In our substantially secular "whatever" way of living, even the God-deniers would have to admit that Pope Gregory's little list still contains a number of functional elephant traps for the unwary. Gregory I's canonical first-century revision of the fatal flaws – numerically chiming with the wonders of the world, the continents, the seas and the colours of the rainbow, as John Sutherland notes in his essay in this elegant little volume – turfed out sorrow and boasting, and embraced envy alongside sloth, wrath, lust, vanity, greed and gluttony, although not in any particular order of severity or popularity. Fifty years ago, the difference between the two last named was perhaps less than entirely clear, but now a generation of unscrupulous bankers and their (often second) trophy wives have made the distinction quite apparent. They are further distinguished here by cartoonist and graphic novelist Martin Rowson's wordless strip cartoon (gluttony) and humanist philosopher Dylan Evans's elegantly equivocal musings on the value of greed.
Other aspects of our modern lives, on the opposite side of the ledger, have muddied the waters. As Evans points out, "Gluttony is now a psychological problem for which we should feel sympathy, rather than a vice which must be condemned." And that is not the only way in which "sin is not what it used to be". Qualifications for celebrity status, a measure of worth that most younger folk would choose to use over moral rectitude, might also include wrath – as demonstrated by TV chefs and football managers – and vanity (pop stars and fashion plates), while lust is, obviously, now a fast track to fame and fortune, whether via the sex-tape or the e-book.
All of this, and much, much more, is addressed in the seven essays here, which range from personal memoir to erudite survey, and graphic depiction to perceptive fantasy – but all crucially sharing a very sharp and amusing wit. Novelist David Flusfeder has one of the best aphorisms in "Lust is sexual desire with a bad press agent", in the course of a first-person tale of an unconsummated affair, with winning historical digressions. The precision of meaning in the title of Scottish Dance Theatre's Luxuria, the sexiest piece of choreography I have ever seen, is here explained.
Todd McEwen brings a similar technique, if an entirely distinct style, to sloth, in an opening salvo that finds much virtue in indolence. "Sloth will bring down the bankers," he confidently asserts, if only in that it will shut down the other six sins. Here too is a parallel ambivalence to the virtues of virtual existence and the temptations of the world wide web – a strain that will reach its chorus in Nicola Barker's concluding contribution.
Sutherland is also playfully persuasive in defence of wrath, skipping lightly from Mount Sinai, via Seneca, Spenser and Shakespeare, to Shelley. Dylan Evans's economic argument on the necessity for greed marshalls not just Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone's Wall Street ("Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures, the essence of the evolutionary spirit") but also Adam Smith ("Nobody but a beggar chooses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow citizens").
It is, however, the two short stories by women in these 200 pages that make them particularly worth the investment. Both contrive clever tricks with form. Ali Smith tackles envy in The Modern Psyche, an exploratory duologue that skirts close to a few of the other sins on the list, and takes the mind in strange, unexpected, but never unwelcome directions – as she does. Possibly even better, though, is Barker's Young Versus Old which filters an examination of vanity through a very cleverly realised print rendition of online conversation, replete with the sort of "helpful" (and increasingly wayward) suggestions that "intelligent" software will often make.
This is often NSFT (not safe for trains) laugh-out-loud stuff (lol), but also as multi-layered and thought-provoking as some of the more conventionally structured work that precedes it. In fact the only slightly perfunctory contribution is Alex Clark's preface, which is a bit of a missed opportunity to consider how, collectively, the seven deadlies serve us in the 21st century. It is certainly difficult to imagine being as entertained by the virtues, but then there are only the four of them. (Answers on a postcard.)
The Seven Deadly Sins: A Celebration Of Virtue And Vice
Edited by Rosalind Porter
Union Books, £12.99