Old demon Acedia is associated with a restlessness of spirit a nagging anxiety that coexists fitfully with the despair the world and a soul despondency that characterizes melancholy. It is not so surprising, then, that this complex attitude should do more than just paralyze its victims; it may also activate efforts aimed at release from its torments. Demon of Acedia. Acedia versions. The examples of Hamlet, the Greek gods, and Odysseus illustrate the troublesome potentialities of acedia for individuals, groups, and whole societies.
Demon of Acedia, melancholy
The kinetic component of the sin of acedia consists precisely in those terrible and terrifying acts that are generated to relieve or remove the gnawing corrosiveness of the spirit. To put the matter bluntly: Boredom begets aggression, and aggression releases the victim of acedia from its prison house of torments.
That boredom and melancholia might lead to aggression and troublemaking seems first to have been appreciated in the Homeric stories. As the Greek poet saw it, the condition of soul-rendering ennui was first produced as an unintended by-product of the leisurely life of the gods, and only later began to afflict man. Separated from the world and living on Olympus, the gods were exempted from need, necessity, or care.30 It is the absence of this last element, care, that was to be so painful.
Acedia Demon: Boredom and the Activation of Sloth
Literally meaning “uncaring,” acedia had been inadvertently institutionalized in the leisure world of the Greek deities. Free to do as they wished, they at first frolicked amongst themselves, dining on the best of foods, drinking the finest of wines, and enjoying pleasure as they pleased. The gods had their heavenly pursuits, but these were hardly of the character of the “calling” that would centuries later evoke the Puritan to labor so diligently.
Indeed the pursuits of the Homeric gods correspond to just those much-feared activities that Christian theologians supposed would come from sloth; Zeus was an insatiable philanderer, Apollo, the archer, often gave himself up to minstrelsy, and Ares encouraged battles and wars. Only one amongst them, Hephaestus, the god of the forge, deviated from the life of leisure to which the Olympians had dedicated themselves.
And this virtuous worker was physically defective; burly and with a hairy chest, he was also lame and could not participate in sports and games nor was he, despite his marriage to Aphrodite, attractive to women. In contrast to the honor accorded to those engaged in the noble pursuit of pleasure and fancy, Hephaestus is frequently ridiculed by Zeus and the others, and is regarded as a figure of fun. His special treatment is stark testimony to the Olympian ethos that favored the sweet life over the sweated existence.
And, as Albert G. Keller has noticed, these gods lived in a land from which oppressive gloom had been all but banished. They do become upset over infringements on their rights by mortals. Mortals did not require the mediation of a priest to deal with these playful gods; indeed, as Keller observed: The divinities might act like spoiled children, but were easily cajoled.
Greek acedia story
However, if the early period of Olympus’ history is remarkable for its sun-drenched, fun filled, hedonistic, and promiscuous leisure life and for its vigorous, active, resourceful, and cunning group of gods, the later years—those in which the story of the Iliad and the Odyssey occurare marked by a definite disillusion, a condition of dis-ease. Except for Hephaestus, who is sustained by the private joy of his work, the once happy gods have become moody and irritable.
They are all too frequently bitter, jaded, jealous, sullen, unsmiling, and in a fearful temper. They are often at odds with one another and argue and quarrel over fancied slights and slight injuries. The particular dis-ease that the Olympians were suffering from is a variant of acedia boredom. Precisely because they had no needs, no desires that could not be instantly gratified, they also came to have no hope. Hopes and longings are founded on unrealized desires, on wants for which effort and energy must be expended and luck implored. Lacking any hope, because there was no need for it, the gods became sunk in restlessness.
Without an opposition to challenge them, their gnawing boredom gave rise to the artificial social reconstruction of one another as obstacles to their desires, to gratuitous conflicts, to conspiracies, intrigues, and deceit. As Gregory the Great was later to observe, tristitia gives rise to malice. However, the world of the Greek gods was too small and too concentrated to contain the meddlesome malice that had been sown by its slothful life of leisure. Like a stone thrown into a placid pond, this malice spread out, and its emanations began to touch the lives of others not subject to the torments of acedia.
