The Bad Catholic’s Guide To The Seven Deadly Sins, by John Zmirak
Even without having a close background in the Thomist language of the seven deadly sins, the seven cardinal virtues, and then the seven neuroses, a lot of the material of this book is somewhat familiar to those who wrestle with questions of finding balance in a world where it is all too easily for one’s thinking to get caught up in extremes. At the core of this book there is a discussion about vices, neuroses, and virtues and the way that they interact with each other in unpredictable ways. All too often vices and neuroses can creep up on us and we can think ourselves free without actually being so. The author’s winsome sense of humor and willingness to discuss some of the more embarrassing aspects of his own life and background and the way that vices make their way as generational curses is quite interesting as well. There is a lot here to unpackage and the book is clearly written from a Catholic (and specifically a Thomist) point of view, but whether or not you happen to have that particular view yourself there is a lot to gain here if you take moral philosophy seriously.
This book is between 250 and 300 pages long and it is divided into fourteen chapters that explore the seven deadly sins (as well as the seven corresponding neuroses) and then the seven cardinal virtues that stand in contrast to these sins. So, for example, we begin the book with a chapter on lust that also talks about the corresponding neurosis of frigidity (1) and then follow that with a chapter on chastity (2). There is a chapter on wrath and its evil counterpoint servility (3) and then a chapter that gives the contrasting virtue of patience (4). There is a chapter on gluttony (a vice I am sadly all too familiar with) along with insensibility (5) followed by a chapter on the unpopular virtue of temperance (6). After this there is a chapter that discusses the sin of greed and its corresponding neurosis of prodigality (7) followed by a chapter on the virtue of generosity (8). Then we see a chapter on sloth and fanaticism (9) that is followed by one on diligence (10). Vainglory and scrupulosity (11) are then contrasted with the virtue of humility (12) and finally envy and pusillanimity (13) are contrasted with magnanimity (14), at which point the book contains a brief sample of one of the author’s other books.
What is notable when it comes to various extremes is that they tend to be partial truths that are exaggerated into gross error made all the worse because of imbalance. Bringing contrasting extremes into harmony requires not a compromise between them but a perspective above them that is able to point out the elements of both that are nevertheless worthwhile but which have to be kept in their proper proportion. In ages like our own it is of the utmost difficulty to keep anything in its proper proportion and that tends to make books like this far more necessary than they would be in better times. And the author’s own personal experience has a lot to do with the way that this book comes off so humorously and encourages the reader to examine their own view. The quizzes which examine the state of the soul of the person with regards to each of the seven deadly sins is pretty entertaining as well, and I was pleased that my own responses tended to fall in the middle of the options and thus at least amenable to being brought into the right harmony and balance, which is something that tends to worry me given the state of the world and its desire to force people into extreme positions.