Recently, prominent writers from a wide variety of fields took the stage at the New York Public Library to expound upon the Seven Deadly Sins. Four of the lectures have now been published in book form, with three additional volumes forthcoming. An editor's note explains that these books are intended "to chart the ways we have approached and understood evil, one deadly sin at a time." The problem, however, is that the series lifts seven names from an old and closely detailed map in order to draw a new and rather vague one, occasionally replacing what once was a warning with a blessing.
Thus, for example, the philosopher Simon Blackburn, in Lust, specifically proposes to "lift [lust] from the category of sin to that of virtue." By pillorying the Christian tradition, he hopes "to destroy the stocks and pillories of the Puritans, to separate [lust] from other things that we know drag it down." Blackburn does not attempt to understand what the Church Doctors meant by lust; he simply offers up his own thoughts concerning the vice.
Oxford Univ. Press,
151 pp.; $17.95
Joseph Epstein's thoughts and anecdotes concerning envy are in the same vein. Epstein—the lapidary essayist who was for many years editor of The American Scholar—defines envy by a question: "Why does he have it and not I?" And while he poses the fine line between actual and perceived injustice, he does no more than that. Nowhere in Envy do we actually find out what envy is—much less, why it constitutes a sin; what is missing is a conceptual analysis of the vice proposed. The book feels quite sophisticated, but the feeling is belied by its limited claims. Regarding the place of envy in human nature, for example, Epstein is unprepared or unwilling ...1
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Books & Culture's Books of the Week: Mistakes Were Made
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