Regarding sloth and sloths

Regarding sloth and sloths January 8, 2013

So right after posting that picture of Shazam(!) battling the DC-Comics version of the Seven Deadly Sins, I stumbled across this (NSFW language) video about sloths (via Andrew Sullivan):

That got me wondering: Is the deadly sin named after the slow-moving creature, or is the creature named after the deadly sin?

The always-helpful Online Etymology Dictionary says the latter:

late 12c., “indolence, sluggishness,” formed from Middle English slou, slowe (see slow); replacing Old English slæwð. Sense of “slowness, tardiness” is from mid-14c. As one of the deadly sins, it translates L. accidia. The slow-moving mammal first so called 1610s, a translation of Portuguese preguiça, from L. pigritia “laziness” (cf. Spanish perezosa “slothful,” also “the sloth”).

Does this look like the face of a mortal sin and a cardinal vice?

Apparently the 17th-century Portuguese who named the creature saw it as the epitome of laziness, and so branded it with a vicious name. Had they been in a better mood, or perhaps spent more time with these gentle creatures, maybe they’d have named them contentamento instead.

Sloth’s place among the traditional “Seven Deadly Sins” is a bit surprising. I agree with the notion that laziness is a vice, but it seems more like the sort of thing one would expect to read in Benjamin Franklin than in Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas’ discussion of sloth is pretty interesting. As is often the case, he seems terribly concerned with getting everything categorized properly, so he’s mainly arguing about how to classify sloth — concluding that it is both a mortal sin and a capital vice.

What I find intriguing — and troubling — is Aquinas’ description of sloth as “a kind of sorrow.” He seems at times to be condemning what we might call laziness, but at other times he seems to be describing — and condemning as sin — what sounds more like depression. I worry that Summa II.35 reinforces some of the very worst aspects of religious response to mental illness, mischaracterizing it as some kind of moral failing to be overcome with earnest devotion and prayer. Not cool.

Thinking about how much harm has been done over the centuries by religious people mistreating depression as a moral or spiritual flaw is, well, depressing. So rather than end on that downbeat note, here’s a video of adorable baby sloths taking a bath; and another of baby sloths getting potty trained; and one more, of a baby sloth getting swaddled in baby-sloth pajamas.

And now, since those videos are, as they advertise, “too cute,” I worry I’ve overcorrected. So here’s one last sloth-related video link as a tonic for all the adorable baby-sloth videos: NatGeo’s Casey Anderson examining a massive pile of petrified Shasta ground sloth dung in a cave in the Grand Canyon.


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  • shiracoffee

    I find the Seven Deadly Sins rather interesting. Usually when I think of the Christian idea of sins I think of actions, but the Seven are more like what Buddhists call hindrances — habits of thought which, unless they are transformed, make spiritual advancement very difficult or impossible.

  • Depression-as-moral-failing is a pretty insidious line of thought and crops up constantly even in people who should know better. I’ve seen people go from wishing others understood how psychologically crippling depression can be to one’s motivation and volition, to joining others in bagging on someone else for not “manning up” (or some similar phrase) enough to handle his clear signs of depression.

    I understand the occasional necessity of pushing someone to action, but y’know, right ways and wrong ways. Telling someone to Man Up (or equivalent) seems the least useful way to actually approach matters. It gives the advisor a way to feel like they did something while really just adding a little extra moral censure to the advisee’s existing burdens.

  • Cradicus

    When I heard “video” “sloths” and “NSFW” i was sure it was going to be this:
    Thanks kids from Staten Island Technical High School!

  • Thank you for reminding me of zefrank. I’d forgotten “Our Art Art Hour”…

    Somehow it doesn’t surprise me these True Facts are his work. I’d already seen the Angler Fish one.

    (wait, was this about something else? I saw animals and humour and got distracted…)

  • Sdowney

    Poor translation skills. Not, sloth or laziness, but despair. And it is the obligation of your community to rescue a member who has fallen to despair, because they are unable to rescue themselves.

    Sin is not fault, nor blame. The deadly sins are patterns that we fail into, and have trouble rescuing ourselves from.

