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A Slothful Repugnance at Being

For the last few years I’ve been thinking about a deadly sin, acedia or sloth. Friends and family joke that I must be working or studying whenever I happen to catch a ball game or invent some reason to avoid painting the shed. Others promise to read my newly released book on sloth when they can muster up enough energy or get around to it.

Fair jokes, I’ll grant, especially those told by my wife. (I think she was joking.)

Sloth is not really about laziness, though, or at least it would be odd to identify acedia as a besetting sin of our age, culpable for pornography addiction and the decadent future of America, if that were so. Whatever else we are, we aren’t lazy.

As I explain in Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire, laziness is a relatively new interpretation of acedia. It had been understood by earlier Christians as a “hatred of place and even life itself,” as one desert father put it. For the monk ensconced in his cell, acedia struck in the long hours of the afternoon, when time moved slowly and any task other than prayer seemed desirable.

So afflicted, the monk would sink into a torpor, sometimes manifesting itself as listlessness, but just as often driving him into a frenzy of action, anything to escape the awful work of prayer. Whether indolent or busy, the slothful monk refused his task, hating work, place, and form of life.

I suppose we’ve all experienced frustration at work or the tedium of a religious duty, but it seems to me that acedia has become something more than an occasional temptation on a warm afternoon. Sloth, rather, has nestled deeply into the roots of our cultural understandings. It is foundational to our way of life, and we have grown to hate our work, our place, and even life itself.

Take work, for instance. While we have diverse and sundry tasks, every human is charged to fill, to subdue, to till, and to keep the world (Gen. 1–2). Work is not a curse but a blessing, a way to discover our agency, to give of ourselves, and to honor God by filling his cosmic temple with every good and beautiful thing, as John Paul II, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, and Abraham Kuyper have all noted. We bear a heavy responsibility for the world, and Adam is formed from the dirt in order to render nature personal, free, responsible, and eventually capable of bearing the divine in gifts of bread and wine.

Of course, human ingenuity and freedom are ordered by the true, good, and beautiful, for even while we subdue the garden we are to keep it (shamar), not in some pristine and unchanging way, but within the form and limits provided by God. As Joseph Ratzinger once articulated, God’s “directive to humankind means that it is supposed to look after the world as God’s creation, and to do so in accordance with the rhythm and the logic of creation. … The world is to be used for what it is capable of and for what it is called to, but not for what goes against it.”

Undoubtedly this has implications for creation care, but much more than the environment is suggested. All creation is given a rhythm and logic, and all things bear a deep weight, for the glory (kabod) of God is deep down things and we have a responsibility to maintain a deep amazement at the splendor of form possessed by all that is.

Sloth, however, does not respond in deep amazement; sloth hates the work, place, and life given by God. Sloth loathes reality, feels disgust at any limits on freedom. Governed by sloth, we want to be unchecked, untethered, free floating. We wish fervently for an unbearable lightness of being, and if reality’s weight—the truth of being—confines us, we batter and abuse, we place reality on the rack until it submits. As John Paul II warned, freedom without truth would eventually claim the right to crimes against human dignity.

Abortion, the rejection of marriage, the hatred of body, the destruction of place and community, our witless abuse of contraception, severe threats against human dignity in the name of science, these are all sloth’s hatred, a refusal to tend the garden in keeping with the limits of its nature, or our own.

Cormac McCarthy provides a suitable image for our slothful age in the character of Judge Holden in Blood Meridian. A member of a posse terrorizing the villages of the Southwest in search of Apache scalps, the Judge is a strange and satanic figure. A child abuser, he keeps a mentally handicapped man on a leash like a pet before discarding him in the desert; he stalks the clement, ruins the righteous, and destroys all he can find.

In a memorable scene, he justifies sketching birds and artifacts before destroying them. Whatever exists without consent, he says, enslaves, and “only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.” Nothing, he continues “must be permitted to occur … save by my dispensation.”

For the slothful, like Judge Holden, the depth and weight of reality is an insult, it must be routed out, made to stand before us as nothing more than resource and entertainment. Creation is a burden, bearing as it does the divine Word through whom all things were made, and so creation must be overthrown, even destroyed in a pique of freedom.

As Josef Pieper once noted, not everyone is capable of real festivity and joy, for such requires a kind of existential richness, a capacity to recognize and approve the goodness of things. God does this in a preeminent way, of course, for God not only creates the world but delights in it and names it good.

Sloth, though, which infects many of us enthralled with power and freedom, refuses to recognize goodness if doing so means ordering ourselves to the richness of the Creator. Rather than joy, sloth feels only disgust at being, living in acedia rather than delight. Learning to delight, and to work well, cures acedia.


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  • jojo

    Nice writeup

  • NDaniels

    For the slothful, sloth becomes merely a form of self-love that indulges in oneself, and denies the other. Some work very hard at being slothful. Thanks for putting sloth in its proper place!

  • Acedia is also, necessarily, connected to the notion of vocation? Namely, if acedia is a certain embracing of freedom without limits in the created order, within our own lives, the most limiting factor would very well be our own vocation which draws sharp lines between what is the best use of our freedom and what is not. Probably the best reason to turn off talk-radio, drudge, and FoxNews 🙂

    • Gus

      Or the best reason to stop reading HuffPo and stop watching the “news” as presented by ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and MSNBC.

