“Work is our sanity, our self-respect, our salvation. The day’s work is the center of everything.” So said Henry Ford in 1915. The modern industrial age brought with it new values and virtues: industriousness, diligence, ambition, efficiency. American work culture today still valorizes diligence in one’s work, a diligence exemplified by longer work hours than any other developed country in the world. (And that, regardless of whether or not this practice in fact yields greater productivity.) If industriousness and diligence are virtues, however, then what is their counterpart vice? Laziness. Sloth. The lazy person is a good-for-nothing. “Go to the ant, sluggard,” so you can learn how to be busier and more responsible. Of course, laziness has its champions, too.
[“Sloth”] is a mildly facetious variant of “indolence,” and indolence, surely, so far from being a deadly sin, is one of the world’s most amiable of weaknesses. Most of the world’s troubles seem to come from people who are too busy. If only politicians and scientists were lazier, how much happier we should all be. The lazy [person] is preserved from the commission of almost all the nastier crimes.” (Evelyn Waugh)1
This is presumably because it takes a lot of energy and ambition to commit serious crimes or engage in serious vices. Pridefully striving to outdo others and establish one’s superiority looks like a lot of work, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t it be easier to set your sights lower, with a bag of chips and a comfortable seat on the couch watching TV?
What’s strange about this debate is how far removed our contemporary notion of sloth as couch-potato laziness is from the original conception of sloth as capital vice. Fourth century monastic communities named the vice that later became known as sloth one of the most spiritually dangerous, but not because they were worried about productivity. In fact, on their definition, one could easily be a slothful workaholic. Really?
Acedia: A Vice of the Productive?
The desert fathers’ concern with this vice, which they named acedia (Greek: a-kedia, lit. lack of care), came from a focus on their spiritual calling: to draw near to God in unhindered communion, a state Evagrius of Pontus named hesychia (tranquility) and John Cassian called “pure prayer.” Acedia for the monks meant the temptation to abandon their spiritual vocation—i.e., their calling to remain present and remain devoted to God, their desert communities, and rule of life. Without those anchoring commitments, they believed, the Spirit’s reforming work would be sidetracked by endless distracting activities. Stabilitas (staying in one’s desert cell, within the same community) named the spiritual discipline that embodied this commitment.
What characterizes the monk with acedia? Restlessness, a desire to escape, diversion-seeking, dissatisfaction, and at its furthest limit—according to Aquinas—resentment and “detestation of the divine good in oneself.”
The vice of acedia in its originating context, then, names the monks’ resistance to inner personal transformation (conversio moralis in the Benedictine tradition), as well as the people and practices that foster it. In fact, they would likely raise spiritual concerns about making a virtue out of our diligent busyness or productive activity. Here is Evagrius’s description of the monk’s experience of acedia:
First of all, [the demon of akedia] makes it appear that the sun moves slowly or not at all, and that the day seems to be fifty hours long. Then he compels the monk to look constantly toward the windows, to jump out of the cell, to watch the sun to see how far it is from the ninth hour, to look this way and that… And further he instills in him a dislike for the place and for his state of life itself, for manual labor, and also the idea that love has disappeared from among the brothers and there is no one to console him. And if there is someone who has offended the monk, this too the demon uses to add further to his dislike (of the place). He leads him on to the desire for other places where he can easily find the wherewithal to meet his needs and pursue a trade that is easier and more productive; he adds that pleasing the Lord is not a question of being in a particular place… and he deploys every device in order to have the monk leave his cell and flee the stadium.
The Temptation to Flee Love
The counsel of the desert is this: “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” Acedia, on this ancient conception, is therefore primarily experienced as temptation to flee. The monk afflicted by this vice wants nothing more than to get out—out of the relationship with God he finds burdensome, out of the community that represents that identity and commitment, and out of all the activities and rituals that embody it. Acedia feels “oppressive”; to stay committed to the spiritual life feels suffocating. He may find the disciplines of daily life tiresome and boring—pointless rituals, but this is because the relationship that feeds them and is in turn fed by them no longer feels worth investing in.
