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A Bestiary of Sin

ISSUE:  Autumn 2002

In Defense of Sin. Edited by John Portmann. Palgrave Press. $23. 95

Handbooks aiming to lead us to the good life are nothing new. One of the best known such books is surely the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, but the tradition would also include the sententia of medieval monks, the Victorian guides to manners, and, more recently, the all too common self-help books manufactured for the consumer of contemporary culture. Depending on religious inclination and intellectual leaning, many of us today seek the good life by meditating on the daily reminders and simple steps offered in works such as these. Like Marcus and the medieval monks, we suppose that reading and writing them is an exercise that promotes self-transformation and that a transformed self will act in transformed ways—coming ever closer to the good life. John Portmann’s In Defense of Sin can be placed within this long tradition of handbooks that support our ethical, physical, and spiritual improvement by offering short letters, aphorisms, or daily reminders for rumination.

This is an age obsessed by the need for moral guidance. After God died and our faith in universal reason collapsed, we look everywhere for advice on how to find the good life. Even The New York Times Sunday Magazine has become a source of moral guidance with its weekly advice column “The Ethicist.” In Defense of Sin offers a unique perspective on the road to the good life: if we are to believe Portmann, those who care most about morality—or at least those who have the most to teach us about morality—are precisely and paradoxically those who seem to do the most to destroy it. Our moral improvement, Portmann suggests, is better served by a penetrating analysis and understanding of sin than by dismissing it as obviously wrong and condemnable.

Portmann’s approach to our moral improvement thus takes a tack opposite from that taken by the former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett in his Book of Virtues. Some (surely including Bennett and his devotees) might see Portmann’s questioning of what is wrong about sin as a sign of the very moral decay he believes himself to be addressing. Portmann’s point, however, is that by making the case for specific sins, we come to know the limits of our morality. Strictly delimiting the field of morality, Portmann implies, is itself ultimately in the service of morality; for it will both liberate us from previous, irrational restraints and better assert the field within which morality is still and perhaps always active. Stanley Fish therefore boldly asserts on the book’s dust jacket that this is “Just what we frail and fallen mortals need—a book defending lust, gossip, deceit, and prostitution and a book that is finally more moral than William J. Bennett’s The Book of Virtues.”

In Defense of Sin is structured as something like a bestiary of sins. The beasts on display are drawn from the various inventories of sin that have been counted up over the past several millenia: there are some from the Hebrew Bible’s Ten Commandments (for example, idolatry, dismissing mother and father, and murder), some from the Christian Seven Deadly Sins (lust, greed, and pride), and a few others from the morality of Everyman (prostitution and gossip), for a total of 16. Each chapter is devoted to a short reading (with one exception all are under 25 pages) dedicated to defending, justifying, or rationalizing one sin. The readings are drawn from the work of philosophers, literary figures, legal scholars, and others. Some come from famous historical figures easily recognizable from undergraduate syllabi: Sigmund Freud defends breaking the golden rule in a selection drawn from his famous Civilization and Its Discontents; Oscar Wilde justifies deceit in a short piece called “The Decay of Lying”; Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” rationalizes murder; and Seneca defends suicide in a letter dating from 63 A.D. Other readings come from less well-known yet more contemporary authors: philosopher Jerome Neu defends pride; legal scholar David Richards justifies prostitution; and John Portmann himself defends lust.

There will be many who, reading the title of this volume, will take it as just another sign of our moral decay rather than the step toward our improvement that it means to be. Portmann himself recognizes that In Defense of Sin “risks showing us how to justify iniquity. But [he continues] it does not aim to do that. In questioning just what is so wrong about sin, the essays of these philosophers suggest that sin might have limits we haven’t fully grasped.” Readers thus learn a lesson not unlike that learned by another who risked showing us how to justify iniquity: Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov who discovered that the moral law is etched so deeply in our consciousness that no justification could ever nullify its sway. In Defense of Sin remains, subtly and suggestively, caught in this double-bind, one suggested by the unavoidable ambivalence of the genitive construction of its title. What is a “defense of sin”? Is it a justification of certain behaviors previously deemed sinful and therefore prohibited? Or is it to fortify the category of sin against those who attack it so that it remains in force and can continue to deem behavior immoral, something Portmann seems to admit is his aim? Like Raskolnikov, Portmann proves the limits of morality in and through the very act of transgressing them.

This ambivalent “defense of sin” is reflected in the different strategies adopted by the authors collected here. Many of the essays rely on the old adage that too much of a good thing is a bad thing and appeal to the well-known (for philosophers) Aristotelian mean in defending the sin in question. Often the sins defended have already been accommodated to the Aristotelian mean, as in the case of Aaron Ben-Ze’ev’s defense of gossip when it is not so extreme as to be harmful. In these cases, I am left with the impression that we are defending something nobody would deem worthy of attack. More challenging is the defense of sins in their extreme form such as when Friedrich Nietzsche defends acts of blasphemy on the grounds that God is “a crime against life” and Sigmund Freud defends breaking the golden rule as true to innate human aggressiveness. These defenses of sin present a real crisis. For they defend sin not by separating out justifiable acts of gossip, lust, etc. from those immoderate ones that remain unjustifiable; rather they justify and praise the very acts that morality deems unjustifiable. Their defense thus shakes morality to the core. To see the same acts from a perspective other than that of morality (as Freud and Nietzsche attempt) is to attempt to dismiss the very category of sin. This transvaluation is, I think, a step Portmann wants to avoid.

In Defense of Sin claims to belong to a tradition where it is supposed that “a moral education makes it more, not less, likely that we will do the right thing.” For me the meditations that proved most educating were those that availed themselves of a full range of rhetorical means and addressed their appeal not just to reason but to all dimensions of the soul or self—the imaginative and affective, as well as rational parts of who we are. Some meditations felt like overly scholastic treatments of the sin in question; they multiplied distinctions and qualifications to the point where I was compelled to agree about an issue that had been defined so minutely as to have lost its impact. Much more powerful for me were those selections that approached the sins descriptively or phenomenologically. My understanding of despair, why it is and is not a sin, benefited far more from Joyce Carol Oates’ six-page consideration of literary figures such as Dickinson, Kafka, and Faulkner than my understanding of adultery benefited from a reasoned argument setting out the conditions and circumstances in which it might and might not be immoral to have sex with someone besides your husband or wife.

On this point, I believe that Bennett and the Book of Virtues may have the upperhand. For Bennett sees that moral education, whatever you think the content of that education should be, is probably better understood and more effective as a course in moral literacy than one in moral reasoning. In matters of moral upbringing, stories teach us more than logic and argument. Bennett’s Book of Virtues contains more poems, stories, and folktales than it does essays, arguments, and well-reasoned expositions. No doubt this accounts in part for its stunning popularity, and it should be a lesson for anyone wanting to counter its success with an eventual book of vices. Portmann’s In Defense of Sin is not that book, and this is no flaw or failing of it. That book remains to be written.


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