A Look Back and Around at Sin, Medieval and Modern

Rousseauian “noble-savage” post-moderns regard the Christian doctrine of original sin as gratuitously pessimistic; just thinking about it induces in them paroxysms of indignation, leading to righteous fulminations against the original Christian sin of “judgmentalism”.  (Thus, progressives have put judgmentalism behind them.)

Indeed, in polite society, the mere mention of such medieval archaisms as sin—even the use of the classical term “vice”—marks their speakers as bigoted rubes and fuddy-duddies, just as dropping his h‘s marked a man as ignorant and lower class in Victorian England.  But no amount of leveling can superannuate the res that underlie the nomina.  And as one looks around at the world, the canonical Seven Sins of Christian tradition seem hardly sufficient to cover the new variants that infect us.

In fact, Christians (judgmental ab initio ad finem) have always recognized the inadequacy of their sevenfold moral schema, inasmuch as seven is understood by them as a conventional number symbolic of temporal and worldly totality (seven planets, seven days of the week, seven ages of man, and so on).

In his seminal fourth-century epic poem Psychomachia, Prudentius appends only Discord and Idolatry to the canonical Seven he personifies; but by the twelfth century, Alan of Lisle (in his Anticlaudianus) has added Violence, Contention, Resentment, Animosity, Rage, Fury, Fear, Pusillanimity, Anxiety, Pain, Murmur, Rumour, Grief, Depression, Moaning, Desire, Vengeance, Excess, Debauchery, Frivolity, Impudence, Foolishness, Loquacity, Impiety, Fraud, and Dishonesty to the ranks of the Vices in their battle against the milites Christi.  In the longstanding medieval and Renaissance literary tradition of the Virtues and the Vices, the number of the latter continues to proliferate.  According to a commonplace of negative theology, no one name is adequate to describe the infinite perfection of the Godhead, whereby a nearly infinite multiplicity of names must be posited; by analogy, the more the human mind ponders the mystery of evil, the more, it seems, that words fail.

The topos of the Vices and Virtues, at the same time, depicts each of the Vices as opposed by a corresponding Virtue; and as these mortal adversaries step forth in pairs for their Homeric single combats, we know that the armies of virtue will ultimately prevail.  The medieval attitude towards sin, then, is that though the fault lies in ourselves, so does the remedy.  The modern attitude is that the fault lies in our stars, and there is nothing to be done about it, save pulling down the planets and the stellatum and rearranging them on lines more “equitable” to blacks, women, homosexuals, and the non-binary gendered.

Man, for moderns, is hopelessly—pessimistically, one must say — doomed to injustice and victimhood.  Besides, whatever faith Rousseau and his disciples might repose in the natural benignity of mankind, there seems to be something decidedly pessimistic about the revolutionary burden imposed upon progressives to tear down everything wrought by God and man and start again.


The most indigestible Christian moral teaching for moderns, in any case, is that pride is the root of the tree of sin.  Here too, medieval Christianity preserves an alternative tradition, according to which the root of all evil is cupidity (more to the liking of the Occupy Wall Street crowd).  Avarice, as students of English literature will remember, was the single vice against which Chaucer’s Pardoner preached all of his edifying sermons, each of which ended with the refrain, radix malorum est cupiditas.  Thereupon, the Pardoner hauled out the fake relics he had confected in his basement workshop and hawked them to his gullible auditors, profiting (as we would say today) obscenely.

The cupidinous Pardoner is actually Chaucer’s version of Fraus or Faux Semblant, the commonplace medieval allegorical personification of the fundamental Christian idea that evil typically assumes the guise of the good.  We have forgotten that lesson, too.  Medieval peasants would have been rather more leery than we are of the bureaucratic medicine men appointed by our political nannies to sell us experimental vaccines, “for our own good”.  (Or of the leftist mob’s penchant for looting iPhones and big-screen TVs in their perennial demonstrations against capitalist “consumerism”.)

Conversely, Chaucer’s Pardoner could never have sold a modern audience his relics, even if they were apodictically genuine.  For progressives, hypocrisy is an exclusively Christian sin, Christians having been reductively stereotyped in their new-atheist jeremiads as bible-thumping televangelists or vainglorious Mother Teresas (cf. Christopher Hitchens’ demented hatred of her).

In his Pardoner, Prioress, and Monk, Chaucer, a contented Christian in a contentedly Christian age, possessed the self-reflection and fair-mindedness to recognize and criticize hypocrisy within his own ancestral tradition and creed.  Hoc opus; hic labor est.  In a post-Christian age, progressives are hypersensitive to the sins of religion, but blind as moles to the sins of irreligion.  The most blatant example of that selective blindness is their attribution to “religion” of all of the world’s historical evils, notwithstanding that the officially atheistic paradises of the past century were the most murderous regimes in history.  But progressive hypocrisy is beyond names.

In an age in which the Church of Progress has become the established religion; when its doctrine is a rigid orthodoxy militantly evangelized and puritanically enforced; when non-conforming speech is put on the index by state, academic, and media inquisitors, and refusal to profess its articles leads to hounding by heresy-hunters, dismissal from one’s job, fines, imprisonment, or public rituals of contrition; when “inclusion” means exclusion, and “diversity”, uniformity of opinion; when titular “anti-fascists” employ the violent tactics of twentieth-century fascism to shut down their political opponents; when blacks and whites demonstrate that “black lives matter” by torching black businesses; when “anti-racists” malign whites as the cancer on the body politic; when a peaceful protest (at which the only people killed were protestors, shot or beaten by police) against electoral malfeasance is characterized (even on Fox) as a violent “riot”, an “insurrection”, “anti-democratic”, while a summer-long rampage of murder, rioting, looting, forcible occupation, usurpation of democratically-elected government, and the burning down of cities across America is described as “peaceful protest”; when a nation of free citizens is locked down and mass-vaccinated against their will, while hundreds of thousands of COVID-infected or untested illegal aliens are bussed into the hinterland; when….  But here, the inexpressibility topos asserts itself.

