Trivia question: What are the "seven deadly sins"?
Alphabetical answer: anger, envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride and sloth.
A less trivial question: Which is the deadliest of the seven, and why?
Beginning with Thomas Aquinas, Catholic theologians have put pride first because it worsens the other six, just as the seven together are said to undergird all sins.
But in "Greed" (Oxford University Press), Phyllis A. Tickle contends that "greed, by any name, is the mother and matrix, root and consort of all the other sins," the "matriarch of a deadly clan." Lust may be "more socially agreeable" and gluttony "more socially acceptable" to modern Americans, she writes, but greed is "the most social," "the most political" and "the most ubiquitous" of sins.
Her concise but meaty analysis of what makes greed so great ranges from Cicero to the 1987 movie "Wall Street," and often draws upon the fine arts. Some of the best stuff is tucked away in footnotes that make up a third of the book.
Tickle, a former religion editor of Publishers Weekly who lives in Millington, Tenn., is a traditional enough Christian to believe that these evils "still re-enter our being with the birth of every child," a neat summary of the doctrine of original sin.
Though universal and all too human, sin was long suppressed and only recently readmitted to elite cultural conversation. There's telling proof of sin's ascent in the Oxford University Press series of seven little books on the deadly sins, Tickle's "Greed" included, which expand upon New York Public Library lectures in 2002-2003.
Though the seven get ample attention in the Bible, they're not a literal scriptural listing like the Ten Commandments, but a sixth-century formulation by Pope Gregory the Great.
Before delving into the particulars, Tickle provides a sweeping religious scenario. She defines religion as a "rope" of meaning that extends through human history and anchors every human culture and subculture. Effective religions persist for decades and often centuries and beyond.
The three elements of religion, she says, are the spiritual; corporeal (visible institutions found in all successful creeds); and moral, the aspect "we most dread."
To her, recent decades in the West were cataclysmic and filled with enormous change for all three aspects. She likens our time to the first century, when Christianity and rabbinic Judaism both originated, and to the 16th century, when the Protestant Reformation split Western Europe.
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously launched the 20th century with the proclamation that God was dead and that greed, envy and hatred were alive as the tools of human development. Simultaneously, Charles Darwin's disciples were dethroning the Creator God and promoting social theories about the "survival of the fittest."
Evildoing came to be attributed to the forces of human biology or psychology, what Tickle calls "the secularization of evil." She says this robbed Westerners "of the energizing and focusing dignity of spiritual struggle" against sin.
The Protestant era had accentuated sin but also gave birth to a system that fostered the temptation toward greed: capitalism. A devoutly Christian Scot, Adam Smith, wrote capitalism's founding manifesto in the year the United States was born.
Tickle says greed has adopted seductive names, including "laissez faire, the social contract, eminent domain, the wealth of nations, free trade." (The latest buzz word, "globalization," goes unmentioned.)
She doesn't exactly say free market economics is immoral, but makes the impolitic comment that Sept. 11 was both "the work and the result of greed."
In a less debatable assertion, she notes the oddity that greed is especially powerful among comfortable people with few material needs.
"Greed" comes halfway in the Oxford sins series. Still to come are "Anger" by Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, "Pride" by black analyst Michael Eric Dyson and "Sloth" by playwright Wendy Wasserstein.
Last question. What are the - alas - far less prominent "seven heavenly virtues?" Faith, fortitude, hope, justice, love, prudence and temperance.