In an address on the New Evangelization to Catechists and Teachers in 2000, then-Cardinal Ratzinger said the greatest obstacle modern man faced in accepting the Gospel was “an inability of joy.” Although this aversion to joy is particularly acute in our time, it is certainly nothing new. In fact it is something that is captured quite beautifully in Dante’s Purgatorio. At the midpoint of his ascent of the Mount of Purgatory, Dante encounters those who are being purged of sloth and its effects. The slothful race about the terrace shouting out famous examples of the vice and its opposing virtue, zeal. The souls appear to be enjoying their punishment of the breathless race they are on. This is not because they find joy in punishment so much as the joy is their punishment. Dante believed that the slothful are marked by an inability to joy.
Because of his reliance on the moral theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante’s Divine Comedy has often been called the “Summa in Verse.” By returning to the teachings of St. Thomas on the Capital Sin of sloth or acedia, we may be able to learn a great deal about not only the world’s aversion to joy, but why it remains so elusive for many of us.
To begin, there is an important point to be made regarding the Seven Capital Sins. St. Thomas rarely referred to the Seven Capital Sins as sins but instead as vices. His reason for this is because something like sloth is not usually the actual sin the person commits, but the disposition or habit that leads to other sins. The term “capital” derives from the Latin word caput, meaning head. The point is that these seven vices are usually the source or head of all of the sins we commit (see ST II-II, q.153, art.4). The reason why this is important is that these vices remain hidden to us because they act as subconscious motivations for the sins we do commit. Unless we are in the habit of examining our motivations along with our sins, they will almost always remain off our spiritual radar. Understanding the vices and how they tend to manifest themselves allows us to work at the virtues directly opposing the vice of sloth.
Certainly one of the reasons why sloth is particularly hidden is because most people view it as simply laziness. One of the fruits of the Protestant Reformation was that sloth became associated with laziness and neglect in doing one’s duty. The opposing virtue was seen to be diligence or industriousness and “busyness” became a cardinal virtue. But for St. Thomas and the Desert Fathers that went before him, sloth is a spiritual vice. There is a link of sorts to effort, but not primarily to bodily effort. It is not an aversion to physical effort but an aversion to the demands of love. It causes us to see the burden of love to be too great.
In order to fully capture how this vice ensnares us, it is helpful to look at the two parts of the definition that Aquinas gives for acedia in the Summa. He says that acedia is “sorrow about spiritual good in as much as it is a Divine good” (ST II-II q.35, a.3).
The second part of the definition describes what is the cause of our sorrow—namely the “spiritual good in as much as it is a Divine good.” For St. Thomas this “spiritual good” that is internal to the person and yet also a “Divine good” is friendship with God. This friendship with God is the virtue of charity by which we participate in the love God has for Himself.
The sorrow itself need explanation as well. Sorrow is analogous to sadness but it rests in our soul. It is more like a pain of soul that makes joy impossible. This sorrow is experienced because what should be experienced as a good (namely the love of God) is instead viewed as bad. Not bad in itself, but too much work and too demanding. The word acedia literally means “a lack of care” meaning that it simply is not worth the effort. In this way then it is not so much a rejection of God Himself, but of friendship with Him. This partial rejection of God is what makes sloth so deadly.
Dante seems to capture this lack of love by placing sloth in the middle of the Mount of Purgatory. The first three terraces are meant to heal love that has been perverted by being directed towards an evil object or end (pride, envy, and wrath). The three terraces above (greed, gluttony, and lust) are directed to healing love that is excessively directed towards a good object. Sloth sits alone in the middle because it shows a lack of love that begins with loving God less than we should and spreads to everything else.
Without delving deeply into psychological motivations, why would we do this? To understand sloth, the fact that love is demanding cannot be forgotten. There is a sweetness that comes from love, but for the most part it makes demands upon us. In fact sloth makes us “commitment phobes” with God because of the burden of commitment.