Demon of Acedia. It is in this movement outward that we see another evil consequence of the troublesome search for release from an all-consuming boredom—its capacity to overtake and engulf the lives of those who come in contact with its victims. Lenin referred to imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism. But there is an “imperialism” of the malicious spirit that is the highest stage of boredom. Homer and other Greek poets have described it in the intervention of the gods in the affairs of mortals.
Bored with their own lives, the gods begin to take an interest in the lives of less privileged beings with whom they can have sport, cause trouble, and in general identify. Mortals and their problems offer the chance for a zestful and exciting direction of the gods’ energies.
A further hint of the medicinal value of incentive-oriented labor for relieving the disease of sloth is to be found in the debate between Poseidon and Apollo. They argue over which side the gods should favor in the Trojan War. Poseidon denounces Apollo for his unqualified support of the Trojans, pointing out that on orders of Zeus the gods had been hired out to Laomedon, king of Troy, as contract laborers rebuilding the wall around the city, only to be cheated out of their pay at the end of the year and driven away with threats.
In terms of our own argument, Poseidon is angry at Apollo’s treachery because he is siding with those who introduced effort-bent hope into the lives of the gods and then cheated them out of this blessing. Without promising work and rewarding incentive, the bored gods can only continue to meddle, stir up trouble, and make themselves merry with the miseries of ordinary men.
The moral message of the Homeric tale is this: A leisure life rooted in indolence might give man temporary pleasure but it will never guarantee him permanent happiness. The delights of gourmandizing and unbridled sensuality grow stale. Life soon becomes boring, miserable, and anxious. Everything that makes life worth living has been removed from the scene of sloth: challenge, stress, endeavor, initiative, and the joys that come from using one’s own talents to counteract obdurate forces. Humans or gods sentenced to an eternity of sloth will eventually struggle to break out of its stranglehold on their unspent energies. In that liberation struggle there will be released an awesome aggression whose objects and limits cannot be predicted.
In the evolution of Homeric thought about boredom and its effects, the condition of slothful god is exchanged for the status of leisurely aristocrat. The human representative of this exchange is Odysseus. Odysseus is certainly a man who does not need to work in order to live. He can afford to be away from home for a decade of siege at Troy and another decade of wanderings. Moreover, although he is strong and supple, he disdains common labor. It is true that he can plow, till, and herd as well as wrestle and shoot, but he is not compelled to work. He is, after all, a king and neither a freeborn laborer nor a slave.
He is also not a merchant, a point revealed when Odysseus takes umbrage at Euryalus’ description of him as “some skipper of a merchant crew, who spends his life on a hulking tramp, worrying about his outward freight, or keeping a sharp eye on the cargo when he comes home with the profits he has snatched.”
As the king of Ithaca he leads a leisurely life, spending most of his days at sport. Yet Odysseus took the time to erect his own nuptial bedroom and with his own hands constructed and decorated a bed with gold, silver, and ivory yet still attached to the olive tree growing on the site, surely an indulgence even for a wealthy man steeped in luxury.
On the eve of the Trojan War Odysseus’ career presents the picture of a prosperous, contented, minor monarch, who might have disappeared from history had not Paris set world-historical events in motion by his abduction of Helen.
However, the torments of acedia do not come to plague Odysseus until his ten-year travail on the sea keeps him from returning to his beloved wife. His situation is one that could literally sink him into more than mourning and melancholia, and certainly one of the longest periods of boredom recorded on lonely and barren water. Indeed, one minor Greek poet, Herakleitos, interprets Odysseus wanderings and adventures as a moral struggle against eight sins, although the Greek list does not correspond entirely to the later Christian enumerations of the seven deadly sins. What is significant about this list, however, is that it does not include acedia.