In the writings of the Desert Fathers, the reckoning of what we call the “deadly” or “capital” sins was not exactly the same as the familiar list of seven that we now have: pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. Their list had eight “impure thoughts” (Evagrius) or “principal faults” (Cassian) and included “sorrow” as a distinct item on the list. Saint Gregory the Great, in his celebrated Moralia, combined sloth (acedia) and sorrow (tristitia) to render the now standard list of seven “deadly sins” (as he called them).1 Saint Thomas followed Gregory’s combination of these two so that, in his reckoning, acedia2 has aspects of what the earlier lists called acedia and sorrow. For this reason, Dr. Josef Pieper at times calls it by the name “slothful sadness.” We may, I suppose, just as appropriately call it “sorrowful sloth.”
Regardless of what we call it, the capital sin in question is not to be confused with mere laziness. Here is Dr. Pieper, correcting that common confusion for us:
In popular thought, the “capital sin” of sloth revolves around the proverb “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.” According to this concept, sloth is the opposite of diligence and industry; it is almost regarded as a synonym for laziness and idleness. Consequently, acedia has become, to all practical purposes, a concept of the middle-class work ethic. The fact that it is numbered among the seven “capital sins” seems, as it were, to confer the sanction and approval of religion on the absence of leisure in the capitalistic industrial order.
But this is not just to render superficial and shallow the original concept of acedia as it exists in moral theology; it is to transform it completely.
According to the classical theology of the Church, acedia is a kind of sadness (“species tristitiae”) — more specifically, a sadness in view of the divine good in man. This sadness because of the God-given ennobling of human nature causes inactivity, depression, discouragement (thus the element of actual “sloth” is secondary).
The opposite of acedia is not industry and diligence but magnanimity and that joy which is a fruit of the supernatural love of God. — Faith Hope Love, pg. 118
Those familiar with the work of Dr. Pieper will recall, when reading his complaint against “the absence of leisure in the capitalistic industrial order,” that one of his most important works is Leisure, the Basis of Culture. Authentic leisure is neither the enervating pursuit of entertainment nor the couch-potato laziness that most modern Westerners associate with leisure. Genuine leisure is the kind of freedom from servile labor which allows for the pursuit of higher spiritual and intellectual goods. To the Romans, it was otium; for Saint Augustine, and much of the occidental monastic tradition after him, it was otium sanctum: holy leisure.
Dr. Pieper explains that acedia and “ordinary diligence” (and even “workaholism”) can exist side-by-side in the same person. In fact, citing the Angelic Doctor, he notes that an inability to rest in God is one of the earmarks of acedia:
The indolence expressed by the term acedia is so little the opposite of “work” in the ordinary meaning of the term that Saint Thomas says rather that acedia is a sin against the third of the Ten Commandments, by which man is enjoined to “rest his spirit in God.” Genuine rest and leisure (Muße) are possible only under the precondition that man accepts his own true meaning. — Ibid., pg. 119
Dr. Pieper treats acedia in the section of his book on the virtue of hope because acedia leads to despair, which is one of the two sins contrary to hope (the other being presumption). However, Saint Thomas himself treats acedia in the Summa Theologiae in the context of his larger discussion of the virtue of charity. This is because acedia opposes that highest of all virtues. For Saint Thomas, acedia is a worldly sorrow that replaces the joy we ought to have as a result of the love of God that exists in our souls.
Why would someone be sorrowful rather than joyful at possessing the love of God? Because divine love makes demands upon us. It calls us to something higher. As the Desert Fathers would have it, the monk becomes sad because he misses his old self and wants to flee the rigorous demands of the monastic life. For Evagrius and Cassian, fleeing from the monastery was the sad end of acedia. For Saint Thomas, whose view is more expansive and more universally applicable, it is the divine good in us, the love of God itself, that forms the object of sloth’s aversion. Sloth, therefore, is the triumph of flesh over spirit — not as a carnal vice, but as a spiritual clinging to the old, sinful man over the new, regenerated man. Man “flees” the demands of God’s love by resorting either to (a) laziness, inertia, inactivity or indolence on the one hand, or (b) restlessness, ceaseless activity, workaholism, or activism on the other. These are two manifestations of the same vice.