      • It’s all propaganda – all of it. “Liberal” and “conservative” “news”. Almost of Pravda proportions.

  • Gus

    My understanding of sloth has always been that it is a failure to utilize one’s talents and gifts (laziness) and a failure to develop spiritually. When you say “laziness is a relatively new interpretation of acedia” I have to ask, since when?

    Also, Judge Holden may not be the best example of acedia. A good argument can be made that he is guilty of the sin of Wrath more so than he is of Acedia. While it appears that he has indeed neglected
    his own spiritual development and the development of his talents and gifts (acedia), he is supposed to be an intellectual. As such his actions bespeak more of a man who hates and is filled with rage (Wrath) for some twisted reason then one who is lazy. The wrong influences, the wrong path chosen, events in his past, or even some kind of brain affliction (chemical imbalance?), for instance, may be more behind
    his actions than acedia. John Brown comes to mind in this respect as well.

    • Things like chemical imbalance speak to a different dimension than things like sloth. One is biological, the other spiritual; but our actions are not determined only by one or the other.

      The author’s point is well made. A lot of our deadly sins have been subtly redefined over centuries. What we call ambition would have been called greed by the scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages, for instance. It is a very interesting question, though, as to when abouts acedia was reduced to one of its manifestations (laziness).

  • That laziness can reflect a rejection of God’s assigned purpose is not doubtful. However this author gets carried away leaving all troubles at the doorstep of sloth. Indeed, Satan’s minions are among the least slothful.

    It rather seems that a world dominated by greed could benefit from a greater appreciation for repose, instead of an endless spinning of wheels in a desperate quest for “productivity” and “progress”. So could the environment! Shall we simply look at the fact that Jesus never decried sloth? (P.S. Please do not reply by blaspheming Him through interpreting His parables literally e.g. Jesus never told us through His examples of the servant or the steward to multiply gold, only to multiply our Spiritual gifts!)

    • Snell doesn’t seem to me to leave all troubles at the doorstep of sloth. As one of the deadly sins, any number of other, actual sins resolve to it and are fueled by it.

      I do think you miss his point. Thomas Aquinas also defines sloth not as laziness or indolence per se, but as a lack of interest in values in themselves. This can manifest in lazing away a day or a life, but it can manifest in other ways, too, just as greed can manifest in money hungriness or in demanding to be the center of attention, just as pride can manifest as demanding to be the center of attention, or refusing to allow others to serve you when they want to do an act of kindness.

      These deadly sins are not mutually exclusive one from the others.

      • Well, to paint the wicked and deadly Judge Holden as driven by sloth is clearly misplaced– again, Satan’s minions are among the least slothful. Obviously there is twisted ambition, pride, greed, almost every other deadly sin in play.

        Doesn’t Judge Holden’s business (busy-ness) of canceling out creation rather remind you of the economy of destruction which impels us into meaningless work and impels women into abortion? Women are told not to be slothful by simply becoming mothers, they are told they must “be all they can be” through careers first, with early motherhood considered the slothful choice. By accusing that the sole motivation for abortion must be sloth, e.g. an unwillingness to work hard for the child, it appears that Mr. Snell simply accepts the neoliberal lie, of seeing children not as a joy but as a monetary deficit.

        • Well, you raise good points, I think, Thomas.

          Pride is undoubtedly a worse sin than acedia. Here’s why, in Thomas and Pieper: acedia is indifferent to the values of things (hence why we think of it as laziness) whereas pride rejects and hates values except the value of the self.

          I haven’t read Blood Meridian, so I am not qualified to write on it, but from the descriptions provided, it sounds like Judge Holden is not driven merely by acedia. In fact, acedia – while it is bigger and broader than laziness – itself isn’t typically conceived of as a driving force, and very often deadens drive rather than drives things.

          Acedia can drive things, though. Thomas considers addiction to be a manifestation of acedia because the addict sees that life could be better, freed of sin, and yet doesn’t care enough to struggle in a definitive way to break the bonds of addiction. So the addict’s various pursuits to feed his addiction would all be manifestations of acedia: it is easier to rob and buy crack than it is to work hard and find more substantial and difficult joy in life.

          Satan’s minions are not driven primarily by acedia because their pride is more powerful. It is not that they don’t care about created (a nice environment, a good job, loving one’s neighbors) and uncreated values (God) – it’s that they loathe those things. They loathe their masters as much as they loathe their slaves.

          I think the point I’m trying to make is that Satan’s minions aren’t slothful as much as prideful, but that’s not because they see and appreciate values. They don’t. They don’t have a mission or a good they are trying to accomplish. That would be an improvement above acedia. But they are worse than slothful. They are prideful. They devour because they are devoured, and only hate and destroy everything that they can that is not their self.

          Would that Satan’s minions recognized values and just let them be.

          • Thanks for explaining, yes the actual sins are not always connected to the first motivation you would think of. It seems that self-centeredness is at the root of all of these, too. I worry more about greed and ambition, and those driven by same tend to inveigh against sloth, without any Christian motivation whatsoever. So then I find myself defending sloth!

            The key is balance, which is why Mr. Snell now owes Ethika six more articles…. 🙂