How to Sin in Moderation

Nietzsche said; sin in moderation — which seems like one of his more reasonable suggestions (especially for the Nietzsche of 1888, who was, by all accounts, already more than half-insane). But what does it mean to sin in moderation? Isn’t sin the opposite of moderation? Isn’t it, by definition, excessive? Consider the seven mortal sins: Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Wrath and Sloth. Are they not extreme distortions of necessary drives? (You must rest — but too much rest is Slothful; you must consume — but consuming too much is Gluttonous; etc.) Nietzsche understood this. He used the words ‘passion’, ‘sin’ and ‘instinct’ interchangeably. He did not deny that sin was excessive. He encouraged excess. This brought him into conflict with the moral order (in his case: the Church). Their position was ascetic, preaching abstinence (or what Nietzsche called ‘castratism’). He argued that such a doctrine should be reserved for those who do not have the capacity to ‘impose moderation on themselves’. The lower orders — the ‘weak-willed’ and ‘degenerate’ masses that Nietzsche often spoke of — cannot help themselves, and so they sin excessively:

The church fights passion with excision in every sense: its practice, its “cure,” is castratism. It never asks: “How can one spiritualize, beautify, deify a craving?” It has at all times laid the stress of discipline on extirpation (of sensuality, of pride, of the lust to rule, of avarice, of vengefulness). But an attack on the roots of passion means an attack on the roots of life: the practice of the church is hostile to life […] The same means in the fight against a craving — castration, extirpation — is instinctively chosen by those who are too weak-willed, too degenerate, to be able to impose moderation on themselves […] Radical means are indispensable only for the degenerate; the weakness of the will — or, to speak more definitely, the inability not to respond to a stimulus — is itself merely another form of degeneration. The radical hostility, the deadly hostility against sensuality, is always a symptom to reflect on: it entitles us to suppositions concerning the total state of one who is excessive in this manner (Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols)

To sin in moderation is risky. The sins are considered deadly for a reason; wherever they go, destruction follows. Let us consider, for instance, the primary sin: Pride. Throughout history, theologians (like Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas) have argued that ‘Pride is the beginning of all sin’ (Saint Gregory); that it is ‘the first and most serious because it involves non-subjection to [God’s law]’ (Maguire).

Pride is primary, but it is also, interestingly, the least irredeemable (hence why Michael Eric Dyson calls it the ‘virtuous vice’):

Of all the deadly sins, pride is most likely to stir debate about whether it is a sin at all. After all, without a sense of pride, one might not achieve or continue to strive for excellence in one’s field of endeavor (Dyson)

Pride is also something we associate with the ‘well-born’ — which, as Nietzsche reminds us, has as much to do with one’s bearing as it has to do with one’s parentage (to be ‘borne’ is to be carried or transported, and the well-born carry themselves well):

It is the prerogative of royal personages to hold the head high with the back very straight. The same proud bearing and conduct of self is found in the dancers of the corps de ballet. In all of these there is a certain rigidity, arrogance and haughtiness. These words describe exactly the meaning of ‘pride’ […] there is also the implication of magnificence, splendour and pomp enfolded in an act of display. It has to be exhibited or seen (Maguire)

Most people admit: a little bit of pride (euphemistically called confidence or high self-esteem) is a good thing. At what point then, are we to rein in our pride? In response to this question, Michael Eric Dyson quotes Simone Weil on the use of might:

The strong are never absolutely strong, nor are the weak absolutely weak. Those who have Might on loan from fate count on it too much and are destroyed. Might is as pitiless to the man who possesses it (or thinks he does) as it is to its victims. The second it crushes, the first it intoxicates (Weil)

‘Might on loan’ is a good way to conceptualize pride (and perhaps all the sins). To sin is to borrow from the future. In earlier times, the afterlife was used to dissuade sinners. Today, they say excess will shorten your lifespan. In any case, the emphasis is on temporal retribution (or, in other words, karma).

In the anime/manga series, The Seven Deadly Sins, the character known as Escanor, ‘The Lion Sin of Pride’, is a great example of ‘might on loan’. During the day, and particularly at noon (when the sun is at its peak), Escanor is by far the most powerful character — surpassing even his leader, ‘Meliodas, The Dragon Sin of Wrath’. However, at night, Escanor shrinks into an impotent and weak little man. This is the cost of pride. It grants temporary ‘might’, which reverts into insecurity and weakness.

If anyone understood the cost of ‘might on loan’, it was Nietzsche. (As I wrote about in my post ‘Faust, Nietzsche and the Psychology of Inspiration’, Nietzsche ‘bounced between bouts of torpor and “monstrous creative activity”’, which ultimately took its toll on his mental health. In 1888, he produced four major works in quick succession, and almost immediately after, on the 3rd of January 1889, he finally and irrevocably “lost his mind”.)

In many ways, the character of Escanor is an homage to Nietzsche. From his distinctive moustache to his diurnal transformations (which I discuss further in ‘Nietzsche and Loneliness’) Escanor is probably what Nietzsche imagined himself to be: grand and all-powerful. However, in the eyes of his contemporaries, and even those closest to him, he was more like night-time Escanor; a small and sickly man.

By virtue of his being a fictional character in a recurring series, and Nietzsche being a fallible man in the real world, Escanor was designed to last, while Nietzsche was designed to fail. But in order to last, Escanor must oscillate between extremes of pride and humility. His might is on loan. (In Bible speak, he is not “robbing Peter to pay Paul”. In drug-dealer speak, he doesn’t “run off on the plug”.)

In his semi-serious autobiography Ecce Homo — which contains the hilariously hubristic subtitles ‘Why I Am So Wise’ and ‘Why I Write Such Good Books’ — Nietzsche reached peak pride. He proclaimed himself ‘divine’ and refused to accept a higher authority. In Ecce Homo, there is no moderation. It is also, unsurprisingly, the last book he ever wrote.

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Eddie Ejjbair

Eddie Ejjbair

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