In her excellent paper, Sloth: Some Historical Reflections on Laziness, Effort, and Resistance to the Demands of Love (PDF edition here), Dr. Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung attempts to show the continuity of thought between the earlier authors and Saint Thomas while fully appreciating the latter’s emphasis on sloth as a vice opposed to charity. (She also does a good job explaining the evolution of sloth — via the Renaissance to the Protestant Revolt to the era of Industrial Capitalism — from being a spiritual sin in the fathers and the scholastics, to being a mere carnal indolence or inactivity as it has become for us moderns.) The following excerpts from that paper are excellent complements to Dr. Pieper’s considerations. Note especially her emphasis on resistance to transformation:
Sloth opposes charity’s love of God. (Envy, the other capital vice opposed to charity, opposes charity’s love of neighbor.) Technically, sloth is defined as a form of sorrow opposed to the main effect of love, which is joy in the presence of the beloved, God. …
For Aquinas, “sorrow” is a technical term (already used in Gregory, Cassian, and Evagrius)—something quite different than just feeling unhappy. It is a movement of the will analogous to, but not identical with (or reducible to) the passion of sorrow in the sensory appetite…. Slothful sorrow is a stance or movement in the will, opposed to charity…. As such, Aquinas means by “sorrow” a deliberate resistance or aversion of the will not just felt but endorsed or consented to. In one place he describes sloth as “detestation, disgust, and horror.” What causes this aversion of the will? Aquinas says the object of the slothful person’s aversion is “the divine good in us.” [cf. ST, Q. 35, A. 2] …
So charity is a friendship with God, a love for the one with whom we become like-natured, and sloth is sorrow or resistance to this. Put more technically, sloth is the will’s aversion to our “participation” in God—that is, our resistance to his making us “like-natured” to him through the Holy Spirit’s presence in us, and thus our resistance to the friendship and love grounded in that likeness of nature. Charity’s joy at God’s presence in us, conceived of as something good, is replaced by distaste for and aversion to it as something evil or to be avoided. …
Sloth is resistance—not of bodily flesh to spirit—but of the old sinful tendencies and desires and attachments to the new ones faithful to Christ and like-natured to him. This transformation of the person is nothing but sanctification—the transformation that is the essential work of the virtue of charity. … [W]e receive the Holy Spirit, but the process of becoming more and more like-natured to God is the task of a lifetime (and Aquinas might argue, more than a lifetime—there’s also purgatory). Sloth, then, is resistance to the transformation that God’s love works in us, and in particular the painful nature of the death of the old self—that is, our willingness to let old sinful habits and attachments die and be made new. The slothful person refuses to accept the demands that a like-naturedness to God and a love relationship with him brings; she refuses the surrender of the old self required for her own fulfillment.
Dr. Pieper notes that, in classical Catholic theology, sloth is regarded as that tristitia saeculi (“sorrow of the world”) which Saint Paul says “produces death” (II Cor. 7:10). As if completing Dr. DeYoung’s paragraphs, above, the German philosopher expands upon the character of this sorrow, showing it to be a rejection of the Christian noblesse oblige that ought to characterize the soul’s joyful response to divine love:
This sorrow is a lack of magnanimity; it lacks courage for the great things that are proper to the nature of the Christian. It is a kind of anxious vertigo that befalls the human individual when he becomes aware of the height to which God has raised him. One who is trapped in acedia has neither the courage nor the will to be as great as he really is. He would prefer to be less great in order thus to avoid the obligation of greatness. Acedia is a perverted humility; it will not accept supernatural goods because they are, by their very nature, linked to a claim on him who receives them. Something similar exists in the sphere of mental health and illness. The psychiatrist frequently observes that, while a neurotic individual may have a superficial will to be restored to health, in actuality, he fears more than anything else the demands that are made, as a matter of course, to one who is well.
The more acedia advances from the region of emotion into that of intellectual decision, the more it becomes a deliberate turning away from, an actual fleeing from God. Man flees from God because God has exalted human nature to a higher, a divine, state of being and has thereby enjoined on man a higher standard of obligation. Acedia is, in the last analysis, a “detestatio boni divini” [detestation of the divine good], with the monstrous result that, upon reflection, man expressly wishes that God had not ennobled him but had “left him in peace.”
As a capital sin, sloth is man’s joyless, ill-tempered and narrow-mindedly self-seeking rejection of the nobility of the children of God with all the obligations it entails. — Ibid., pgs. 119-120
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The French journalist Yves Daoudal wrote a blistering polemic that has been translated and published on the Rorate Caeli website: “Non Possumus.” If one notes the liturgical changes he mentions in the Advent liturgy (quoting Lauren Pristas), while keeping in mind what has been said of resisting transformation and fleeing the high demands of divine charity by Doctors Pieper and DeYoung, one might reasonably conclude that a genuine if infrequently noticed aspect of the ill-conceived liturgical reforms of that Freemason, Msgr. Bugnini, is precisely this: the liturgical spirit of acedia. Daoudal’s fiery penultimate paragraph, perhaps without intending to do so, drives this point home for us:
A Catholic coating on top of the neo-liturgy can make it look Catholic for a while. But gradually the neo-Pelagian venom of the new orations [presumably by omission, not commission], the reverence for the world, the erasure of the necessity of penance, the suppression of the Ember Days, of Septuagesima, of any mention of the Lenten fast, the emphasis on the community at the expense of looking to God, the deletion of significant words and gestures in the ordo missae, the downgrading and indeed the discarding of the Roman Canon, all of this can only result in a religion that is no longer Catholic.
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Let us love God and embrace everything that love entails, choosing with a generous act of the will to rejoice in our divine adoption when we are tempted to sorrow because of the obligations that such spiritual nobility entails. In addition to letting the spirit of the traditional liturgy guide us in sloughing off deadly acedia, Dr. Pieper provides some useful recommendations for overcoming slothful sadness:
Temptations to acedia and despair can be overcome only by the vigilant resistance of an alert and steady watchfulness. Despair (except, perhaps, one’s awareness of it) is not destroyed by “work” but only by that clear-sighted magnanimity that courageously expects and has confidence in the greatness of its own nature and by the grace-filled impetus of the hope of eternal life. — Ibid., pg. 122
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2. The vice is more often called “sloth” in English, though many authors prefer to use the more precise English word acedia, which was imported directly from the Latin, which, in turn, comes from the Greek ἀκηδίᾱ, literally meaning “without care.”