Winter solstice is past and the days are getting longer. It is a time when people traditionally make promises about how they will improve themselves in the upcoming year. Because I’m a Satanist, obviously one of my New Year’s Resolutions is: I hope to sin more.
The Catholic church’s list of the seven deadly sins was established by Pope Gregory in the year 590 C.E., although the roots of the idea can be found in the epic poem Psychomachia, written by the monk Aurelius Clemens Prudentius in the early 400’s C.E. The poem discusses the soul as a battleground where opposing vices and virtues combat with one another. Continuing on with the allegory, the Catholic church’s seven deadly sins are usually seen as being in opposition to a set of seven heavenly virtues.
I appreciate the psychological reflexes at play here. It is a human instinct to frame the world as a struggle between opposites: black and white, up and down, on and off. This human thirst for a binary world will sometimes give grudging acquiescence, when needed, to the gray area of moderation that lies in between. Even that moderation, though, is viewed through the lens of presupposed opposites: it’s a compromise between extreme A and extreme B, or perhaps a mixture of the two. Or perhaps a battle between them.
“You know what? I would totally drink a gallon of wine if I could get away with it, but I will deny myself that pleasure because it is inconvenient when I piss myself out of drunkenness.”
It sounds funny, but this is the default way many Christians view moderation: they take for granted that one extreme (unfettered indulgence) is good, and then deny themselves that goodness (by engaging in moderate or occasional abstinence) out of fear of negative consequences. When you look at the world based on the binary distinction between virtues and sins, moderation is the result of living a life of constant fear.
As a Satanist, I want to to move beyond this binary thinking.
There is a caricature of Satanists who engage in massive amounts of destructive sinning just for the sake of sinning. This caricature is stupid: no modern Satanist is out there thinking, “I need to allow my life to be ruled by lustful compulsion!” Peter Gilmore, High Priest of the Church of Satan, described his perspective to me in this way:
Our dictum of “Indulgence instead of abstinence” alarms those without self-control who neglect that we temper it with “Indulgence, NOT compulsion.” We are Epicureans who explore our pleasures with care, not self-destructive hedonists.
Gilmore’s reference to Epicurus is worth delving into. Epicurus believed that pleasure is the greatest goal, and that pleasure should be sought for its own sake; however, he was not a “hedonist” in the modern sense of the word.
“It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly,” said Epicurus.
For Epicurus, moderation wasn’t a compromise between the extremes of lust and chastity, or between gluttony and self-denial. Living a moderate life meant living a life of examination and understanding. Explore the environment and learn from it; explore your senses and your reactions to the world; explore the people who surround you and your place in the world.
Through this exploration, you learn the things you can do to make your social relationships more peaceful, your home more stable, and your resources more plentiful. You can sip and enjoy the taste of the wine, live in the moment of your experiences: live the taste, and live the effects that it has on your body. You can ponder the pleasant feelings you experience while intoxicated, and relate them to the pleasant feelings you experience in other states of mind. The richness of your world will grow as a result.
So while I think about my New Year’s resolution to sin more, I realize that the best way to work against the strictures of our historically Christian culture in the United States is not to dabble in the sins that supposedly form the opposites of “Christian virtue.” The best way to defy the system is in fact to reject that dichotomy altogether.
So how will the Seven Deadly Sins (and their corresponding Virtues) guide my actions in the upcoming year?
- I will neither horde my material wealth, nor will I push it away out of guilt or a fear of having “too much”. Instead, I will ask myself: How can I use those resources I have to make the world a better place?
- I will neither swagger and brag, nor will I turn a blind eye to my own worth out of fear of social reprisal. Instead, I will create, and build, and help, and do everything to the best of my abilities, and let the results speak for themselves.
- I will neither rage and fume against the deplorable and disgusting actions of terrible people in the world, nor will I be patient with them or “forgive” them. Instead, I will make the world a better place by figuring out how to stop them from spreading harm.
- I will neither indulge in physical pleasures for the sake of physical pleasure alone, or will I “hold back” from indulging in pleasure out of a fear of consequences or reprisals. Instead, I will use the deliberate and thoughtful exploration of physical pleasures as a way to understand myself and the world around me.
- I will neither resent nor admire other people’s successes. (I really shouldn’t be preoccupying myself with other people’s successes at all, should I?)
- I will neither lazily procrastinate, nor frantically push to fill every moment with “productive” activity. Instead, I will strive to live life deliciously and in awe of the amazing complexity of the world around me.
This is my Satanic approach to existing beyond sin and virtue.
Of course, there are those who will still call me a “sinner” as a result. When they do, I will know I have succeeded in fulfilling my New Year’s resolution.