Analysis of Sloth from the Christian and kabbalistic, we are in a position to grasp its peculiar qualities of sinfulness. In fact, sloth contains both passive and active elements. The passive aspects are perhaps more visible, although their evil nature is not quite so easy to discern. Acedia constitutes a withdrawal of one’s self, one’s thoughts, one’s talents, and one’s endeavors from society, or from service to God.
Sloth little analysis, Acedia threatens
The meditative or contemplative life is especially subject to the accusation or the affliction of acedia. For example, the hermit priests, desert fathers, and cloistered monks and nuns who withdrew from worldly pursuits because of their oath of obligation to God had constantly to concentrate on God, and have their actions indicate this concentrated devotion. However, two modes of acedia challenged and threatened their oaths and duties.
First, the life of prayer, contemplation, and study might result in melancholia or despair and be followed by a descent into lethargy, lifelessness of the spirit, and paralysis of the will. Such a sinking had to be resisted, fought against, and prayed over acedia, in effect, could retire from service those especially charged to serve God. Second, precisely because they had forsworn worldly incentives and aspirations, ascetics ran the risk of succumbing to somnolence or sloth.
No external pressure existed to prod them into motion; neither was there the incentive of a substantive reward for their efforts. Absent the push of force or the pull of hope, and man is free to choose whether to activate his will in righteous thought or in useful activity. Refusal to choose at all is an unwarranted indulgence of the self, a willful renunciation of the human obligation to be or to become, and a denial of the fundamental gifts of sentience and sapience that distinguish man from the beasts. That is a sin.
The problem of passivity inherent in the idea of acedia provokes further inquiry into the nature of its sinfulness. From a theological point of view man has a duty to do more than resist evil; he must also undertake to do good. Sloth falls along the invisible line that separates the sins of commission from those of omission.
The indolent man may eschew those sins of flesh and action that require effort, but still by his inaction he permits evil to flourish or fails to contribute to the good. The sin of sloth consists, in this sense, then, not in committing an overt blasphemy against God but in failing to act for the good by allowing the mind to drift aimlessly or by succumbing to a paralysis of the will.
For this notion of the sin of sloth to be credible, the world must be conceived dramatically, as a place where the advance of good or evil depends on man’s attitudes and actions. By man’s silence in the face of all that is going on, all that might be done, he sins. Where inevitability, either as fatalistic doom or eschatological promise, operates despite man’s thoughts or actions, the inactivity of sloth and the attitudes of acedia seem venial.
It is precisely in the development of deterministic or fatalistic theories and doctrines that sloth is made at least potentially less evil than it might be in a more humanistic world. When the promise of messianic religion or the forces of historical destiny are regarded as set and immutable and where the pace of development is also governed by divine or superhuman controls, man’s day-to-day activities seem irrelevant to any future, dissociated from every past. Passivity, sloth, sluggishness, and melancholy are here not only a possibility but a reasonable course of inaction.
Only when an element of humane voluntarism and control is granted to human beings, or when duty and obligation to God or history are required in the face of destiny, can the sinful nature of sloth be secured. Hence, in the Calvinistic doctrines of faith and duty and in the teleological evolutionist’s requirement of human catalytic and synergistic action, we find a moral prohibition and a social proscription against withdrawal and lassitude.
It follows, therefore, that the sinfulness of sloth is dependent upon the perception of the endowed nature of man. Belief in man’s freedom and control makes of sloth a sin; the dehumanization of man threatens to neutralize its evil or even elevate it to a virtue.
Acedia threatens whenever man is conceived as participating in a great chain of being, a long lineage of ancestors and successors, a linear and secular history, or a waiting for the end. In each of these instances man suffers the inconveniences of time. What to do while the chain of being is still becoming, in relation to the ever-long epochs and seemingly infinite eras of man’s unfolding story, turns out to be one of the most awesome of all mankind’s searching questions.
No answer as given by theologians, philosophers, scholars, sociologists, or psychologists can discount the potentiality for lethargy, lassitude, boredom, apathy, and restive reactions to these states. The generally offered defenses against sinking into mourning for an active contemporary world or melancholy over the ennui of temporal existence are fortitude and faith. Chaucer’s parson, for example, urges that “Against this horrible sin of Sloth, and the branches of the same, there is a virtue that is called Fortitudo or Strength; that is, a devotion through which a man despises harmful things.”
However, there is another cultural or societal alternative. Mircea Eliade has described (indeed, perhaps created) another kind of man, “archaic man,” who by definition has the capacity to relieve himself of the burden of history, ancestry, destiny, and inevitability he can abolish history at will and begin life anew. But, while this reconstruction of life and history will separate man from the enervating dilemmas of secular time, it will not absolve him from the sinful aspects of his sloth.
Instead, it will impose another obligation of effort upon him. He must actively undertake the rituals and tasks associated both with the exorcism of the past and the beginning of a new existence. He may not withdraw or shrink from this task no matter how much it frightens him. To do so would be to succumb to fatalism and the deadening fate that history, ancestry, or evolution has in store.