Warning: The Seven Deadly Sins might not damage your health

... and for seasonal sermonisers, some suggestions on how to promote them

Lust and gluttony are the least deadly of the Seven Deadly Sins, according to the first detailed medical analysis of the transgressions, which highlights their positive qualities.

Lust drives people to create, to achieve, to make themselves as attractive as possible, and even unrequited lust has its good points, it is claimed.

WB Yeats's frustrated passion for Maude Gonne is cited as a pertinent example of the benefits of lust, inspiring as it did "the greatest body of love poetry in the English language," according to Dr Liam Farrell, a GP from Crossmaglen in Northern Ireland and the man charged with the analysis of lust by the British Medical Journal. In the current issue Dr Farrell quotes from The Song of Wandering Aengus: "It had become a glimmering girl/With apple blossom in her hair/Who called me by my name and ran/And faded in the brightening air," and asks whether if they had had sex a few times early in their relationship it would have deprived us "of these sublime and unforgettable verses? As Balzac said (afterwards), `There goes another good novel'."

Professor John Garrow, a leading nutritionist, has only good things to say about gluttony (and to a lesser extent sloth), pointing out that the opposites of these are asceticism and hyperactivity. "I would not mind people around me being hyperactive, so long as their motives were purged of the other deadly sins, but asceticism, restraint, or self denial are not characteristics that I would welcome in my associates and still less deeply in myself," he says.

Professor Garrow says that of the Seven Deadly Sins, the penalties of gluttony fall upon the sinners themselves, while pride, wrath, envy, lust, or avarice, "probably make life unpleasant for those around them."

Dr Simon Wessley, of the Department of Psychological Medicine at King's College School of Medicine, says that the sin of pride is now fashionable, and that many psychologists view it as a positive emotion, listing it alongside love, joy, and gratitude. He writes: "In the film Wall Street the motto `greed is good' became the epitaph of the 1980s. A 1990s remake would have Michael Douglas as a psychologist telling us that `Pride is good'."

Professor James McCormick of the Department of Community Health and General Practice at Trinity College, Dublin, blames the notion of sloth as a sin on the Protestant work ethic. In countries with the tradition of siesta, it is absent, he says, while time to "stand [or sit or lie] and stare, time to think, is seen by others as sloth". He cites the example of one scientist who, during a discussion on the importance of new equipment, said: "We do not need more equipment, we need to think, we need a chaise longue."

Professor McCormick laments the fact that sloth has become even more deadly in recent years because the "couch potato" not only gives offence, but is known to shorten his life too. "As somebody who looks after several people who are living to die the slow death of senescence, there seems to me a strong case for relatively early and speedy death. In a world where all women are taking hormone replacement therapy and all men are taking statins [anti-ageing drugs], the possibility of peaceful myocardial infarction [heart attack] will diminish, and many more can look forward to a life `sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything'."

He argues that sloth is a sin only in the eye of the beholder and "we need the luxury and benefits of occasional sloth."

Greed in the medical world has little to do with money, according to Dr Ralph Crawshaw from Portland, Oregon. He accuses some doctors of being "time misers" who turn up for clinics late and leave early, or spend clinic time on personal administration and phone-calls. Patients may be "service misers" and Alfie, played by Michael Caine in the film of the same name, is a "stunning example," Dr Crawshaw says. "The Alfies of our world have an insouciant manner of riding an ambulance to casualty to demand a sleeping pill or immediate treatment of chapped lips. They know their rights and use them for relentless demands."

Envy, according to Professor Louis Appleby, a psychiatrist at the Withington Hospital in Manchester, is different from the other Seven Deadly Sins, in that it is the only one that does not have an enjoyable side. "It is all resentment, ill-will, and sour grapes." In fact, he finds little that is positive to say about envy and recalls that it was Sigmund Freud's view that this state of mind "explained" women. It is not envy but jealousy that worries modern psychiatrists, he says, because it is more than thought "it leads to action."

Professor Chapman from the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine at Sydney University, asked to pontificate on wrath, prefers instead to choose someone worthy of the wrath of doctors and public health workers. "Surely, with currently three million deaths a year to their names, it's hard to pass by the strategists within the tobacco industry as exemplary candidates for our collective wrath," Professor Chapman says. "The recent revelations about over 30 years of lying, scientific palm greasing, and every manner of deceit and cover-up in the international tobacco industry, for the purposes of keeping as many people smoking as possible, showed that these people have all the ethics of a cash register."

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