BOOK REVIEW / Being bad by any other name: A History of Sin - Oliver Thomson: Canongate pounds 17.9,9

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The Independent Culture
WITH 'values' on everyone's lips, this book provides some much-needed background, from the Stone Age onwards. Cultural context has always determined our moral habits, which is why prescribing them without serious thought can end in upset.

What, for example, are we to make of Oliver Thomson's example of the 300 French prostitutes who, accompanying the Third Crusades, 'dedicated as a holy offering what they kept between their thighs'? Or the Spartan code which called for 'the early practical application of eugenics' to cull offspring unsuitable for military service? Or the sect which believed chewing cannabis brought them closer to God? It is easy to find legitimating examples of things disapproved of today. And this bears out Thomson's main point, that 'morality is subject to fashion'.

The catalogue of the purportedly sinful is enormous, and it would be easy for readers of this book to be bogged down, had Thomson not first provided a rough analytical framework to regulate the mass of information he turns up. This initial section covers the genesis of moralities, the causes of moral differences, motivations and sanctions, moral training and propaganda, myths and fables, and so on. He then enumerates the moral characteristics of individual epochs. For example, we learn that in medieval times there was 'a grete multiplicacyon of orrible syn amongst syngle women'.

It is interesting, in a vicarious sort of way, to read of the excesses of tyrants from Henry VIII to Idi Amin. But the book is ultimately unsatisfying. Part of the problem is that Thomson whips the carpet out from under his own feet: plainly, if the thesis is that you can't define sin in any absolute, trans-

epochal way, how can you have a history of sin? Sin, as we understand it, is a relatively recent, Judaeo-Christian invention. The Greeks, for example, didn't have a concept of sin, basing their morality around something nearer to what we would call shame.

What we call it is in fact the issue, and this is the other main fault of Thomson's book: it doesn't come to terms with language, the very material with which we prescribe and describe moral behaviour. Language in its most extended sense may include the flicker of images coming off video and computer-game screens, and it sometimes seems as if such language were having a fragmentary effect on grand ideas like 'truth' and 'justice'.

Thomson's conclusion is that many of the great injustices of the world have been perpetrated in the name of justice, and many of history's greatest untruths uttered in the name of truth. He suggests that it is time we moved towards a 'new, mature ethos' with room for everyone's views. Oddly enough (though Thomson doesn't mention it), electronic media would be exactly the appropriate form in which to convey such pluralistic morality. But then again pixilated prophets don't have quite the same authority as ones carrying tablets of stone.