  • Jessica_R

    And here is my contribution of an actual sin, Greed and Pride had horrible baby, that leaves cards,

  • I’d always understood Sloth to be closer to apathy than laziness. It opposes the cardinal virtue of Zeal, which is using one’s God-given talents to their fullest; the opposite must be letting those talents go to waste. That does sound a bit like depression, though, which makes sense given that the early church condemned sullenness as a sin.

  • Yeah, the early church was not at all liberal. Jesus wasn’t the free-market-lovin’, gun-totin’ Jesus of Texas, but he wasn’t the liberal Jesus of California, either. 

  • Anton_Mates

    I wish the sin was named after the animal, because it would be awesome if Europeans got to the Amazons and were like “Whoa, these little critters are bizarre!  We’ve got to name some way of being evil after them, and fast!”

  • Turcano
  • EdinburghEye

    Baby sloth bathtime is the cutest thing ever.

  • arcseconds

    How many geek and/or pedant points do I get for pointing out that it’s  (DC) Captain Marvel battling the Sins, and not Shazam, who if memory serves is a wizard who looks like the pretty typical old-man-with-a-long-pointy-beard wizard (as well as the name of the comic, and the word Billy wossname says to turn into Marvel)?

  • Kirala

     I find it interesting that the person can still afford to print out the cards. Granted, it’s not quite the expense of a usual tip, but it’s still considerably pricier than apologizing to the server’s face. And then the server would be able to notice how the customer had had to cut back on wardrobe expenses, grooming expenses, etc. as well, and would be less hurt.

    Unless the customer did not, in fact, have to cut back on any of those expenses and was simply throwing a hissy fit about having to pay hardworking people whose work benefits the customer and whose income is unjustly precarious.

  •  I like the potty training one better, those SMILES!! 

  • I actually had a conversation about this with the biggest comic geek I know, and he is no longer Captain Marvel, he is in fact Shazam! now. I noted this because I was shopping for my nephew and saw “Shazam!” vs. Black Adam in a set, and was amused, especially because it really said “Shazam!” with an exclamation point and quotation marks, and Black Adam was not in quotes.

    When I sent it out to my Facebook from there, I got this response:

    You can’t copyright a name per say, but Marvel swooped in and took the copyright to the title name after Fawcett got sued into going out of business and before DC had the rights. By the time DC started publishing the book they titled it with the epithet “the Original Captain Marvel”, but couldn’t call the book “Captain Marvel”. Likewise, when the character became popular enough for his own TV show in the 70’s they couldn’t use the title “Captain Marvel” so named the show “SHAZAM!”. Obviously, a lot more people watch TV than read comics, or care about comic book history, so most people only know the character now as SHAZAM (even though the show character was still named Captain Marvel). With the New 52 introduction of the character he is officially just named SHAZAM and no longer holds any grasp on the name “Captain Marvel”, likely because they don’t want to in any way promote Marvel’s popular title “Captain Marvel”.

    (that said: once upon a time you would be correct, and the wizard who imbued Billy Batson with the ability was indeed named Shazam)

  • The_L1985

    While I was getting psychiatric treatment for depression, my father told me to get over it.  Like there was some sort of Happy Switch in my brain or something, and I was just choosing to be numb and emotionless all the time.

  • esmerelda_ogg

    I wonder if “sloth” – or despair, or depression – got on the Deadly Sins list because of a sense that there just had to be exactly seven of them? It’s clear from reading that discussion by Aquinas that not everyone in his day agreed with him that – I’m going to go with calling it accidia – was sinful, so it may be that he was groping for something, anything, to fill out the list.

  • The_L1985

     That, and procrastination, which is a common temptation, is generally agreed to be a Bad Thing.

  • Well, if people choose to be gay and all of the wonderfulness that often comes along with that in our society, why wouldn’t people choose to be miserably numb and emotionless all the time?

    …Hey, wait…

  • Robyrt

    I think that Aquinas is not talking about depression so much as ennui – the kind of thing that afflicts a monk daily at the sixth hour, the sorrow brought on by good things, the weariness of doing what is right.

  • walden

    I think that’s right. Ennui is probably the right way to translate acedia. (Although it’s really a translation from Latin to French and then adopted as an English word!)

