BOREDOM AND A WHOLE LOT MORE…
R.J. Snell is Professor of Philosophy at Eastern University. He is also Executive Director of the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good.
The following interview is based on Snell’s latest book, Acedia and its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom and the Empire of Desire.
The following interview was conducted by David George Moore. Dave blogs at www.twocities.org.
Moore: I somewhat randomly landed upon a talk of yours where you discuss a few of the issues in the book. It was a wonderfully stimulating talk on a subject that I already knew a fair bit about. Still, it motivated me to read your book. Having now read Acedia and its Discontents, I was not disappointed. In short compass (127 pages) you offer the reader much. What motivated you to write Acedia and its Discontents?
Snell: Some years ago, I read a remarkable essay by Michael Hanby entitled “The Ontology of Boredom,” in which he describes the contemporary Western life as deeply affected by a kind of bored nihilism resulting in the judgment that both the world and our own lives were fundamentally meaningless. Unlike earlier struggles with nihilism found in thinkers like Camus or Nietzsche, the nihilism of our time tends less to an epic struggle to find meaning than to an endless search for the stimulation of entertainment and consumption. Our nihilism is of the debonair version—nothing really matters, but have you seen the most recent HBO show?
I shared the essay with students, who responded with a profound recognition and agreement with Hanby. Against the ontology of boredom, we would read the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, seeing two visions of life at struggle. First, the sense that the world could move us only to a kind of blasé consumption; second, the sense that Christ plays in ten thousand places, and thus everything matters deeply and amazingly, for God gives himself to us through everything. I want to recover a world in which all things burst forth with the radiance of God. I want a world of loveliness.
Moore: Since some readers may not be familiar with the word acedia, would you give us a brief definition?
Snell: Acedia is one of the seven deadly sins, usually translated as sloth. But for early Christian monastics—who spent quite a lot of effort into understanding sloth—and well into the medieval period, the sin of sloth didn’t mean laziness. Rather, sloth was understood as an aversion to our proper purpose or ultimate end, a hatred of friendship with God. Often this manifested itself in an aversion to the effort and disciplines of such friendship (prayer, fasting, study, etc.), but sloth could also result in a frenzy of busyness, even a workaholic life attempting to flee the quiet voice of God. In the end, acedia is a collapse into the self and a repugnance at God and his world. It’s not strictly the same as boredom, but close enough that the ancient understanding ofsloth and the modern experience of boredom seemed fascinating to me. In both, the world and its Creator are viewed as repugnant rather than captivatingly beautiful.
Moore: You spend quite a bit of time writing about the destructive pursuit of a bastardized freedom that wants no restraints whatsoever. Are we Americans more vulnerable to this than other cultures?
Snell: In Democracy in America, Tocqueville discusses the unique tension he finds in America between the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty. In his view, there is just simply so much more freedom in the American experiment than what he knows in Europe. At the same time, religion in America—this is the 1830s—is both more prevalent and more demanding, and thus liberty is ordered by religion. Liberty without order, however, tends toward a kind of absolutizing of autonomy, as if a choice is good merely because it was chosen freely, or as if increasing choice is equivalent to increasing freedom. As Augustine knew, the mere ability to choose without interference is not the same thing as the ability to choose in keeping with human flourishing. A society dominated by entertainment, consumption, and a freedom defined without reference to human excellence is a society governed by acedia, and this is true no matter how much surface religion happens to persist. Arguably, acedia is evident in American life, or as I state in the book, acedia hunts all of us, stalking us, and it is almost impossible to avoid.
Moore: If our quest for autonomy results in greater bondage, why do so many of us continue to be attracted to pursuits where we are not tethered to anything/one bigger than ourselves?
Snell: Thomas Aquinas says that acedia results—very oddly—in a rejection of our own good. That’s very strange. If we think about it, all our actions are done for the sake of happiness, but in acedia we hate that which makes us really and truly happy—friendship with God—because such friendship requires going outside of ourselves in order to receive the gift of God. In acedia, we want neither to go outside ourselves or to receive a gift. Instead, we wish to remain safely inside ourselves, sovereign, independent, and free. But since we are made for relation with a God who is a Trinitarian relation, such independence is not our happiness but a hatred of happiness.
Still, what do we tend to love more than anything? Ourselves. We are to take up our cross, but the biggest cross we face is giving ourselves up in order to receive ourselves back. We’d rather just stay with the disordered self we already love. Isn’t that the basic impulse of sin, from the serpent in the garden to my own everyday life? We all, each of us, love ourselves and fear losing this self, even when we know ourselves to be unhappy.
Moore: You provocatively write that “boredom is a heresy.” Unpack that some for us.
Snell: In boredom, we declare that the world is not good. But it is good. God says so, repeatedly, in Genesis 1. Nor does sin negate the goodness, although the goodness is disordered or perverted. Further, God, in Christ, becomes one of us, a fellow member of the world, thereby definitively declaring the world good, beautiful, and true. In boredom, we say that God is wrong, that he cannot create or redeem, or that his nature is itself not good or worth loving. Boredom is a persistent rejection of what God reveals to be true, even after we’re told our error. That’s heresy.
Moore: Which spiritual practices are best for counteracting acedia?
Snell: The monastics, for example Evagrius and Cassian, as well as Thomas Aquinas, suggest that the fundamental cure is “to bear the yoke.” For the monks, the antidote was to remain in their cell, even if they could not bear to pray they were to stay put, stay where God had placed them. A kind of stability, then.
In the book, I suggest that “staying put” with the mandates of doing good work in God’s garden is the cure for acedia. We are to do our work well. For most of us, most of the time, we live out the drama of sin and redemption in our work, whatever that be. We become vicious or virtuous through our actions, and most of our actions are in our everyday work.
But in order to do that well, we have to be capable of seeing and loving the good, and it is the practices of Sabbath and feasting which teach us to see and delight in the goodness of the ordinary things, relationships, and toil around us.
Feasting—real feasting, with dancing and merriment—Sabbath, and work. Those three are vital, and to do these is to stay put in the tasks God has given.