In polling friends as to what they think is the deepest root of all sin, I got three main answers. One was a shrug indicating no answer at all (i.e., “I dunno”). Another was to refer to Scripture: For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils (1 Tim 6:10). I’ll discuss below why this is an inadequate answer. The third main response was that original sin (and the concupiscence that followed) is the source of all of our other sins. The only problem with that answer is that it doesn’t explain Adam and Eve’s (original) sin, nor does it explain the fall of the angels, who seem to have fallen in great numbers without original sin or concupiscence and are now demons. Therefore an even deeper root must be sought.
Referencing St. Thomas Aquinas and Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, permit me to answer that the deepest root of all sin is inordinate self-love. From this root springs all sin, including the original sin of Adam and that of the angels. It is true that our fallen condition has intensified the problem of inordinate self-love, but the possible temptation to it was there before.
For to what else did Satan appeal when he said to Eve, and you will be like God (Gen 3:5)? And indeed, by what were Lucifer and all the other fallen angels tempted when they mysteriously rebelled and, in effect, declared their non serviam (I will not serve)? Adam and Eve as well as all the angels (though sinless and not fallen) chose to love themselves more than God. They would not love or trust God more than they loved themselves. For the angels it was a “one and you’re done” decision. For us, the drama continues, but will end with our definitive and lasting decision either to love God or to love our own self more.
The inordinate love of self is the most fundamental root of all sin. We all know its power and its pernicious quality. Even the most wonderful things we do are tainted when we do them more for personal praise and glory than for love of God and neighbor.
Let me summarize a few insights from Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange. He begins from Scripture.
From inordinate self-love, the root of every sin, spring the three concupiscences which St. John speaks of when he says: “For all that is in the world is the concupiscence of the flesh and the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life, which is not of the Father, but of the world” (1 John 2:16).
The concupiscence of the flesh is the inordinate desire of what is, or seems to be, useful to the preservation of the individual and of the species, [Gluttony and Lust] … Voluptuousness can thus become an idol …
The concupiscence of the eyes is the inordinate desire of all that can please the sight: of luxury, wealth, money … From this is born avarice [greed]. The avaricious man ends by making his treasure his god, adoring it and sacrificing everything to it: his time, his strength, his family, and sometimes, his eternity …
The pride of life is the inordinate love of our own excellence … [from this is born pride, anger, envy, and sloth]. [He who has pride of life] ends by becoming his own god, as Lucifer did.
Inordinate self-love leads us to death, according to the Savior’s words: “He that loveth his life (in an egotistical manner) shall lose it; and he that hateth (or sacrifices) his life in this world, keepeth it unto life eternal” (Jn 12:25). … Only a greater love, the love of God, can conquer self-love. (Lagrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life (Tan Publications) Vol 1: 300-301, 368-370)
St. Thomas says, “All sinful acts spring from inordinate self-love, which hinders us from loving God above all else and tempts us to turn away from him” (Summa Theologica I, IIae, q. 77 a. 4; et 84, a. 4).
[E]very sinful act proceeds from inordinate desire for some temporal good. Now the fact that anyone desires a temporal good inordinately, is due to the fact that he loves himself inordinately; for to wish anyone some good is to love him. Therefore it is evident that inordinate love of self is the cause of every sin (Summa Theologica 77.4 respondeo).
To the objection that Scripture says, “For the love of money [literally covetousness] is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim 6:10), St. Thomas responds,
The desire of money is said to be the root of sins, not as though riches were sought for their own sake, as being the last end; but because they are much sought after as useful for any temporal end. And since a universal good is more desirable than a particular good, they move the appetite more than any individual goods, which along with many others can be procured by means of money (Summa Theologica I, IIae, 84, 1 ad 2).
In other words, “money” is desired as a means not an end, not for its own sake but as a means to indulge inordinate self-love. So, inordinate self-love is a deeper root than the love of money. Money is desired to facilitate and actualize the deeper problem.
St. Thomas goes on to show how the Capital Vices (sins) flow from inordinate self-love. What follows are my own reflections, based loosely on his.
- Pride (sometimes called vainglory) – We love our own apparent excellence more than the certain and greater excellence of God, or the excellence that may exist in others.
- Greed – We have an excessive and insatiable love of things due to our excessive love of ourselves and the perceived need to have these things for our sake.
- Lust – Out of excessive love of self and desire to please ourselves, we desire others for the pleasure they can give us, rather than loving them for their own sake.
- Anger – Our excessive self-love causes us to regard many things and people (including God) fearfully and then angrily, perceiving them as threatening. So we angrily and unrighteously resist them.
- Gluttony – Our excessive love of self causes us to satisfy our passion for food and drink beyond what is healthy in the long run, what is respectful of God, or what is generous to others.
- Envy – Our excessive self-love and egotism give us a sadness about the goodness or excellence of others because we perceive it as lessening our own share of praise or glory.
- Sloth – Our excessive love of self makes God seem to be a usurper of our life, our time, our opinions, or our pleasure. So we are sad about or avoid His plan for our happiness.
This, then, is the deepest root of all of our sin. We cannot simply blame the world or the devil, though they are not to be excluded either. But inordinate self-love is what gives the world and the devil easy access to us. This is the “button” they push for easy results.
This source of sin is a lot closer and far more subtle than we imagine. Only a greater love—the love of God—can conquer self-love. And thus the greatest commandment is this: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments (Matt 22:37-40).
Indeed, and so does our healing hang on these two commandments. Ask for a greater love of God, a proper love of self, and the gift to love your neighbor with that same proper love.