    As one of the 7 deadlies, sloth really is listlessness, boredom, world-weariness — a “sin” that really reflects lack of engagement with the kosmos, and substitutes spectatordom and cynicism for action or love.

  • tdcjames

    For an earnest  modern engagement with the concept, see Kathleen Norris’s memoir “Acedia and Me.”

  • Michael Pullmann

     Odd that you conflate Jesus with the early church, especially someone like Aquinas, who lived 1200 years after Christ. For that matter, odd that you conflate Aquinas with the early church.

  • EllieMurasaki

    As one of the 7 deadlies, sloth really is listlessness, boredom, world-weariness — a “sin” that really reflects lack of engagement with the kosmos, and substitutes spectatordom and cynicism for action or love.
    Which still sounds like a symptom of depression.

  • EllieMurasaki
  • Michael Pullmann

     The word your friend is looking for regarding the title of the book is “trademark”.  (All the pedant points for me!)

    It’s funny, the Captain Marvel title has never really been that great a seller for Marvel. There have been four or five versions of the character (one never even had her own title, but was leader of the Avengers), and maybe six volumes of the comic. None of those volumes have lasted longer than 56 issues, but Marvel keeps doing new ones every so often, because they have to in order to hold onto the trademark. The most recent volume, which started last year, is pretty keen, and I’m hoping it sticks.

  • Wait, we’re talking about sloths, and no one’s mentioned the adorable Kristen Bell Sloth Meltdown yet? 

    Seriously, funnies, sweetest thing I’ve seen in a while. Well worth the four minutes to watch.

  • Isabel C.

    Aw, sloth!

    I could see an entitlement version of it as a sin: thinking that you shouldn’t have to put in time or effort to get what you want. That comes up a lot with the Nice Guy stereotype; it probably also plays into some of the panic from straight white guys about losing their easy-mode privileges, as per John Scalzi. 

    You can certainly go too far in condemning the entitlement version of sloth too–as per Mitt Romney and the Bootstrappers (my next Rock Band name)–but pretty much all the seven deadlies are really things that are fine up to a certain point. 

    Granted, the disengagement type, while I agree that it’s often a symptom of depression, is more than occasionally *also* a symptom of being the sort of pretentious wanker who showed up a lot in my college, so there’s something to be said for speaking against that too.  

  •  DC actually changed Captain Marvel’s name to Shazam recently. Silly but true.

  • Mira

    I’m not sure I can actually blame Aquinas for treating signs of depression as sinful, because there was no concept of mental illness at his time. That’s really a quite recent development, people in the past were making sense of things as best they could, and I really think that prayer was the best form of self-treatment some people could find. (I have Tolstoy in mind here – not that it worked for him in a curative sense, but it brought him comfort, and if he were alive today I suspect he would be more likely to receive treatment for mental illness than to become quite as religiously radical as he did toward the end. Suspect, of course. Can’t know.)

  • JustoneK

    BABY SLOTH FOR PRESIDENT.  Vice President Baby Otter.

  • Jessica_R

    I liked Kristen Bell before thanks to Veronica Mars but that made me die of adorable. I can totally relate to having a breakdown because things are too perfect. 

  • Worthless Beast

    “Baby sloths do not need clothespins.” – I caught this last night and clicked on the baby sloth bathtime video and went “Squeeeeee!” 

    “Sloth” as an add-on Medieval sin makes some sense to me.  Back then, everything was done by manual labor (even writing entailed hunching over many hours a day copying script with the occasional weird bordeom-doodle in the margins).  Life depended upon working for the harvest, etc. Also, as others have said, if it was, indeed, a condemnation of depression, I can understand that, too (while being vehemently against the assessment of its actual sinfulness).

    People TODAY don’t understand mental illnesses – and we have a concept of it!  I’m bipolar, mixed-state.  I go between “sloth” and “wrath” on a regular basis.  I can’t tell you how many times, when undergoing the depression half of it I was told to pull myself up by my bootstraps (a favorite term of my mother’s) or to “Just get out of it because I got out of it,” by someone who was “formerly depressed.”   I put a character-musing in one of my short stories that she “wanted to weave a noose out of bootstraps and hang herself with it just to proove a point.”

