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The Vice of Sloth: Some Historical Reflections on Laziness, Effort, and Resistance to the Demands of Love

Many contemporary people, scholars and non-scholars alike, think of the deadly sin of sloth as “mere” laziness. In the words of Evelyn Waugh, “[‘Sloth’] is a mildly facetious variant of ‘indolence,’ and indolence, surely, so far from being a deadly sin, is one of the world’s most amiable of weaknesses. Most of the world’s troubles seem to come from people who are too busy. If only politicians and scientists were lazier, how much happier we should all be. The lazy [person] is preserved from the commission of almost all the nastier crimes.” 1

Likewise, Wendy Wasserstein’s recent book on sloth uses a conception of sloth as laziness and sheer inertia to construct a delightful parody of self-help literature. From the book’s jacket:

With tongue in cheek, Sloth guides readers step-by-step toward a life of non-committal inertia. ‘You have the right to be lazy,’ writes Wasserstein.  ‘You can choose not to respond. You can choose not to move.’ Readers will find out the importance of Lethargiosis—the process of eliminating energy and drive, the vital first step in becoming a sloth. To help you attain the perfect state of indolent bliss, the book offers a wealth of self-help aids.  Readers will find the sloth songbook, sloth breakfast bars (packed with sugar, additives, and a delicious touch of Ambien), sloth documentaries (such as the author’s 12-hour epic on Thomas Aquinas), and the sloth network, channel 823, programming designed not to stimulate or challenge in any way. 2

In Harper’s 1987 spoof of the deadly sins, the caption of the ad for sloth read, “If sloth had been the original sin, we’d all still be in paradise.” From scholarly to popular accounts of the vice, then, contemporary culture seems often to equate sloth with laziness, inactivity, and inertia. Looking back through sloth’s long history in the Christian tradition of spiritual and moral formation, it is striking how far the contemporary conception departs from sloth’s original spiritual roots. Retrieving the traditional definition of sloth will help us see how we now tend to mistake sloth’s symptoms for ostensible virtues, and how sloth has more to do with being lazy about love than lazy about our work.

Part I: Sloth and Work

The first people to articulate a conception of sloth as a capital vice3 were the Desert Fathers, solitary monks living in the wilderness of Egypt in the 4th century A.D. They retreated from the world into the desert deliberately to face what they called “demons” or “evil thoughts,” of which there were eight: gluttony lust, avarice, anger, sorrow, sloth [acedia], vainglory, and pride. Evagrius of Pontus, after many years of anchoritic life, left behind a written record of the practices and teachings of the desert. In his colorful account of sloth, he describes it in terms of distaste, disgust, sorrow, oppressiveness, and restlessness. “The demon ofacedia … instills in [the monk] a dislike for the place [that is, his desert cell] and for his state of life itself. . . . [The demon] joins to these suggestions the memory of [the monk’s] close relations and of his former life; he depicts for him the long course of his lifetime, while bringing the burdens of asceticism before his eyes; and, as the saying has it, he deploys every device in order to have the monk leave his cell and flee the stadium.”4

Throughout Evagrius’s account (only briefly represented here), two things are evident: First, sloth is an extremely powerful and serious vice; and secondly, it is a vice that threatens one’s fundamental commitment to one’s religious identity and vocation. It is a serious vice because one’s entire commitment of one’s life to God is at stake. It is a spiritual vice, for Evagrius, because it involves inner resistance and coldness toward one’s spiritual calling or identity and its attendant practices. So in Evagrius’s and Cassian’s concatenations of the vices, sloth was on the spiritual end of the chain, near vainglory and pride (in contrast to gluttony and lust, the “carnal vices”).

In the writings of Evagrius’s disciple, John Cassian (360-433), we see a shift in emphasis toward the external manifestation of the inner resistance characteristic of sloth. Cassian transplanted desert asceticism into the Latin West, establishing communal forms of monasticism more familiar to us today. Each monk was expected to contribute to the spiritual and physical well-being of the community. Although the Desert Fathers also emphasized the spiritual importance of manual labor, they did not associate it primarily with sloth like Cassian did. Cassian explicitly and extensively discusses the importance of manual labor as a remedy for sloth. Early on in its history, then, sloth picked up its association with physical inactivity and shirking manual labor. Cassian uses language like “laziness,” “sluggishness,” “sleepiness,” “inertia,” and “lack of effort” in his descriptions of acedia, like this one: “[Monks] overcome by slumbering idleness and acedia . . . [have] chosen to be clothed not by the effort of [their] own toil but in the rags of laziness . . . [and] have grown remiss as a result of sluggishness and . . . are unwilling to support themselves by manual labor.”5

