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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