    If people of today-times are at loss to understand persistent depressive-illness and readily condemn its sufferers as “bad” or “weak” or “lazy” people… it makes perfect sense to me that Medieval folk would do the same, perhaps with an additional threat of Hell to try to encourage the finding of bootstraps in people who never could afford the boots.

  •  Yeah, I’ve heard “man up” “get over it” “toughen up” and a million other variations… I’m sorry but it just. Doesn’t. WORK.

    The worst though, for me, is when I’m having an off day and let something slip online in a non-safe space* and the innevitable result is someone screaming “OMG STOP BEING EMO”

    Because my illness is necessarily either a pose for attention or even if it’s not, is something I can just ‘not have’.  It’s like saying “Stop having the flu!” – No matter how loudly or obnoxiously you say it, it isn’t going to fix anything and is in fact liable to make matters worse.

    *I consider this to be a fairly safe place – I trust you folks with my feelings in a way that I know I can’t most people.

  • SisterCoyote

    The worst thing – one of the worst things – about depression is the cyclical nature. Depressed, it’s hard to find the energy or motivation to clean, or do anything. Which results in a messy, sloppy living space, which results in depression and self-loathing, which points one further towards depression, which results in less energy, which means shit never gets cleaned up, and then the brain-weasels of “You’re so lazy, what’s wrong with you?” get started, and so on, and so forth.

    (And then the family members start in – my favorite is definitely my dad pointing out that I’ll never be able to make a relationship work if I can’t even keep the kitchen clean.)

    Reading theologians who agree with the brain-weasels telling you to off yourself, or the family members telling you how much of a moral failing depression is… it’s less than pleasant.

    (@317ff58bcb94d0930bb8ce9b0a869abe:disqus : *high-fives* bipolar solidarity, dude.)

  •  Eugh, that too.  My room is in terrible shape, which makes me feel worse, which usually means it gets worse.

    Then once in awhile I feel good for a little while and so I have this huge frenzy of cleaning and it’s all nice for about a week… and then I crash and we’re back to square 1 again.  Freaking hate that.

  • rrhersh

    “That got me wondering: Is the deadly sin named after the slow-moving creature, or is the creature named after the deadly sin?”

    English has a pattern of adjective/abstract noun doublets where the noun ends in -th:


    And so on.  Once the pattern gets into your head, you will start seeing more and more of them.   The pattern is no longer productive, and hasn’t been for centuries, though we see it in the non-standard word “heighth” and I have been known to use “coolth”.

    In any case, the topic of this post is simply the less common half of such a doublet:


  • Carstonio

    I guess typing the word doesn’t cause the same effect as saying it, otherwise many of us here would be acquiring superpowers. Imagine Shazam’s lover with the same superpowers crying out his name over and over during sex.

  • How does one confess to a sin of Sloth?   “Forgive me Father, for I have slothed”?

    I’d always understood Sloth to be a sin of omission — things that you really should have done, but didn’t do, for no good reason.

  • The Guest Who Posts

    Ex-depressive here; agree 100% with what everyone else has said.

  • Carstonio

    One doesn’t confess to a sin of sloth, because the sin makes one too lazy to get up off the couch and go to the confessional. The equivalent of the meek never inheriting the earth because they’re too timid to accept it.

  • Thanos is my favourite character of all time, so the Marvel end of things has stayed familiar to me (somewhat: it’s Thanos, not Mar-Vell for me!). I’m fuzzy on into lost when it comes to most of DC, barring my affection for Green Lantern.

    I was interested in the PAD Captain Marvel (volume 3, I believe?) but mostly just live for cosmic Starlin–which, of course, we aren’t likely to ever see again. I did notice how short every volume has been though.

    I am filled with dread at what could be done with Thanos in cinema. So many people reduce him from complicated and changing to one note evil…

  • AnonymousSam

    I absolutely love that literary fragment there.

  • What about Sloth as Privilege & unpacked invisible backpacks?  You know, being so lazy & stupid that you can’t see the unfair advantages you get, & the unfair disadvantages that people elsewhere are hindered by?

