It’s Messiah season again, which means the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir owns my evenings for the next week. Tonight was the rehearsal with choir and orchestra (tomorrow we do it with the soloists as well) and, of course, the conductor – Nicholas Kraemer this time. It will be good.
During the chorus “Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs” Maestro Kraemer pointed out that the long note on “our” in “he was bruised for our iniquities” was resulting in loss of precision on the following word so he couldn’t quite hear the quit. Well, there it is: sometimes we don’t know when to quit.
Is that a fair perspective on iniquity as well – not knowing when, where, and whether to quit? Deadly sins have a way of being normal things taken to excess: gluttony is simply eating too much food, greed is just wanting too much, lust is letting one’s attractions go a bit far, and so on. So is unquittingness in the propinquity? Not quite, though there is something to it.
Iniquity is often associated with elastic morals – I might more readily say with liquid morals, with a deliquescence of morals (caused by moral turpentine?), or perhaps even a deliquium of the conscience. It is also associated with archaism – that is to say, it shows up in old texts, and in texts that wish to call forth an old and formal style with strong Biblical overtones. In modern English its most common collocation is den of iniquity, and we know what that is: to quote Star Wars, a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” – especially of those things considered grave moral transgressions, such as drinking, gambling, and fornication, and perhaps just incidentally theft and so on.
We see a particular eye on the most delectable kind of flagrante delicto in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter: “A blessing on the righteous colony of the Massachusetts, where iniquity is dragged out into the sunshine! Come along, Madame Hester, and show your scarlet letter in the market-place!” We see it in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones: “as the old woman shared in the profits arising from the iniquity of her daughter, she encouraged and protected her in it to the utmost of her power.” Oh, those three i’s in iniquity – are they candles on the dresser, are they the torches of the morally offended coming to smoke out the offenders? Or just the all-peeping eyes of the moral judges?
But concupiscence, favoured object of scorn for the gossips, is not the sole or original form of iniquity. (Nor is drug use or alcoholism, though both seem implied in many modern uses of den of iniquity.) Certainly we see theft and similar villainy covered by it; a good example is from Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering: “Glossin, though a bold and hardy man, felt his heart throb and his knees knock together, when he prepared to enter this den of secret iniquity, in order to hold conference with a felon, whom he justly accounted one of the most desperate and depraved of men.”
If we look back to the Bible (the King James Version, of course; we no longer use the word iniquity much, so it would be an odd choice for a modern translation), we see it used in many places as a general word for sin, for breaking the commandments of God, but if we are to find a specific kind of sin, then it is of the sort indicated in Psalm 53: “Have the workers of iniquity no knowledge, Who eat up my people as they eat bread, And call not upon God?” Yes, people who devour others, who have no care for others, who show no mercy and give no justice.
What is justice? Equity. Fairness. Indeed, not grabbing all you can. So iniquity is inequity? Well, I can tell you that inequity is just a more recent reflex of iniquity. The Latin root is æquus “even, just, fair”; from it we get equal and equity. In Latin the negative of æquus was iniquus, and from that came iniquitas, whence iniquity. But though we’ve had iniquity in the language since the 1300s, its meaning shifted enough towards sin and moral transgressions in general that it was not functioning so well for “lack of fairness”. So by the 1600s we had inequity as well, formed in English from equity.
Which ought to remind us that harm to others is a very important factor in this, and lack of concern for others – and glorification of grabbing all you can – is surely much higher on the list of iniquities than grabbing a bit on the side, as Hester Prynne was labelled for doing. The greatest modern dens of iniquity, in truth, tend to be boardrooms and corner offices at the tops of financial district towers, and the computer desks where they trade in equities.