A History of Sin
Thomson (Oliver)
This Page provides (where held) the Abstract of the above Book and those of all the Papers contained in it.
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Author’s Preface

  1. For some reason the study of moral history has not been a particularly fashionable subject, yet the need for people to understand how moral codes evolve in both the past and present is obvious. In retrospect we may regard many moralities as downright wicked — those that blessed genocide, human sacrifice, torture, infanticide, drugs, prostitution and many other habits now unacceptable to our own codes.
  2. Histories have been written of the law and of criminal behaviour. There are also individual studies of many of the corporate crimes of mankind such as slavery and torture, but there have been few attempts at a broad historical view of the peaks and troughs of moral fashions through the ages. The great pioneering work was E.H. Lecky's History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, first published in 1906. Since then most historians have steered clear of such an approach except perhaps for the French, particularly Aries and Duby with their four-volume A History of Private Life. Constitutional and economic histories are safer because they deal with concrete evidence; examinations of foreign policy, administration, warfare or material life are easier because they are based on official documents or archaeological evidence. Moral history by its nature depends on flimsier source material. There are risks of misinterpretation, of subjective judgements, and this book does not pretend to be immune from such difficulties, or to contain any information which is not already available in existing specialist studies.
  3. The intention of this study is to look at the history of sin from five points of view.
    1. First, what are the factors of time and place which help to create moral climates and ethical codes? Why do we find that what is regarded as good or evil can be quite different amongst different peoples in different eras? What causes these differences, and how (if at all) do they relate to any absolute standards of good or evil?
    2. Second, what effect in turn do changing moral codes and attitudes have on the events of history, on the life and happiness of nations? While a moral code may be a product of its time, the result of socio-economic pressures, once it is established it may subsequently inflict reciprocal pressures which can influence events radically.
    3. Third, it is important to examine the functioning of morality in different periods, the nature of moral leadership offered by the great moral thinkers and codifiers, the structure of ethical systems, the motivation offered to the people, the components and characteristics of the systems. This will in turn lead back to history and an examination of how some moral systems contained features which by almost any of our recent standards are extremely immoral. The fascist ethic included genocide, the Spartans blessed infanticide, the Jesuits believed in torture, the Puritans in burning witches, the followers of Hassan i Suffah or the IRA in assassination. Great corporate crimes are often committed in the name of virtue. Actual deviations from the moral conventions of each era, the myriad acts of anti-social behaviour are much less our concern than the vast numbers of acts of cruelty to which societies and conventions have given their blessing.
    4. Fourth, we may find evidence of the typical life-expectancy of moral codes, signs of the reactive ebb and flow of strictness and permissiveness in successive generations, like the rise and fall of hemlines. Throughout much of history it can be argued that the fundamental morality of the vast silent majority of subsistence peasants changed hardly at all, but it was the changeable moral codes of the fashion-conscious minority which often created instability and misery for the rest.
    5. Finally, it may be useful in a historical context to look at the particular moral problems of the late twentieth century, possibly to compare it with periods of similar moral stress or crisis in the past and put some of our current dilemmas in some kind of perspective.
  4. Accordingly, this study is divided into three parts:
    1. The first is an attempted analysis and classification of moral codes, their background, functions, attributes and peculiarities.
    2. The second part comprises historical examples, and
    3. The third is a tentative review of moral directions towards the end of the twentieth century seen in their long-term historical context.
  5. We can begin with some self-evident premisses: that the level of moral consciousness of peoples and leaders is one of the most important factors in governing their conduct and therefore in controlling the destinies of history. Attitudes to war, violence, the family, property, work and human rights are of fundamental importance, they vary considerably, and there has been less historical study of them than there should be.
  6. To avoid breaking up the narrative the use of footnotes has been avoided, but readers interested in pursuing references or quotations can do so by referring to the bibliography. It will be noticed that in many cases reference is made to historians of several generations ago rather than the most up-to-date historical scholars. This is because men like Gibbon, Macaulay, Lecky and Finlay took a broader view of history and were not afraid to indulge in moral commentary, whereas today's researchers tend to prefer statistics and objectivity.


    List of Illustrations – ix
  1. PART ONE: The Nature of Moralities
    1. The genesis of moralities - 3
    2. The causes of moral differences: economic pressures, power sources, prejudices, objectives – 6
    3. The raw materials of moralities: compassion, self-defence, desire for approval, love of family – 11
    4. The typical components of moral codes: protection of life, family and food supply – 14
    5. Extremes and deviations: acquisitive politics, war, inequality, level of altruism, work ethic, asceticism, intolerance – 29
    6. The characteristics of moral codes: reciprocity, altruism, obedience, absolutes, manners – 35
    7. Motivations and sanctions: objective sanctions, enlightened self-interest, threat of punishment, precedent – 38
    8. The sources of moral leadership: types of organisation, pressure groups, great originals – 42
    9. Moral training — propaganda: motivation, parents, education, churches, myths and fables, saints and heroes, mass media – 45
    10. Life cycles: characteristics of rises and falls – 50
  2. PART TWO: A History of Sin
    • Introduction – 57
    • 1,500,000-3000 BC – 59
    • 3000-2000 BC – 65
    • 2000-1500 BC – 69
    • 1500-1000 BC – 73
    • 1000-500 BC – 80
    • 500-1 BC – 92
    • AD 1-500 – 106
    • 500-1000 – 120
    • 1000-1400 – 133
    • 1400-1600 – 151
    • 1600-1700 – 176
    • 1700-1800 – 190
    • 1800-1900 – 205
    • 1900-1992 – 224
  3. PART THREE: What Next? – 255
    Bibliography – 263
    Index – 273


Cannongate Press, Edinburgh, 1993. Paperback.

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