In an epoch of propaganda, lies, censorship, and woke moral preening, hypocrisy is not an accidental vice.  It is not a defect, like most other vices, in the way that they are abnormalities or imperfections; rather, hypocrisy is the defining nature of the progressive character.  To adapt a phrase from Doctor Johnson, progressives are not sprinkled with it; they are dyed in it.


The arch-hypocrite in Christian tradition is the Devil, the impersonator of the Holy and the Good; the Father of Lies.  The existence of the Devil remains the only thing more difficult for post-Christians to accept than the existence of sin.  In a recent debate, an atheist declared to me triumphantly, “The Christian concept of the Devil is satanic.”  In post-Christian eyes, the fundamental sin of Christianity is naming things that are unpleasant to think about.

The Devil is also the incarnation of Pride, the sin that is most commonly conceived as the radix malorum in the Christian moral imagination.  Hypocrisy is related to Pride, of course, as are the other sins, insofar as they all ramify from its stalk.  As the aforementioned Dr. Johnson has expressed it, “Pride has of all human vices the widest dominion, appears in the greatest multiplicity of forms, and lies hid under the greatest variety of disguises.”  The disguising mask is the symbol of both hypocrisy and pride; and everyone is required to wear a mask these days.

That pride has also been making a comeback lately is manifest in the oxymoronically universal “specialness”, the social-media Narcissism, the fanatical certitude, and the moral exhibitionism of the graduates of Self-Esteem High, who now run the world.  Am I permitted to call the woke generation “the children of pride” without being accused of fuddy-duddyism?  If I did, they would take it as a term of approbation.  At the conclusion of a lecture on the House of Pride in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, I was approached by a female undergraduate who had gained admission to my elite university with a typically astronomical grade average.  Her query:   “Do you mean to say that pride isn’t a good thing?”

One can, I think, understand her puzzlement.  She might have asked the same question about any of the other deadly sins—about liberating lust, egalitarian envy, welfare-state idleness, entitlement avarice, or victimological wrath, all prettified as virtues in our progressive New Age.

That she is unaware that pride has, in no prior age or culture, been celebrated as “a good thing” is another triumph of post-modernist education.  Until recently, the purpose of education has been to pass on to each new generation the intellectual patrimony of the West; its current aim is to turn them into disinherited amnesiacs.  Like my incredulous undergraduate, today’s elite stumble about as moral amputees, deprived even of the vocabulary necessary for the examined life.  Intellectually naked and defenseless, they have been pedagogically reduced to poor, bare, forked animals, “the thing itself”, “unaccommodated man”.

Their progressive Esperanto has no words for the perennial human vices or virtues; temperance and reason, appetite and sensuality, have been usurped in their moral language by ‘isms and phobias (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia).  By means of such brave new words, ethics ceases to be the study of individual human character, with its individual freedoms and reciprocal responsibilities; virtue and vice, rather, are volatilized, harmlessly exorcised from the individual soul and diffused in the solvents of the societal group.  The current concept of justice — no one speaks of justice anymore, only “social justice”– exemplifies the pattern.

‘Isms and phobias, of course, are not moral defects in the pre-modern sense that vice and sin are endemic to all members of the human species; that radically egalitarian notion smacks too much of the Christian idea of original sin to be allowed to stand.  ‘Isms and phobias are the stigmata of the ideological other, and attaching to the group like the mark of Cain, they are ineradicable.  As an abstraction, the group is indeed, in the words of Hillary Clinton, “irredeemable”.  Inevitably in our “anti-racist” age, this has a racialist as well as an ideological component, as in the toxic phrase “white privilege”.  We have “progressed”, indeed, right back to the Rousseauian state of nature, a savage primitivity in which virtue and vice are adjudicated upon the criterion of who is within or outside the ethnic tribal temenos. 


In this, the most heavy-handedly didactic era since Calvin, the literary theme of the Virtues and Vices continues to flourish, if only in its post-modernist form.  Allegorical abstraction is not to our taste; all the same, a parody of the old Christian-chivalric combat between good and evil is everywhere on display, only with new champions:  Lady Diversity and Lord Inclusion now triumph over the brigand Intolerance; Sir Anti-Racism over the giant White Supremacy; Self-Identified Non-Binary Gender (who assigns its/his/her/thir own epithets extemporaneously) over the monster Heteronormativity; the Angel of Gay Pride over the demon Homophobia.

Such ideological abstractions may no longer be overtly personified, but they are certainly “imposed”, as the scholars of medieval allegory employ the term.  They are read into the scripts of every novel, every TV sit-com, drama, mystery, reality show, documentary, newscast, or Hollywood movie.  The same morality plays are often staged live in the streets of America, starring such aspiring artists as Jussie Smollett; or they are projected onto real life events and individuals such as Kyle Rittenhouse or Nick Sandmann, until the videotaped evidence or jury verdicts temporarily interrupt their runs (although re-runs can be viewed in perpetuity on CNN and MSNBC).