The fountainhead from which perversions gush
by Ken Myers
“[According] to an ancient thought of Western wisdom, . . . ‘sloth’ . . . as acedia, is habitually counted among the seven capital sins (vitia capitalia). But present-day popular understanding has perverted the original concept of ‘sloth’ as a Capital sin into nearly its opposite. In ordinary usage ‘sloth’ seems to have settled into the domain of work — understood as lack of diligence, laziness, lack of pleasure in work. But when the great masters of Western Christendom named this ‘sloth of the heart’ a sin, it was not meant to be an approval of the ceaseless activity of the capitalist work establishment. Rather, acedia means that man does not ‘collaborate’ or work together with the realization of himself; that he refuses to add his conscious contribution to his very own, truly human existence. It is not at all a question of external activity but of the full realization of the self, to which we know we are silently but unmistakably summoned. And not to accept this summons, to respond to it with ‘no’: this is precisely the essence of ‘sloth’, of acedia. Through the sloth that is sin, man barricades himself against the challenge handed to him by his own dignity. He resists being a spiritual entity endowed with the power to make decisions; he simply does not want to be that for which God lifted him up above all natural potentiality. In other words, man does not want to be what he nevertheless cannot stop being: a spiritual being, truly satisfied with nothing less than God himself; and beyond that, ‘son of God’, rightful heir to eternal life. . . .
“It was already said that sloth, acedia, was considered a capital sin in the ancient wisdom. Caput means source. Vitia capitalia are those perversions from which, as from a fountainhead, more perversions gush forth. Thus it is meaningful and necessary to speak not only of the source itself, but of the whole length of the river nourished by it. If one proceeds in this manner, from the river’s mouth to its source, to the source-sin of sloth, then its relationship to the existential mode of man in our time suddenly becomes very apparent. It is totally impossible to overlook.
“From not-wanting-to-be-oneself, from the refusal to collaborate with the completion of one’s own being, from this innermost conflict of man with himself, from this sloth (in a word), as the ancients say, springs the ‘roaming restlessness of the spirit’. He who is in conflict with himself in his inmost dwelling, who consequently does not will to be what he fundamentally is anyway, cannot dwell within himself and cannot be at home with himself. He has to make the vain experiment of breaking out from his own center — for example, into the restlessness of working for work’s sake or into the insatiable curiosity of the lustful eye, which does not really seek knowledge but only an ‘opportunity to abandon oneself to the world’ (Heidegger), which is an opportunity to avoid oneself.
“It must further be realized that both manifestations — the systematic establishment of the work ideal as absolute and the degeneration of the lustful eye — surround themselves with the immense effort of a forced optimism, of a radiating trust in life, of a noisily proclaimed ‘progress’. Everyone knows that belief in progress is declared a social duty in the world of nothing but work. It is also known that keep happy and happy end belong from the start to the basic elements of this world of illusions, in which the greedy eye has created for itself a replacement for the ‘fullness of life’.
“For all that, these optimistic attitudes provide no final meaning in the face of the despair that is their source — even though this source is safely enclosed in the innermost chamber of the heart, so that no cry of pain penetrates the outside, most likely not even to its own consciousness.”
— from Josef Pieper, “The Obscurity of Hope and Despair,” in Josef Pieper: An Anthology (Ignatius Press, 1989)
(Click here to read an excerpt from R. J. Snell’s Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire.)