IX. Ignorance & Idleness

The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things by Hieronymus Bosch


The seven deadly sins include lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. Unlike the minor sins, the seven deadly sins are not easily forgiven and may lead to eternal damnation. Unknown to many, each of the deadly sins are paired with a demon from hell. Pride with Lucifer, Greed with Mammon, Lust with Asmodeus, Envy with Leviathan, Gluttony with Beelzebub, Wrath with Amon and Sloth with Belphegor. To answer them, the Roman Catholic Church believed in the seven virtues: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility.

The seven deadly sins have been the downfall of many men. Yet the roots of the seven deadly sins are two even more dangerous sins by the name of ignorance and idleness. It is by the deadly grasp of ignorance and idleness that the sins of lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride springs forth like a plague into this world. Idleness causes the mind to slow, our fighting spirit to dim and our hopes to disappear. Ignorance on the other hand, causes our mind to rot, our soul to desire for harmful things and our intellectual spirit to decay from within.

Not to be occupied, and not to exist, amount to the same thing,” said Voltaire. All people are good except those who are idle[1]. If you do not want to commit suicide always have something to do. What greater crime than the lost of time? “A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life,” commented Charles Darwin. Action is the foundational key to all success[2]. By doing nothing we learn to do ill[3]. Idleness is the root of all evil[4]. The devil tempts all, but the idle man tempts the devil.

William Hogarth understood the perils of idleness perhaps better than most. In his 12-plot engravings by the title of Industry and Idleness, he illustrated the rewards of hard work and the dangers of sloth. The engravings followed the story of the diligent Francis Goodchild and the lazy Thomas Idle. Both worked for the same employer but would have very different and dramatic ends. From the book of Proverbs, Hogarth quoted, “for the drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags[5]. Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth[6].”

The engravings further illustrated how Idle gambled and cheated behind the churchyard while Goodchild sang in the choirs of the church. Soon Goodchild was trusted with the management of his employer’s business. Idle on the other hand, was sent to sea as a result for his lack of performance. When Goodchild marries his employer’s daughter, Idle is seen sleeping with a common prostitute. Not long after that, Goodchild becomes the Sheriff of London while Idle is betrayed by his companions and was caught engaging in criminal activity. Ironically, Hogarth depicts Idle being brought to court and reunited with Goodchild who is now a judge.

Goodchild finds Idle guilty based on the evidence and sentenced him to death at Tyburn. Quoting from the book of Psalms, “the LORD is known by his acts of justice; the wicked are ensnared by the work of their hands[7].” Right after the death of Idle, Goodchild reaps the rewards of the diligent and is elected to be Lord-Mayor of London. The verse from the bible reads, “long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honour[8].”

The story of Goodchild and Idle are not uncommon to us all. But would Idle have chosen a different path if he knew what would happen to him should he travel down the road of idleness? Socrates believed that no one ‘misses the mark’ willingly. People are unable to consciously choose the worse for themselves. It is through the lack of knowledge that we find ourselves making the wrong choices in life. Even the grasshopper in Aesop’s fable would have worked with utmost diligence should he know that he will die of hunger during the next winter.

Although ignorance may give one the peace of life, ignorance is the night of the mind[9]. There is no blindness like ignorance. Art and Science have no enemy but the ignorant. Social progress and civilization would not have been possible without the few visionary intellectuals that transcended the veils of ignorance into the realm of enlightenment, progress and development. “I do not know how I was made, and how I was born. I did not know at all, during a quarter of my life, the causes of what I saw, or heard, or felt,” said Voltaire. What ignorance do we possess from the minute we are conceived and from the moment that we enter childhood. Is there no escape?

With every passing generation, the lessons learnt from the past dies with them. There can be no substitute for the knowledge learnt through direct experience. The new generation could only find an incomplete substitute in history books and records of old. And even with the will to pour one’s time into the great amount of old literature, the young are indeed lucky if these old annals contain not prejudiced writings and biased views. What good is it to read the writings of those that has made it their sole purpose in life to foster a generation of ignorant youths?!

Many would argue that teachers and mentors might possess the answer to our ignorance. But those that are qualified to hold the honourable title ‘teacher’ and ‘mentor’ are too few in a world with so many people. It is not sufficient to have a degree recognized by tertiary institutions to be able to teach without prejudice. And to learn from someone without a clear understanding of the world may prove even worse that learning from misguided dead authors of the past. As the saying goes, “if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch[10].”

There is no ultimate solution to ignorance and idleness. All of us are in some ways ignorant of certain things. But even if we are face with the impossibility of eliminating ignorance completely, we should still strive to continuously improve ourselves. Read as widely as possible. Identify writers that are objective without prejudice and hidden agendas. Waste not the time that have been allotted to you and never be caught doing nothing. It is ignorance that leads to idleness. And the both of them combined would destroy every ounce of virtue that man possesses.

[1] Quote attributed to Voltaire.

[2] Quote attributed to Pablo Picasso.

[3] Sometimes attributed to Cato the Elder (3rd– 2nd centuries BC).

[4] Sometimes attributed to St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153).

[5] Proverbs, Chapter 23 Verse 21.

[6] Proverbs, Chapter 10 Verse 4.

[7] Psalms, Chapter 9 Verse 16.

[8] Psalms, Chapter 3 Verse 16.

[9] A Chinese proverb.

[10] A quotation from the Sermon of the Mount. Matthew, Chapter 15 Verse 14.

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