BOOK BLOG | The Other Six Deadly Sins: Wrath (Sayers - Letter 9)
“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.”
WRATH (ira) – Sayers turns her attention next to wrath, the second of the Seven Deadly Sins. Like lust, wrath is a warm-hearted sin, bubbling up suddenly, irrationally, and brutally. It brings in its wake destruction. Just as one is inspired by one’s lusts to act lustily, wrath tends to be the product of provocation – one is inspired to anger, if you will.
On the national level, Sayers saw the English (though not all British) people as being largely easy-going (the Celts, on the other hand, being a quarrelsome people that “pride themselves that with them it is a word and a blow”). They [the English] are neither given to violence of temper nor rancor and revenge. But, they are “peculiarly liable to attacks of righteous indignation” and 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.”
The use of this term debauch is quite intentional, I think. We often associate phrases like “a night of debauchery” with sexual immorality, but it has in its scope self-indulgence of all sorts. Hence, a real night of debauchery would involve booze, drugs, sex, loud music, fast-cars, and a few fist fights thrown in for good measure. It is in this sense that people or nations can “give themselves over” to these sorts of warm-hearted passions, including wrath.
On a national level, this is, thankfully, comparatively rare. The use of force in the world today, what with its delicate balance of power and nuclear weapons and smart bombs and the rest, is no small business. Besides, even pagans recognize that firebombing innocent children and beating puppies are reprehensible acts of inhumanity…or at least, they recognize this for the moment. If this is all we meant by wrath, then it would hardly be worth listing it as a so-called “deadly” sin. We may wonder, then, whether there are more subtle ways in which sinful wrath impacts upon our civilization.
Indeed, wrath may present itself subtly, but it is hardly invisible. One need only open the daily paper or click on the 24-hour news cycle “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.” This is not to say, of course, that journalists do not play a legitimate role in reporting the news, and sometimes exposing the truth; but does suggest that some journalists and some papers and some so-called news channels often create the news stories they report on, and do so in a way which purposely stirs up the violent passions of the public for little more than ratings and the padding of their purse. When these reporters, or editors, or producers, or whosoever they be act in this way, fomenting and fanning the flames of public wrath, Sayers brands them “mischief-makers.”
“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 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.
This public orgy of cameras and tweets and talking heads striving for the most salacious soundbite has ramifications, of course, upon the collective spirit of a people.
“I will add that it is a debauch, and, like other debauches, leaves them [the public] with a slitting head, a bad 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.”
Such a malaise of spirit and “enfeebling of judgment” can sap the vigor and confidence of an empire. It can impose a sense of guilty self-loathing which is nothing short of loathsome upon an otherwise great and might people. See as examples Germany since World War II or Great Britain since the loss of empire, or more generally Western Europe since liberalism undermined the Church. In other words, the pendulum of sin has swung from wrath to its equally fatal opposite, sloth. In other words, ungovernable rage (wrath) brings about destruction only at the cost of a crippling apathy (sloth). The vampire offers his gift only through a violent bloodletting; and only at the rather firm price of one’s humanity.
Before I leave off, it is worth saying that the Seven Deadly Sins should probably be understood from the angle of “besetting weakness”, for the question is not so much whether we are given to each of these sins, but rather by which means are we “very readily led or lashed into the sin”. Consider, for instance, the American, who is perhaps not quite so restrained in his disposition as Sayers’ Englishman. Indeed, the American’s “wrath threshold” has proven lower historically even as the outpouring of wrath – the martial response – has been far greater. In view, then, of the sheer number of wars waged by Americans in recent decades, we Americans ought to be especially wary “that the habit of wrath and destruction that war fastens upon us” does not become the marked character of our race, else the fates of Germany and Britain may become our own.