Nowadays, we tend to associate the capital sin of sloth with laziness and listless inactivity. Because of this association, there is a tendency to associate its opposite, which is vigorous activism, with virtue. The more active, the better one’s moral disposition is.
In the face of this, it is interesting to note the writings of the fourth century ascetic Evagrius of Pontus – parts of which will be covered at a course on moral and sexual integrity at Campion College – who is one of the earliest authorities on the vice of sloth, or what he called acedia and also termed “the noonday demon”. In reading a famous passage in his Praktikos on how the “noonday demon” acts, the reader may notice thatacedia was never associated with inactivity. Rather, for Evagrius, the “noonday demon” acts by causing the Christian to engage in fidgety and meaningless activity. It is precisely through such activity that the sin of sloth is made manifest. And what the person will see is not idle lazing, but wanton destruction. This will explain why Psalm 91, on which Evagrius’ writing on sloth is based, refers to sloth in active terms, as a “scourge that lays waste”.
One gets a sense of this when reading the devastating introductory chapter of a new book on acedia by RJ Snell entitled Acedia and Its Discontents, published by Angelico Press. Snell uses passages from Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian, describing a blanket of rape, torture, murder, mob violence and pillage covering a post-apocalyptic earth. The reason suggested is not profound: it is because one simply can.Despite appearances, Snell says that this chain of seemingly meaningless activity is the stuff of the sin of sloth. Sloth is not passive indolence, but is a “frenzy of pointless action”. Moreover, it is an action that is motivated by an active “disgust at the actual work given them by God”.
What this points to is a link between sloth as a “frenzy of pointless action”, and what Snell calls a “breezy lightness of freedom”. More accurately, it is the desire to save one’s freedom – defined as the exercise of the will with no end – at any cost, which he links with a love of self overtaking the love of God.
Thus, counterintuitive though it may seem, our drive for greater productivity, our drive for more forms of entertainment, our tendency to respond to “how are you” with “busy”, our drive to “do something” for every thing, is part of the institutionalisation of sloth. Snell writes later in the book that “sloth seeps into our loves and lives in virtually every domain, before finally transforming itself into boredom and nihilism.
It is because it is so pervasive, yet so unnoticable, that acedia was regarded by Evagrius as the most insidious of demons.