Even for Cassian, however, idleness is clearly intended to be symptomatic of the inner condition of one besieged by sloth. In this he echoes Evagrius’s description of the vice: “Once [acedia] has seized possession of a wretched mind, it makes a person horrified at where he is, disgusted with his cell. . . . Likewise it renders him slothful and immobile in the face of all the work to be done within the walls of his dwelling.”6

In Cassian’s account, physical inactivity or lack of effort is an effect or expression of one’s inner condition. “The work to be done within the walls of his dwelling” includes both spiritual practices and physical duties done on behalf of the religious community. Shirking this work in any form signals a distancing of oneself from one’s identity and investment as a member of a spiritual community bound by its love for God. Mere (physical) laziness is not necessarily slothful. Rather, shirking one’s spiritual duty—whether this involves practices of inner devotion or manual labor on behalf of one’s brothers in the monastery—is slothful only if it is linked to inner discontent and resistance to the monk’s religious identity as a member of the monastic community. Both inner and outer manifestations of sloth are thus linked to one’s religious commitment and one’s attitude toward the demands of the spiritual life. Like Evagrius, Cassian thinks sloth is a serious vice because it threatens to undermine one’s fundamental identity as one who has devoted one’s life to developing a relationship with God and it erodes one’s commitment to the religious community formed by that that identity.7

Complicating the account further, sloth’s physical symptoms do not always include laziness or inertia. One can avoid putting effort in one’s spiritual endeavors both by undue rest (laziness) and by restless escapism (busyness). Over-activity might involve actual (literal) escape: So Cassian exhorts the monk—as a soldier of Christ—not to be “a deserter from his army” (noting again the idea of abandoning one’s spiritual vocation) and not to be “cut down by the sword of sleep or collapse nor to be driven out from the bulwark of the monastery and depart in flight.”8

Besides actual escape, a mind actively engaged in denial and diversion in the form of imaginative fantasy is another form of restless escapism. So Evagrius describes the slothful monk in his solitary desert cell, imagining what a relief it would be to jump out of his cell and flee.9 Later, Gregory the Great and Thomas Aquinas (6th and 13th centuries, respectively) described sloth’s characteristic expression in terms of “the wandering of the mind after illicit things.”10 One immediately thinks of Pascal’s reflections on “diversion” in his Pensees as a modern expression of sloth. For Pascal as for the earlier Christian tradition, these diversions and distractions are what we fill our lives and minds with to avoid facing the truth about who we are and are called to be in relationship with God. The external symptoms—laziness and lack of effort or restless activity—share a common root in one’s inner restlessness and discontent.

In contrast to sloth’s undue rest or (and) restlessness, the monk was supposed to have a whole-hearted commitment to God. This whole-hearted commitment led to real rest and peace on the one hand—the counterpoint of laziness, which is a false kind of rest—and the willingness to put real effort into one’s relationship with God on the other—the counterpoint of restless flitting from one thing to another, which is a kind of false or shallow activity.

There seems to be a remarkable gap between the ancient view of acedia as resistance to one’s spiritual vocation and the modern conception of sloth as “mere” laziness. Nevertheless, we can still see continuity between this vice’s Christian origins and contemporary conceptions of it if we trace the change historically. To make a very long story short, what happened was that the concept of sloth was gradually stripped of its association with inner spiritual commitment. As it secularized, what remained (mostly) was its most obvious and characteristic outer symptom—inertia, inactivity, lack of effort, or laziness.

As an additional complication, however, sloth’s second manifestation—restless overactivity—split off and became a virtue. So the secularization of sloth went hand in hand with what I will call the spiritualization of work. What follows is a brief story of how this went.

Sloth was translated and transplanted from its limited application to desert and monastic settings—with their narrower concept of religious vocation and identity—into the wider culture, first with the popularization of Gregory’s Moralia but most intentionally and extensively after the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. By the 13th century, Aquinas extended sloth’s application beyond those who took religious orders to everyone with the virtue of charity—that is, everyone who had been baptized a Christian. With a little help from certain Reformers, the concept of religious vocation was also extended to apply to all forms of work and labor—even manual labor, household chores, and ditch-digging. Diligence in all work, then, could be a sign of one’s love and devotion for God (from the Latin,diligere, to love). Being industrious was virtuous, because the harder you worked, the more love and devotion you showed.11

