BOOK BLOG | The Other Six Deadly Sins: Gluttony (Sayers - Letter 10)
“Gluttony is warm-hearted. It is the excess and perversion of that free, careless, and generous mood that desires to enjoy life and to see others enjoy it. But like lust and wrath, it is a headless, heedless sin, that puts the good-natured person at the mercy of the cold head and the cold heart; and these exploit it and bring it to judgment…”
GLUTTONY (gula) – Next in Sayers’ exposition of The Other Six Deadly Sins is gluttony, the third (and last) of the warm-hearted sins, which we established earlier are sins of passion and indulgence, typically born out of a lack of self-restraint. In its simplest form, gluttony is the sin of “eating too much.” It would probably be more accurate to expand this to overconsumption of whatever sort, whether eating, or drinking, or drugs, or alcohol, or cigarettes, or whatever. In this view, gluttony is not just the sin of the rich and overweight, but rather is distributed to all social or economic classes.
Sayers supposes it may be true that countries, when they are economically deprived, may be somewhat less given to the sin of gluttony, if only because they do not have the material resources they need to buy more than what is essential. In this sense, she jests, such peoples may congratulate themselves that “if we have not exactly renounced our sins, this particular sin at any rate has renounced us.”
But more seriously, in Sayers’ mind gluttony goes well beyond mere ingestion. As she sees it, the entire industrial economy is based on gluttony; for since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, thriftiness is no longer thought virtuous. Instead, folks are encouraged to raise their standard of living by becoming increasingly reliant upon more, and more complicated luxuries, mass-produced by machines, operated by men who are little more than part of the machine.
“The gluttonous consumption of manufactured goods has become…the prime civic virtue. And why? Because the machines can produce cheaply only if they produce in vast quantities; because unless the machines can produce cheaply nobody can afford to keep them running; and because, unless they are kept running, millions of citizens will be thrown out of employment, and the community will starve.”
So that is to say that our modern industrial economy is based on – and many of us depend for our livelihood on – wholesale gluttonous indulgence. And Sayers has particular accusation to make at contemporary advertising, which she sees as flattering and frightening people out of reasonable contentment; and which is accomplished by the open and rather shameless appeal to the basest aspects of our sinful nature.
Today the public considers the disposable as preferable to the permanent, or even the durable; and the cultural result of this choice – the sacrifice quality for quantity – is plainly in evidence. “The system as we know it thrives upon waste and rubbish heaps.” Families torn apart by the demands of making enough money to consume ever increasing quantities of cheap, disposable goods; the environmental devastation of procuring ever-increasing quantities of raw materials; art and architecture which thinks in weeks instead of centuries.
You cannot even point to periods of war where people must live under material restriction or rationing as a manifestation of virtue (however temporary) for such moments merely shift the consumption from the individual consumer to government super-consumer. Indeed, the mindset of disposability which the individual consumes in peacetime may be little more than a reflection of what the government does during periods of war – both destroy resources unnecessarily. At the final analysis, they are the same thing – only the scale differs.
Moreover, the factory conveyor ensures that the worker does not take any real pride or interest in the goods which he helps to manufacture, for that should surely break a man’s spirit and “cause him to hate his work.” The reliance on machine production has not been a humane advance for man in terms of his capacity for meaningful, purposeful labor.
“The difference between the factory hand and the craftsman is that the craftsman lives to do the work he loves; but the factory hand lives by doing the work he despises. The service of the machine will not have it otherwise. […] …whether or not it is desirable to keep up this fearful whirligig of industrial finance based on gluttonous consumption, it could not be kept up for a single moment without the cooperative gluttony of the consumer. [...] The sin of gluttony, of greed, of overmuch stuffing ourselves, is the sin that has delivered us over into the power of the machine.”
Does this mean that Sayers is against capitalism? Not necessarily. It is more likely that she would see its excesses reined in by law; that she desires a peaceful change in the economic system without overthrowing the political. That may be naïve. But we may find ourselves sympathetic to the notion that few would choose for themselves to spend their life doing inane work which contributes little to the world, and which will be thrown away once used anyway.
Capitalism thrives on greed and overconsumption; and that the intersection of greed and mass production is the abandonment of thrift and sensible stewardship. Not that this need lead us to overthrow the system – all systems are imperfect, and this may well be the least terrible of all imperfect systems. But it does suggest that there is something about it which ought to be troubling to Christians at least, because it depends for its success upon encouraging a particular aspect of man’s sinful nature.
“For it is the great curse of gluttony that it ends by destroying all sense of the precious, the unique, the irreplaceable.”