Of course any explanation must include the given of Original Sin. St. Paul tells the Galatians that “the flesh lusts against the spirit” (Gal 5:17) which means that without virtue the flesh will be dominant in us and we will loathe spiritual goods as somehow bad for us. It is sort of like how we crave junk food and have to force ourselves to eat wholesome foods. Acedia as sorrow at the thought of being in relationship with God because of the “burden of commitment.”
An analogy might help to better understand it. Think of a married couple who argues and rather than doing the work of apologizing and forgiving, they would rather take the “easier” route of going off to separate rooms and sulk. They both know of the goodness that follows from reconciliation, but refuse to do the work of getting there.
In looking at the sins that are caused by sloth or “daughters of acedia” as St. Thomas divides them into two types. The first are those sins which represent our attempts to escape from the sorrow. The most common way in which it manifests itself is through curiosity. Most people would say that curiosity is a good thing and it is insofar as it represents a desire for knowledge. But St. Thomas says we cannot look at only the desire but also must consider the motive and the effects the knowledge has on the knower and others. Curiosity is the desire for knowledge simply for the pleasure that it brings as opposed to knowing for the sake of knowledge itself (as in the truth) which is the virtue of studiousness. From curiosity flows listening to gossip. There is also a fear of missing out on something interesting that will help divert us from the sorrow. This fear is what truly drives the almost obsessive nature in which many people are constantly checking social media.
St. Thomas also says it manifests itself through an aimless wandering after illicit things. Drinking excessively, promiscuity, drugs often represent attempts to escape the sorrow of sloth. But it is not just illicit things but an excess of busyness too. This busyness blocks us from seeing the reason why we have no joy is because we are slothful. After all, how could one be slothful when they are constantly involved in activity? St. Thomas recognized this temptation and presented acedia as primarily a sin against the Third Commandment because it is an avoidance of doing the “work” of the Sabbath rest.
At a certain point the realization that the sorrow is inescapable sinks in and a new level of vices arise. The most obvious would be despair, but I would like to focus on a second one that is not so obvious—boredom.
To prove that the overwhelming majority of Americans is at this point, what other explanation could there be that the average person watches 4 hours of TV (25% of their waking time) than that they are bored? What about the obsession with celebrities? Out of boredom the cult of celebrities arises because when one’s own life lacks meaning, you become obsessed with others’ lives.
In essence for those with despair and boredom life loses its pilgrim character. For the bored they become tourists instead of pilgrims. What we do when we are bored really doesn’t matter only that it alleviates the boredom. Everyone knows that there is no happiness in the endless diversions, parties, drinking and promiscuity. But at least one is less empty for a while.
There is a great spiritual principle that comes into play when we are trying to root out vices like sloth. We cannot simply stop doing it. Certainly identifying the root cause is important, but the only way for us as fallen creatures to overcome evil in our hearts is by replacing it with good. I already mentioned how sloth is truly opposed to charity but there are two other virtues that we should strive to cultivate.
First is the virtue of gratitude. One desert father said that sloth is ultimately a hatred of being. Everything seems hard and meaningless. By viewing everything through what St. John Paul II called the “hermeneutic of the gift” we find everything charged with meaning through its bestowal upon us. With gratitude comes to the desire to repay that gift by making a gift of ourselves. To quote from JPII’s favorite line of Vatican II, “man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (GS, 24).
The second is the virtue of magnanimity. Literally magnanimity means “large-souledness.” It is a generous acceptance of the missionary character of our lives. It is a response to Blessed John Henry Newman’s a clarion call:
God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his—if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another, as He could make the stones children of Abraham. Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling”
As Dante enters the Fifth Circle of Hell, he encounters two groups confined to the River Styx—the wrathful and the slothful. The wrathful fight each other above the surface, while the slothful simply stew beneath the swampy surface. By Dante’s standards their punishment is rather light, but that is because they really didn’t do anything. They simply slid into hell through a lack of effort. Please God that we might overcome the “noonday devil” and avoid a similar fate.