As the gradual secularization of modern life infiltrated the workplace, work itself supplanted religious identity as the source of individual identity and worth. As work took on an identity-defining significance, it also became the key to meaning and fulfillment. Henry Ford stirringly expressed it in this way, “There is no place in civilization for the idler. None of us has any right to ease. Work is our sanity, our self-respect, our salvation. Through work and work alone may health, wealth, and happiness inevitably be secured.”12

The result for the vice of sloth? Josef Pieper writes: “In popular thought the ‘capital sin’ of sloth revolves around the proverb, ‘An idle mind is the Devil’s workshop.’ According to this concept, sloth is the opposite of diligence and industry; it is almost regarded as a synonym for laziness and idleness. Consequently, [sloth] has become, to all practical purposes, a concept of the middle class work ethic. The fact that it is numbered among the seven ‘capital sins’ seems, as it were, to confer the sanction and approval of religion on the absence of leisure in the capitalistic industrial order.”13

Laziness is a sign of lack of love and devotion to one’s work, where work now replaces religion as a source of identity, meaning, and fulfillment. Diligence and industriousness are now virtues essential to a life of self-made, self-defined fulfillment. In a recent article, the Chronicle of Higher Education listed diligence among the virtues necessary for success in graduate school. And of the virtues Calvin College faculty are supposed to cultivate in their students according to the college’s new core curriculum, diligence—not Christian love—tops the list.14 In a culture devoted to personal fulfillment through work, sloth functions in a parallel way to the original conception—the slothful person is a psychological puzzle; she is a person who resists her own happiness.

What should we make of this development in which sloth gets secularized and work gets spiritualized? Because our own work is now the key to fulfillment, and our own efforts procure success, the contemporary virtues of diligence and industriousness in our work can easily manifest the vice of pride, where we idolatrously try to forge our own identity, and determine and procure our own happiness for ourselves. Like Augustine’s analysis of Roman ‘courage’ and ‘moderation’ in City of God, many forms of contemporary diligence count as pseudo-virtues from the point of view of those who first named sloth as a vice, because they are ultimately rooted in a self-love and presumption of dominion over our own lives that neither acknowledges nor depends on God. Insofar as we assume our fulfillment to be in our own hands, to determine and deliver, our character reveals its roots in pride. Our brief history reveals a great irony, then: today’s moral ideal—the “virtuously” industrious and diligent worker, rather than her lazy counterpart—is more likely in the grip of the vice of sloth and its root, pride, when judged according to the traditional conception.

Unfortunately, this is not just a problem for those with a secular conception of work. These tendencies also bleed into Christian life and ministry. If diligence is the measure of love, then the harder you work—this time, in religious programs, at volunteer organizations, or through acts of charity—the better. Be ants, not sluggards, the proverb-writer warns, and the apostle Paul insists that we work with our hands and eat only what we earn. But all this diligent participation in religious work, ostensibly as a sign of devotion, can also subtly slide into the vice of pride. In pride, we implicitly assume responsibility for creating our own religious identity (as an “involved church member” or “one who worked tirelessly for the ministry”) or ensuring that our own spiritual fulfillment lies safely within our own control, measured by our own standards, and achieved by our own efforts. Our religious activities, even ministry itself, can easily slide into something more like our own projects than anything like a response to God’s love or calling. In this case, we’ve adopted the secular work model of identity and fulfillment and developed our own prideful Christian version of it.

As an equally ironic alternative, religious activities can also function as just one more escapist, diversionary cover-up for the vice of sloth itself, traditionally understood. That is, we can use busy involvement in religious practices and programs to avoid giving ourselves in a real relationship of love with God. Our lives can be filled with church committee work and social groups and fundraisers, and empty of real worship—a symptom of our lack of desire for it. Or worse, perhaps, worship itself becomes more self-entertainment than encounter with God. In these religious contexts as well, then, while busy activities earn moral approval or disguise a lack of serious discipleship, they cover over the real vice of sloth.

Perhaps, for some, work is not identity-defining. Then laziness may be nothing more than having a little extra time on your hands. It is “mere” laziness rather than culpable inertia—doing nothing rather than shirking duty; feeling relaxed rather than being apathetic when one ought to feel devotion. No particular moral disapprobation need be attached to this sort of “mere laziness;” it is no big deal to feel lazy occasionally. I do think it reveals the power of the “diligence-is-devotion” paradigm, however, to note that plenty of people feel guilty admitting they spent an afternoon off being lazy, even if they can not explain why all laziness is bad.

The paradoxical result of the twists and turns of this short history is that it makes sense for contemporary people both to be puzzled about why “mere” laziness should count as something like a big, bad, deadly sin (although the continued use of this title in these contexts is usually incoherent),15 and also why a sort of idolatrous workaholism—both in secular industry and in Christian ministry—is honored as a virtue, with laziness its vicious counterpart.

