Perhaps the hardest sins to define and indeed, to credit as a sin, is sloth. The term, in fact, refers to a peculiar jumble of notions, dating from antiquity and including mental, spiritual, pathological, and physical states. Sloth is but one medieval translation of the Latin term acedia and means “without care.” Most difficult sins. Acedia in The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things by Hieronymus Bosch.

Hardest sins, Acedia

Spiritually, acedia first referred to an affliction attending religious persons, especially monks, wherein they became indifferent to their duties and obligations to God.

Mentally, acedia has a number of distinctive components of which the most important is affectlessness, a lack of any feeling about self or other, a mind-state that gives rise to boredom, rancor, apathy, and a passive inert or sluggish mentation.

Physically, acedia is fundamentally associated with a cessation of motion and an indifference to work; it finds expression in laziness, idleness, and indolence. The scope and range of sloth is, thence, very great. It can grip both the body and soul of its victim, paralyzing both action and thought. Although its status as a cardinal sin has been called into question, its dangers to individuals, groups, and history itself have been frequently noted.

The spiritual dangers of acedia were well recognized in the early Christian and medieval eras. Vagrius (d. c. 400 A.D.), a putative “father” of the interpretation of the seven cardinal sins and a desert dweller himself, believed that tristitia (“melancholy”) and acedia held particular terrors for hermits and gave these sins a special place in the temptations of the desert fathers.

Gregory the Great merged acedia with tristitia, utilizing the latter term to describe the sin, probably out of adherence to the earlier Egyptian monastics’ belief that one should serve God with joy rather than sadness and certainly in consideration of the religious defections of monks who succumbed to “slothfulness in fulfilling the commands, and a wandering of the mind on unlawful objects.

In the isolated environment of the hermit desert-priest and, later, the cloistered enclosure of the monastery, the greatest fears of sinfulness grew up around the temptations threatening chastity and the tedium of the slow-paced life. While the fleshly demands were very difficult to subdue, a deeper danger lay in “spiritual dryness” .

According to the Carolingian theologian Alcuin who wished to retain Gregory’s synthesis of acedia and tristitia but returned to the former term because he saw a positive side to Christian sadness acedia arose out of irascibility, the second of the three divisions of the soul and, of course, the one to which not only monks but men in general might frequently be subject.

The evils attendant upon the irascible element of the soul lent wider scope to the play of acedia. In the later Middle Ages it comes to refer to a particular kind of ubiquitous sloth laziness in performing one’s duties to God, and more especially failing to attend church or even more sinfully, choosing to attend a tournament or fair on Sunday instead of church.

As the special bane of all mystics and meditators, acedia refused to be cloistered in monastic seclusion. Rather, it spread to plague the spirit of all those who might begin to dwell on the infinite sadness of the cosmos or lament over the sorrows of the world.

Acedia depicted by Pieter Bruegel the elder