Acedia and the Unbearable Lightness of Being
In his recent book The Noonday Devil, Jean-Charles Nault suggests that one aspect of acedia, or spiritual torpor, in modern society is that man does not want to receive goods that have a source outside and above himself. This leads him to deny the infinite, which in turn leads him to a general hostility to life and disillusionment with finite things.
When things have come to such a pass, as Nault quotes Joseph Ratzinger, it is only “flirting with death, the ghastly business of playing with power and violence, that is still exciting enough to create an appearance of satisfaction.” Ultimately even this sense of power becomes wearisome, and “man who only wanted to be his own creator and to reassemble creation himself with a better form of evolution he had thought out himself—this man ends in self-negation and self-destruction.”
This insight serves as the starting point for another new book on acedia by R. J. Snell, Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom and the Empire of Desire. Snell begins with a striking illustration of man’s desire to dominate and his ensuing libido delendi (lust to destroy): the character of Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian.
Holden delights in chaos and murder, but the key to his motivation is his habit of keeping a notebook in which he sketches animals, plants, cultural artifacts and geological finds—and after capturing these things in sketches, destroying the things themselves. He explains himself:
Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent…. These anonymous creatures…may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men’s knowing. Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.
In order to seize absolute freedom, man has to deny not only the infinite outside himself, but the manifestation of the infinite in finite things. If finite things have intrinsic value, they make a claim on man and limit his freedom. In order to deny this, he must assert absolute power over himself and everything else, treating all created things as objects for his use and disposal. This is, incidentally, the attitude condemned by Pope Francis in his new encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’.
As his use of a literary character to illustrate his subject indicates, Snell’s approach in Acedia and Its Discontents is different from Nault’s in The Noonday Devil. Where Nault offers a first-rate, yet relatively abstract historical and theological analysis of acedia, Snell paints a vivid picture of the acedia-stricken society, and accordingly offers more extensive, specific and practical solutions to the problem. This is not to say that Snell’s treatment lacks theological and philosophical meat; on the contrary, there is a great deal to chew on and this is not a mere popular presentation.
As Snell’s basic concept of acedia is more or less the same as Nault’s (though Snell is more apt to use “sloth” and “acedia” interchangeably), I will refer readers to my review of Nault for a thorough definition, here focusing on what is unique to Snell’s treatment.
Being as Self-Communication
Since sloth consists of a rejection not of activity per se, but of good work, Snell wants to find out what makes work good and meaningful. To do that, we must first discover our proper relation to ourselves and to the rest of creation. Snell takes as the key to this question the mystery of the Trinity, which teaches us that the fundamental structure of reality is self-communication. Each person of the Trinity communicates itself to the others without being diminished either by giving or by receiving love. We learn from the Trinity that to give oneself is not to lose oneself, nor is to receive from another to be dominated by him.
Being is an act of self-communication. Yet human beings, finite and contingent, do not fully communicate themselves merely by existing:
Like God, finite things self-communicate. Unlike God, finite things are rich and poor. Being rich, they operate and have something to give, but as poor they must become full. In keeping with the paradox, richness tends to imply a concomitant poverty. A stone, for instance, has very little to give, but gives all that it has simply by existing. An animal is richer, capable of acting in the world through motion, nutrition, and reproduction, but must do a lot more to accomplish these ends. Humans, as free persons, are even richer, for ‘freedom…is rooted in the truth about man, and it is ultimately directed toward communion,’ and yet our experience of communion seems largely to stand in potency. Created more like God than other beings, we are oddly less ourselves, less fully in act, because we have more to do before we have given well.
While our contingency in a sense is our poverty, it is also our richness because, despite the fact that we did not need to exist, God chose to make us anyway. Creation is gratuitous and so takes on the character of a gift. Rather than rebelling against our contingency, and even preferring not to exist rather than depend on another, we should see that “being created does not diminish but establishes the worth of creatures.” It is essential that we understand that God’s utter transcendence means that he is not merely a quantitatively greater being with whom we must compete with for space, dignity and power: “Consequently, we avoid viewing the glory of God and our own worth as a zero-sum game.”
As Snell quotes Fr. W. Norris Clarke, “to be fully is to be substance-in-relation.” This implies that, contrary to the modern notion of freedom, an individual does not have an atomistic existence free of responsibility to other beings. Yet it also implies that in self-communicating, in giving ourselves to other beings, we most fully receive ourselves as individuals. As beings in relation, we discover ourselves not only in self-gift but in receiving what other beings, including lesser ones, communicate of themselves to us.
Before we can hear what they have to say, though, we need to recover a sense of the “thickness,” the dignity, the giftedness, the presence of God in things. This is another aspect of Snell’s work which finds agreement with Laudato Si’, for Pope Francis asks us to believe that there is intrinsic value in things, and to discover this value by contemplation of works of art, of the beauty of nature, and even of things as simple and seemingly insignificant as, to use Snell’s example, an orange peel.
Work and Leisure
And here is where we start to discover what good work is. If things are thin, light and have no inner substance, they stand to us as mere objects to be used and disposed of at will. Their being has no “say” and we can have our way with them. But if things are “weighty,” if they have intrinsic value and meaning, they are subjects which make claims on us; we have obligations toward them and our freedom (as modernity conceives it) is limited.
If things communicate themselves to us, our work will not be simply to dominate and manipulate them as we see fit, but to develop and transform them in accordance with how they reveal themselves to us. And since work is a “blessing, a form of instruction allowing us to discover and perfect our subjectivity even as it transforms the objective world,” still less will we seek to make and remake ourselves in absolute freedom; rather, our work will become a means of developing and transforming ourselves along the lines it reveals in us.
Again anticipating Laudato Si’, Snell finds keeping the Sabbath to be a powerful remedy. The Sabbath is not mere abstinence from work, much less is it idleness; God did not so much cease His work on the seventh day as complete it by resting. Leisure gives work its meaning; it allows us to reap the fruits of our labors by contemplating what we have done, seeing the gratuitousness of it all and thus being grateful and celebrating the gifts we have received. The slothful, for whom work is reduced to activity and therefore leisure to idleness, cannot celebrate the Sabbath or be truly festive.
Acedia rejects man’s true greatness, goes against the virtue of magnanimity, but it is important to remember that greatness is built of little things, of small steps, of everyday struggles. Paradoxically, in order to reach the greatness we are called to, we must learn to find value and even joy in what may at first seem small, tedious and ordinary. Too often, Christians have made the mistake of thinking that because our final goal is heaven, things on earth have no value:
Two errors tempt us: the first lowers our vision and considers natural goods ultimate, while the second wishes to cast off this mortal coil as nothing more than a distraction, maybe even evil, turning only to the supernatural good. Both overlook the integration of supernatural and natural vocations.
We have to believe that God gives us His grace, sanctifies us, and prepares us for heaven not just intermittently but at every moment of our daily lives, most of all through perseverance in the good work He gives us. If we learn to see the value and meaning in everything God has made, we will begin to “see the grace in barren places” and be transformed. We will no longer be bored with existence and contemptuous of being. Acedia will be banished from our lives.
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Jun. 30, 2015 6:10 PM ET USA
Nault's book is absolutely great. I just started reading it. Sloth is not just about not wanting to do things, it also involves the spiritual side of life; being faced with doing what is right vs. what we might like to do instead. Sometimes putting doing what is right. This is just my own impression; others might have a different idea.