Monday, February 11, 2008

The Seven Deadlies: Wrath

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["Repent and believe in the Gospel" is one of the catchphrases of this holy season. As we begin our Lenten journey, I thought I'd post excerpts from the chapter on the seven deadly sins in that remarkable book by Dorothy Sayers, Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine, written during WWII. The chapter is called "The Other Six Deadly Sins."]


The sin of ira or wrath is one, perhaps, to which the English as a nation are not greatly addicted, except in a rather specialized form. On the whole we are slow to anger, and dislike violence. We can be brutal and destructive – usually, however, only under provocation; and much of our apparent brutality is due much less to violence of temper than to sheer unimaginative stupidity (a detestable sin in itself, but quite different in nature and origin). On the whole, we are easygoing, good-humored people, who hate with difficulty and find it almost impossible to cherish rancor or revenge.

This is true, I think, of the English. It is perhaps not quite true of those who process and call themselves British. The Celts are quarrelsome; they pride themselves that with them it is a word and a blow. They brood upon the memory of ancient wrongs in a way that to the English is incomprehensible: if the English were Irish in temperament, they would still be roused to fury by the name of the Battle of Hastings, instead of summing it up philosophically as “1066 and All That.” The Celts cling fiercely to their ancient tribal savageries, and their religious habits are disputatious, polemical, and (in extreme instances, as on the Irish border) disgraced by bloodthirst and a persecuting frenzy. But let the English not be in too great a hurry to congratulate themselves. They have one besetting weakness, by means of which they may very readily be led or lashed into the sin of wrath: they are peculiarly liable to attacks of righteous indignation. While they are in one of these fits, they will fling themselves into a debauch of fury and commit extravagances that are not only evil but also ridiculous.

We all know pretty well the man – or, perhaps still more frequently the woman – who says that anybody who tortures a helpless animal should be flogged till he shrieks for mercy. The harsh, grating tone and the squinting, vicious countenances accompanying the declaration are enough to warn us that this righteous anger is devilborn and trembling on the verge of mania. But we do not always recognize this ugly form of possession when it cloaks itself under a zeal for efficiency or a lofty resolution to expose scandals – particularly if it expresses itself only in print or in platform verbiage. It is very well known to the more unscrupulous part of the press that nothing pays so well in the newspaper world as the manufacture of schisms and the exploitation of wrath. Turn over the pages of the more popular papers if you want to see how avarice thrives on hatred and the passion of violence. To foment grievance and to set men at variance is the trade by which agitators thrive and journalists make money. A dogfight, a brawl, or a war is always news; if news of that kind is lacking, it pays well to contrive it. The average English mind is a fertile field in which to sow the dragon’s teeth of moral indignation, and the fight that follows will be blind, brutal, and merciless.
That is not to say that scandals should not be exposed or that no anger is justified. But you may know the mischief-maker by the warped malignancy of his language as easily as by the warped malignancy of his face and voice. His fury is without restraint and without magnanimity – and it is aimed, not at checking the offense, but at starting a pogrom against the offender. The mischief-maker would rather the evil were not cured at all than that it were cured quietly and without violence. His evil lust of wrath cannot be sated unless somebody is hounded down, beaten, and trampled on, and a savage war dance executed upon the body.

I have said that the English are readily tempted into this kind of debauch. I will add that it is a debauch, and, like other debauches, leaves them with a splitting head, a band hangover, and a crushing sense of shame. When they do give way to wrath, they make a very degrading exhibition of themselves because wrath is a thing unnatural to them; it affects them like drink or drugs. In the shamefaced mood that follows, they become spiritless, sick at heart, and enfeebled in judgment. I am therefore the more concerned about a highly unpleasant spirit of vindictiveness that is being commended to us as this moment, camouflaged as righteous wrath and a warlike spirit. It is not a warlike spirit at all – at any rate, it is very unlike the spirit in which soldiers make war. The good soldier is on the whole remarkable both for severity in his measures and for measure in his severity. He is as bloodthirsty as his duty requires him to be, and, as a rule, not more. Even in Germany, the difference between the professional and the political fighter is said to be very marked in this respect.

There are, however, certain people here whose martial howls do not suggest the battle cry even of a savage warrior so much as Miss Henrietta Petowker reciting The Blood-Drinker’s Burial in Mrs. Kenwig’s front parlor. If I say: “Do not listen to them,” it is not because there is no room for indignation, but because there is a point at which righteous indignation passes over into the deadly sin of wrath; and once it has passed that point, it is likely, like all other passions, to stagger over into its own opposite, the equally fatal sin of sloth or accidie, of which we shall have something to say presently. Ungovernable rage is the sin of the warm heart and the quick of spirit; in such men it is usually very quickly repented of – though before that happens it may have wrought irreparable destruction. We shall have to see to it that the habit of wrath and destruction that war fastens upon us is not carried over into the peace. And above all we must see to it now that our blind rages are not harnessed and driven by those of the cold head and the cold heart – the envious, the avaricious, and the proud. (Emphases added)

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4 comments:

Mac said...

Wrath is the one capital sin I've never quite understood in terms of its being so-designated. Not having observed as many holy men and women as I have indulging in it without let or hindrance. And what was tossing the money-lenders out of the Temple if it wasn't wrathful?

Mac said...

(Perhaps wrath is indeed, as 'twere, a "deal lien.")

Gashwin said...

... there being a rather big difference between anger (which is an emotion, and therefore neutral), grading through righteous anger (the Temple), which rouses one to act for justice, to the sin of wrath, where the anger takes over.

Of course, the wrath of God is a different thing ... :)

Zadok the Roman said...

Of course God is allowed be jealous as well.