It has been twenty years since Alan Bloom claimed that his "nice" students lacked all ability to talk about evil. This was not a living category in the surrounding culture back then, and the students' connections with literature were too thin to supply them with a deeper view of things. The post-9/11 generation, however, has heard political rhetoric like the "Axis of Evil." However shallow the ability to speak of it, the word evil is at least part of the modern vocabulary. We can quickly name the evil: Osama bin Laden, Jeffrey Dahmer, Enron. Acts may have to be spectacular to earn such a label, but we understand it. Not so with sin.
While evil is moral transgression, sin is religious transgression. With sin, there is no human victim. God alone has been transgressed. With evil, people have been hurt. Sin is a violation of holiness, evil a violation of morality. Evil tends to be easier to identify because the harm is visible. As the Apostle Paul tells us, "Through the law comes knowledge of sin" and "where there is no law, there is no transgression." If we do not know the law, at least internally, we will be unaware when transgression occurs (unless there is a lockdown and coverage interrupts the regularly scheduled TV programming).
Ronald Paulson's book explains at great length the different subjects and different vocabularies involved in matters of transgression. For a generation locked in the horizontal, Paulson reminds us that transgression may be vertical as well. Paulson also discusses "wrongdoing," where a human code has been violated, sometimes with injury to people, sometimes without. The legal system may not know good and evil, but it knows right and wrong, as this can be known from the law code. Wrongdoing and sin are similar in being defined by the law, but different in that one is the law of man and the other the law of God.
Paulson's book is not a philosophical treatise however. The proving ground for the distinction is neither speculative theory nor the world of historical events, but the world of literature. Paulson probes how these two kinds of transgression have brought about two traditions of literature: that which speaks of Sin and that which speaks of Evil. I have used capital letters because Paulson says that what he is examining is literature that speaks of Sin and Evil of great magnitude.
Paulson traces literary development starting with Greek satire, Roman epic, and Georgic. All societies use literature as a way of speaking of how things go wrong. What kinds of things go wrong and how we are to look at them is what changes over time. In the Greek satires, sin was "missing the mark," which suggested more lack of skill than viciousness. Avoidable tragedy befell people who were flawed. In Roman writings, there was more of an emphasis on how absence of civilization led to error, and more civilization was the cure. Early Christianity brought in a literature where the guilty were culpable and were punished for their guilt with punishments that fit the crime. Perhaps ironically, the switch to this outlook was a switch from tragedy to comedy, not because hell was funny, but because such a universe offered the possibility of a happy ending.
Where we speak of the bin Ladens, the Dahmers, or the Enrons as evil, other ages could not only name the evil, but the sinful. Dante's hell was a place where sinners went who loved something earthly more than God. Famous adulterers like Paolo and Francesca had evils inflicted upon them from without, but the deeper into hell he journeyed, the more the sinners inflicted punishments on each other. Near the very bottom were Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri. Ugolino had betrayed his city, while Ruggieri had betrayed Ugolino, forcing him to starve or eat his sons. In hell, Ugolino forever gnawed on Ruggieri's skull. Placing his worst sinners at the bottom of hell, Dante expressed that the betrayers of those around them were the worst of sinners. Paulson offers us concrete examples of sinners and evil ones, taken from Shakespeare to perpetrators of the Holocaust.
In our time we see only evil, and use the word sin to mean evil with a capital E; other times only knew of sin, with evil being a mere by-product. The shift of focus and vocabulary are intriguing. Ours is but one way these matters have been discussed in time. If Bloom is right, literature is where we can find lost ways of speaking of our world and be enriched by it. Paulson's survey can hardly be given a fair summary because in every few pages a new vocabulary and understanding is detailed. His work is itself a vast summary. It will offer the reader not only a richer vocabulary with which to discuss our fallenness and its possible solutions, but also many concrete examples of characters who concretely embody the horrors our race entered when it fell. The Greeks would consider losing the opportunity to learn from this discussion tragic. I'm tempted to say, however, that it would be a sin.