  • Keromaru5

    While, yes, the Seven Deadly Sins are the kinds of things you’d bring to confession, it’s not that they’re wrong by themselves, but can lead to something wrong if left unchecked.  After all, some measure of pride, lust, and anger can be beneficial.  But it’s incredibly easy to misuse them or let them get out of control, and injure yourself or others in the process.  Rather, you confess them (ideally, at least, if you have a good confessor) for guidance in dealing with them.    

    The Church Fathers also tended to talk about Sin more as a disease than a set of crimes–that’s more of a Medieval thing.  When a sin is committed, it’s a symptom of the Sin in a person’s heart, and the Church’s job is to help treat it.  Recall that Dante sorted the Seven Deadly Sins into Purgatory–Heaven’s training ground–and not the Inferno.

    Regarding Sloth, or rather, Akedia, John Cassian (one of the main ancient sources for the Deadly Sins–though he listed 8) definitely seems to be describing something different from depression.  Here’s how he describes the effects:

    And whenever it begins in any degree to overcome any one, it either makes him stay in his cell idle and lazy, without making any spiritual progress, or it drives him out from thence and makes him restless and a wanderer, and indolent in the matter of all kinds of work, and it makes him continually go round, the cells of the brethren and the monasteries, with an eye to nothing but this; viz., where or with what excuse he can presently procure some refreshment. For the mind of an idler cannot think of anything but food and the belly, until the society of some man or woman, equally cold and indifferent, is secured, and it loses itself in their affairs and business, and is thus little by little ensnared by dangerous occupations, so that, just as if it were bound up in the coils of a serpent, it can never disentangle itself again and return to the perfection of its former profession.

    What it sounds like to me is something that starts off as dissatisfaction and boredom, which then develops into an active unwillingness to do something about it.  It’s the temptation to run away from or stop doing an important job.  Which I think is why monks have a novice class: if they’re really not suited for a monastery, odds are their abbot will tell them.  Otherwise, they’d be told to push through until they start to make more progress.

    So, yeah: laziness, though I’m not sure that’s the nature of Akedia, as much as one of the potential results.  Akedia is what hits me some nights when I’m not satisfied with my writing, or almost every day at my main job, which is boring as all hell.  And for some reason, every summer, I lose almost all interest in religion, theology, and spirituality, up until Winter.  I stop going to church, stop praying regularly, stop reading religious websites.  I just stop caring.  It’s like clockwork.  I’m pretty sure that’s Akedia, too.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    The Penitential Rite at Catholic mass includes sins of omission explicitly–“in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do”.

    Confessing to sloth is definitely something one does, including in private confession. It’s not brushed off.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Granted, the disengagement type, while I agree that it’s often a symptom of depression, is more than occasionally *also* a symptom of being the sort of pretentious wanker who showed up a lot in my college, so there’s something to be said for speaking against that too.


    I’ve been slothful and I’ve experienced depression. The two are not remotely the same. Anyone who says that someone experiencing depression is being slothful is awful and flat-out wrong. But that doesn’t mean that sloth as a sin (or, if you prefer, moral shortcoming) doesn’t exist.

  • Keromaru5

    After writing my awfully rambly post yesterday, I realized that if anything expressed the classical definition of sloth/akedia as a temptation, the way John Cassian describes it, is this NaNoWriMo pep talk by Neil Gaiman.  Choice quote:

    The last novel I wrote (it was ANANSI BOYS, in case you were wondering) when I got three-quarters of the way through I called my agent. I told her how stupid I felt writing something no-one would ever want to read, how thin the characters were, how pointless the plot. I strongly suggested that I was ready to abandon this book and write something else instead, or perhaps I could abandon the book and take up a new life as a landscape gardener, bank-robber, short-order cook or marine biologist. And instead of sympathising or agreeing with me, or blasting me forward with a wave of enthusiasm—or even arguing with me—she simply said, suspiciously cheerfully, “Oh, you’re at that part of the book, are you?”

    I was shocked. “You mean I’ve done this before?”
    “You don’t remember?”
    “Not really.”
    “Oh yes,” she said. “You do this every time you write a novel. But so do all my other clients.”
    I didn’t even get to feel unique in my despair.

  • The description of walking around the other monks’ cells sounds like it could be psychomotor agitation, which can be a manifestation of depression (and also possibly of mania and/or hypomania).