Dangerous Virtues Review

Book Review: 

“The chaplain had mastered, in a moment of divine intuition, the handy technique of protective rationalization, and he was exhilarated by his discovery. It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.”

That is from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, published in 1961. One way to think about John Koessler’s Dangerous Virtues is as a book-length treatment of that quotation.

Koessler’s book is a very clever examination of the Seven Deadly Sins. Quick test: Can you name all seven? Probably not, and the reason for that is one of the things Koessler’s argument explains. Oddly, your best hope at knowing all seven was seeing the thriller/horror movie Se7en. Knowing the structure of Dante’s Purgatorio would also work, but (alas) more people watch Brad Pitt movies than read Dante. So, before we get to Koessler, we need a refresher on the Seven Deadly Sins.

Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Greed, Gluttony, Lust. The order is not random; they are listed from most to least serious. The first three are instances where love is misdirected to harming others; the last three are corruptions of the love good things; Sloth is a deficiency of love. If those descriptions seem odd, Koessler’s book explains why.

Here is another quick test: which book of the Bible contains the list of the Seven Deadly Sins? Answer: None of them. A version of the list was first set down in the fourth century AD by the rather obscure Evagrius Ponticus. The list of seven we know was formalized by the much better known Pope Gregory I in the late sixth century. Dante and Aquinas cemented the Seven into a taxonomy of sin.

Why do we no longer think in terms of those sins? Koessler argues that we have collectively performed a fascinating inversion. In the modern age, we have recast all seven of those sins into virtues. We have done this by forgetting the actual nature of the sin and then recasting the manifestations of the sin into virtuous acts. In doing so, we no longer have a proper view of sin at all.

First, Koessler notes, we have a remarkable ability to treat sin as akin to being graded on a curve. I am not as bad as that person, so my sins are not so bad. If we are honest, we know better than this, so we actually have an even better defense mechanism:

"Others treat sin the same way they do high cholesterol. They know that if they ignore it, things will go badly. But they hope that if they take certain basic measures, it can be kept under control. This approach to sin takes two primary forms: one is medical, and the other is athletic. The medical model sees sin as a kind of disease. The athletic model approaches sin like a weakness that can be remedied through discipline. Either view makes sin seem manageable. If sin is a sickness, it can be cured through treatment. If it is a weakness, that weakness can be eliminated with training"

Note in both the medical and the athletic view of sin, it is an annoyance that needs to be overcome. We are basically doing alright except for a couple bad habits that either are out of our control (medical) or we can fix tomorrow with a bit of training (athletic). In neither case do we actually see sin for what it is. “Indeed, one way to understand the nature of any sin is to see it as a distortion of the good that God has provided.”

In a chapter devoted to each sin, Koessler artfully shows how we have converted the sin into a positive good. Pride? Self-esteem isn’t bad, is it? Envy? Why shouldn’t we be annoyed when evil prospers or that political party with the wrong views or that church with the bad theology is in the ascendency? Wrath? That’s righteous anger, honest. Sloth? Weekends and retirement are really nice. Greed? Why should we be satisfied with what we have? Gluttony? Why should we ever say “No” to enjoying good things? Lust? Well, it’s not like we can stop that.

The problem is even worse. By the time we have inverted all the sins, we have completely forgotten what virtue looks like.

"However, contemporary interest in virtue seems to be primarily negative. Our ideas about what is good do not necessarily serve as a basis for self examination and personal improvement. Often, they merely provide the grounds for carping against others who fall short of our standard."

Therein lies the most intriguing part of Koessler’s argument. By thinking about sin instead of virtue, we have all been led astray. We focus on sin, ours or, even better, other’s. We downplay our own sins and amplify those of others. We feel a bit guilty about our own sin, but then try to rationalize it away. “I am not really envious, I just want my fair share.”

What we never really do is think about virtue. We play the game of thinking we are virtuous because we don’t commit the sins those other people are committing. But, while we ask how we can sin less, we rarely ask how we can be more virtuous. Why? Being virtuous is terribly hard. Thinking about wrath is easy; I just need to make sure I am only angry at the right things! But, instead, thinking about how to love my enemies, well, that is just too hard.

Koessler’s book is a marvelous read. Given its structure, it is also perfect for an eight week group discussion, one week on the introductory chapter and then a sin a week for the next seven weeks. Guaranteed to provoke all sorts of discussion.

(Moody Press sent me a copy of the book in exchange for this review.)