Emotionally and cognitively, the evil of acedia finds expression in a lack of any feeling for the world, for the people in it, or for the self. Takes form as an alienation of the sentient self first from the world and then from itself. Although the most profound versions of this condition are found in a withdrawal from all forms of participation in or care for others or oneself, a lesser but more noisome element was also noted by the theologians. From tristitia, asserted Gregory the Great, “there arise malice, rancour, cowardice, despair.

Evil demon of acedia, thus the enemy

Chaucer, too, dealt with this attribute of acedia, counting the characteristics of the sin to include despair, somnolence, idleness, tardiness, negligence, indolence, and wrawnesse, the last translated variously as “anger” or better as “peevishness.” For Chaucer, man’s sin consists of languishing and holding back, refusing to undertake works of goodness because, he tells himself, the circumstances surrounding the establishment of good are too grievous and too difficult to suffer.

Acedia in Chaucer’s view is thus the enemy of every source and motive for work. It opposes the Adam work, whereby he praised and adored God; the labor of the sinful man, to which he is compelled in expiation of his sins; and the arduousness of the seeker after grace, who performs works of penitence. Sloth not only subverts the body livelihood, taking no care for its day to day provisions, but also slows down the mind, halting its attention to matters of great importance.

Sloth hinders man in his righteous undertakings and thus becomes a terrible source of man’s undoing.

Acedia is associated not only with the conditions of the spirit and the states of the mind but also the inactions of the body. The medieval literature associates it with motionlessness, depicting it as the feet of the devil that halt man in his tracks. In the illustrations of the sins for Spenser’s Faerie Queen, idleness is the guide animal to the three pairs of sins that follow and is presented as the “the nourse of sin,” dressed as a somnolent monk, constantly wracked by fever.

In The Pricke of Conscience, a fourteenth-century work associated with the “school of Richard Rolle,” the connection of sloth to motion is again made in the diseases promised to the slothful in Purgatory: “potagre” and gout in the limbs. Sleepiness and remaining in bed through the morning hours are typical descriptions of this form of sloth.

In Guillaume de Deguileville’s Pélerinage de la vie humaine, an early fourteenth century work, sloth is represented as an old hag carrying an axe. She attacks and binds the pilgrim hero of this moral tale and tells him that she is a principal servant of her master, the chief butcher of hell. Her duty is to ensnare and lead all pilgrims to destruction.

She goes to bed with young people and makes them fall asleep; she also induces sleep in the sailor so that his ship is sunk; and she carries the cords of her attendant subsins to bind her victims and render them helpless. Once in Hell, her captives, the sloth slaves, are punished by having their legs and feet broken. Sloth is depicted as one of the worst of sins; indeed, it is hinted in this tale that sloth is the primary sin.

That acedia might be the first of all of the sins is argued in an anonymous fifteenth-century religious encyclopedia, Jacob’s Hell, wherein the devil, spying an idle man, leads him into committing all the other sins. The adage “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” here finds its force: for it is among the idle that Satan goes to work, inducing boredom, enervation of the will, and trouble making.

Indeed, in testimony to the significance of sloth as a truly evil sin, note that it is sometimes personified as the chamberlain in the devil’s castle; that it is at one point numbered after pride, envy, and anger, despoiling sins, as the one that knocks man down; that it is at another point compared to the barrenness of the sea in that it produces neither fruit nor grass; that it is named as one sin that, unrepented, will certainly doom man to hell; and that together with pride it is the sin that can be forestalled by concentrating on the Crucifixion and its meaning.

A further testimony to the significance of sloth as a sin may be derived from Jewish Kabbalistic mysticism and one of that sect’s greatest scholars, Nathan of Gaza. Although terms like sloth, acedia, and related phrases are not to be found in Nathan’s theology, his doctrine of creation suggests a similar kind of evil.

According to Nathan, the act of creation did not exhaust the “lights” or powers of En-Sof—“the Hidden God, the Divine Thought by whose words the world was created” but instead exhibited only half. The other half was “the light that did not contain thought.” While the first and creative light was active, the second was self-absorbed and passive. Because its constitutionally inactive state, this second light resisted all creative movements in innovation, growth, and change emanating from its twin.

The drama of this struggle between the ultimate creation forms and their actualization is played out on earth, although the precise nature conflict and its eschatology is obscure and fraught with contradictions.

Suffice it to say, nevertheless, that, as Gershom Scholem puts it: “This resistance [to change] turned the light without thought into the ultimate source of evil in the work of creation.” Based on the premise that the good principles (creative light) and evil (thought-less inert light) coexist in the mind of the Supreme Deity and are set in dialectical motion by Him on earth, it would seem to follow that human inertia would be a if not the, one-sided capitulation to the forces of thought less light, that is, the forces of darkness.


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