again, man’s good is threefold. For, in the first place, there is a certain good of the soul, which derives its aspect of appetibility, merely through being apprehended, viz. the excellence of honor and praise, and this good is sought inordinately by “vainglory.” Secondly, there is the good of the body, and this regards either the preservation of the individual, e.g. meat and drink, which good is pursued inordinately by “gluttony,” or the preservation of the species, e.g. sexual intercourse, which good is sought inordinately by “lust.” Thirdly, there is external good, viz. riches, to which “covetousness” is referred. These same four vices avoid inordinately the contrary evils.

Or again, good moves the appetite chiefly through possessing some property of happiness, which all men seek naturally. Now in the first place happiness implies perfection, since happiness is a perfect good, to which belongs excellence or renown, which is desired by “pride” or “vainglory.” Secondly, it implies satiety, which “covetousness” seeks in riches that give promise thereof. Thirdly, it implies pleasure, without which happiness is impossible, as stated in Ethic. i, 7; x, 6,7,[8] and this “gluttony” and “lust” pursue.

On the other hand, avoidance of good on account of an attendant evil occurs in two ways. For this happens either in respect of one’s own good, and thus we have “sloth,” which is sadness about one’s spiritual good, on account of the attendant bodily labor: or else it happens in respect of another’s good, and this, if it be without recrimination, belongs to “envy,” which is sadness about another’s good as being a hindrance to one’s own excellence, while if it be with recrimination with a view to vengeance, it is “anger.” Again, these same vices seek the contrary evils.

Reply to Objection 1. Virtue and vice do not originate in the same way: since virtue is caused by the subordination of the appetite to reason, or to the immutable good, which is God, whereas vice arises from the appetite for mutable good. Wherefore there is no need for the principal vices to be contrary to the principal virtues.

Reply to Objection 2. Fear and hope are irascible passions. Now all the passions of the irascible part arise from passions of the concupiscible part; and these are all, in a way, directed to pleasure or sorrow. Hence pleasure and sorrow have a prominent place among the capital sins, as being the most important of the passions, as stated above (I-II:25:4).

Reply to Objection 3. Although anger is not a principal passion, yet it has a distinct place among the capital vices, because it implies a special kind of movement in the appetite, in so far as recrimination against another’s good has the aspect of a virtuous good, i.e. of the right to vengeance.

Reply to Objection 4. Pride is said to be the beginning of every sin, in the order of the end, as stated above (I-II:84:2): and it is in the same order that we are to consider the capital sin as being principal. Wherefore pride, like a universal vice, is not counted along with the others, but is reckoned as the “queen of them all,” as Gregory states (Moral. xxxi, 27). But covetousness is said to be the root from another point of view, as stated above (I-II:84:1I-II:84:2).

Reply to Objection 5. These vices are called capital because others, most frequently, arise from them: so that nothing prevents some sins from arising out of other causes. Nevertheless we might say that all the sins which are due to ignorance, can be reduced to sloth, to which pertains the negligence of a man who declines to acquire spiritual goods on account of the attendant labor; for the ignorance that can cause sin, is due to negligence, as stated above (I-II:76:2). That a man commit a sin with a good intention, seems to point to ignorance, in so far as he knows not that evil should not be done that good may come of it.[2]

Hieronymus Bosch

Photo courtesy of FaceMePLS from The Hague, The Netherlands, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Hiëronymus Bosch, … brilliant and original northern European painter whose work reveals an unusual iconography of a complex and individual style. He was recognized as a highly imaginative “creator of devils” and a powerful inventor of seeming nonsense full of satirical and moralizing meaning.

 Bosch was a pessimistic and stern moralist who had neither illusions about the rationality of human nature nor confidence in the kindness of a world that had been corrupted by human presence in it. His paintings are sermons on folly and sin, addressed often to initiates and consequently difficult to translate. Unable to unlock the mystery of the artist’s works, critics at first believed that he must have been affiliated with secret sects. Although the themes of his work were often religious, his choice of symbols to represent the temptation and eventual ensnarement of humans in earthly evils caused many critics to view the artist as a practitioner of the occult arts. More recent scholarship views Bosch as a talented artist who possessed deep insight into human character and as one of the first artists to represent abstract concepts in his work. A number of exhaustive interpretations of Bosch’s work have been put forth, but there remain many obscure details.[3]


 Follow the link[4] to Bosch’s The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, painted for Charles I of Spain c. 1500.  How does Bosch use the verse to set the scene for his painting?  How does he portray the individual sins?  Do they follow Aquinas’s textural portrayal, or do some surprise?

[1] Ralph McInerny and John O’Callaghan, “Saint Thomas Aquinas,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Stanford University, May 23, 2014), https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aquinas/.

[2] St. Thomas Aquinas, “Question 84. The Cause of Sin, in Respect of One Sin Being the Cause of Another,” SUMMA THEOLOGIAE: The cause of sin, in respect of one sin being the cause of another (Prima Secundae Partis, Q. 84), accessed October 6, 2020, https://www.newadvent.org/summa/2084.htm.

[3] Kathleen Kuiper, “Hiëronymus Bosch,” Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., August 5, 2020), https://www.britannica.com/biography/Hieronymus-Bosch.

[4] https://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/table-of-the-seven-deadly-sins/3fc0a84e-d77d-4217-b960-8a34b8873b70