What characterizes the monk with acedia? Restlessness, a desire to escape, diversion-seeking, dissatisfaction, and at its furthest limit—according to Aquinas—resentment and “detestation of the divine good in oneself.” Such a person recognizes that her identity as a participant in the divine nature (2 Peter 1: 3-4) yields a corresponding call to a way of life (2 Peter 1:5-10), but finds that the whole business leaves her cold, unwilling to invest, sick of the burden of such a commitment and the transforming demands of love. The one with acedia seeks relief. Anything but this! Anything but God!
Of course, life without God is no life at all. So that strategy leaves her stuck, and apathy and deadening resignation set in. She may be physically present, but she is not really there. The relationship no longer has any life in it. Nor does she.
Rest or Lifelessness?
In its early history, then, acedia showed itself in both escapism—restless busyness and listless diversion-seeking—and despairing apathy—the “false rest” of one who realizes that diversions are only temporary distractions from the inescapable self-chosen hell of a life without love. Acedia’s inner lifelessness is the opposite of God’s life in us, which Aquinas calls charity, and which brings true joy—in the Augustinian sense of “enjoyment” as real rest.
Behind the desert fathers’ analysis of this vice lies this spiritual truth: our primary calling and our deepest identity is found when we embrace the love God has for us as his beloved children. The apostle Paul describes the process of living into this identity—often called sanctification—as putting off the old self, the sinful nature with all of its habits and practices, and allowing the Spirit to recreate in a new self, clothed with Christlike virtues (Colossians 3). To put the same point in a Kierkegaardian way, we are selves-in-relation. That makes acedia a conscious or unconscious “willing not to be ourselves.” It’s a doomed game. Kierkegaard’s aesthete and his unsatisfying pursuit of this and then that experience of distracting episodic pleasure is eerily reminiscent of Evagrius’ discontented monk looking constantly out the window and fantasizing about escape. Is it also reminiscent of a culture of endless entertaining electronic diversions (or ever-expanding work weeks)? What are we avoiding?
Acedia is resistance to the daily, transformative demands of our love relationship with God.
According to the Christian tradition from Evagrius to Aquinas, “getting out” of a relationship with God is simply to deny who we are and what we are called to be. To try to become what we are not, and to find rest and satisfaction and joy there, is an impossible task—albeit one we commonly find ourselves attempting. Acedia is a peculiarly human temptation, according to Aquinas, not only because we are the sort of creatures called into intimate personal fellowship with God, but also because our sanctification takes time. The path from initial acceptance to full communion is a journey in which we live more and more fully into our identity as God’s beloved ones. Living fully into a relationship of love is, in the words of Kathleen Norris, “eternal, but daily too.” Resistance to such transforming demands of love is acedia’s signature feature.
The Transformative Demands of Love
Think of our relationship to God as analogous to a marriage commitment. On their wedding day, the couple says their vows, and they are married. Being married, however, is not a “once and done” static state. It is an ongoing identity and commitment, one that will take effort to sustain and invest in, and one that will grow and develop over time, transforming us along the way. At times it will feel easier to escape, avoid, or ignore what this task requires of us. Resisting that temptation is how we sustain relationships and nourish our commitments to love.
Without this spiritual understanding of what is at the root of acedia, it’s no wonder that sloth is misunderstood. It’s more obvious external symptoms can appear to be nothing but outward laziness, i.e., not working hard enough, trying hard enough, or caring enough about necessary tasks. Avoiding a relationship and a relational identity is not the same as avoiding work, although clearly relationships take effort to grow and flourish. And clearly if career work becomes a modern substitute for our primary identity and calling, we may find similar patterns of avoidance and apathy when it doesn’t repay the effort we’ve invested in it or we grow tired of it for other reasons. (This failure should not be confused with genuine relaxation or Sabbath or delightful rest. Unfortunately, our culture is as confused about that as it is about work.)
Acedia is resistance to the daily, transformative demands of our love relationship with God. Isn’t it a delightful irony that Aquinas counts this vice as a violation of the fourth commandment, to rest in the Lord on a Sabbath in which we lay aside all our other work? Given the complicated history of this vice, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that there is more than one kind of aversion to effort, and the spiritual aversion to the work of loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength is worth disentangling from “mere” laziness, which is in turn worth disentangling from real rest and the temptations of idolatrous attachments to work that undermine it.