If we take the first view, that sloth is “mere” laziness, it would make sense to drop sloth off the list of seven—as a now-inexplicable remnant of a no-longer-applicable tradition. If we take the second view of sloth and its relationship to religious vocation as having been successfully secularized, we need to face the important question of whether and in what respects we should now understand work, diligence, laziness, and sloth as virtues or vices. Learning the history of sloth, including its roots in the Christian tradition, reveals these paradoxes and contemporary moral dangers, and helps us sort through them with some healthy, countercultural Christian wisdom.

There is, however, another side to this project of bringing traditional understandings of sloth to bear on contemporary life. That is, there is another way the traditional notion of sloth and its symptoms (laziness and restlessness) has diagnostic and remedial usefulness today. The second case I want to make for the contemporary application of original sloth requires attention to sloth’s relational component and its link to love. For this, I need to explain Aquinas’s view of sloth and his definition of charity—the virtue of love that is opposed to the vice of sloth.

Part II: Sloth and Love

To understand sloth’s link to love, we need to understand the context in which Aquinas gives his account of the vice.16 Unlike most others in the vices tradition, Aquinas does not organize the Summa theologiae around a list of virtues and a separate list of vices (compare William Peraldus’s Summa de Vitiis andVirtutibus). Rather, he makes the seven principal virtues the backbone of the structure, and then adds other elements—the seven capital vices, the beatitudes, the gifts of the Holy Spirit—wherever they fit among those seven.17 First, he discusses the theological virtues—faith, hope, and charity—and then the four cardinal virtues—prudence, justice, courage, and temperance. Because there is no direct parallelism for the lists of seven virtues and vices, it is an interesting exercise to figure out why Aquinas aligns them in the way he did.

Sloth is the capital vice opposed to the theological virtue of charity—which Aquinas places at the center of his account of the virtues as the “root and mother” of all other true and perfect virtues.18 Charity (caritas, or agape love) has a two-fold act: love of God, its principal act, and love of neighbor for God’s sake, its secondary act. Sloth opposes charity’s love of God. (Envy, the other capital vice opposed to charity, opposes charity’s love of neighbor.)19 Technically, sloth is defined as a form of sorrow opposed to the main effect of love, which is joy in the presence of the beloved, God.20

The virtue                     The principal act                  The effects

Charity Chief act = to Love Inner effects of love = Joy, peace,
(participation (of the will) misericordia
in the divine                                                                  Outer effects or acts of love =
nature)                                                                          beneficence, fraternal correction, etc.
Joy <—> Sorrow = Sloth

For Aquinas, “sorrow” is a technical term (already used in Gregory, Cassian, and Evagrius)—something quite different than just feeling unhappy. It is a movement of the will analogous to, but not identical with (or reducible to) the passion of sorrow in the sensory appetite, which is a response of feeling oppressed and crushed by a present evil. Slothful sorrow is a stance or movement in the will, opposed to charity, which is also in the will since love is an act of the rational appetite. As such, Aquinas means by “sorrow” a deliberate resistance or aversion of the will not just felt but endorsed or consented to. In one place he describes sloth as “detestation, disgust, and horror.”21 What causes this aversion of the will? Aquinas says the object of the slothful person’s aversion is “the divine good in us.”22 This may sound pretty mysterious to us, but when his readers heard the phrase, “the divine good in us,” they would have immediately understand it as referring to what Aquinas had just said in the questions on charity—the “divine good in us” is our participation in God’s nature via the indwelling of the Holy Spirit by grace. As he says in his description of charity, “Charity is a friendship of human beings for God, founded upon the fellowship of everlasting happiness. Now this fellowship is due to not natural powers but a gift of grace (as according to Romans 6:23), so charity surpasses our natural capacities. . . . Therefore charity cannot be in us naturally, nor is it something we acquire by human natural powers; it can only be in us by the infusion of the Holy Spirit, Who is the Love of the Father and the Son. Created charity just is this participation of the Holy Spirit in us.”23

Roughly translated, this means that by grace, the Holy Spirit in our hearts makes us like-natured with God. This likeness of nature is the foundation of our relationship with God, which Aquinas calls the friendship of charity. So Aquinas’s account of the virtue of Christian love for God turns out to be an interesting combination of Platonic participation in the divine nature and Aristotelian virtue friendship, where the friends love each other as persons with the same good nature (or character) as themselves.

So charity is a friendship with God, a love for the one with whom we become like-natured, and sloth is sorrow or resistance to this. Put more technically, sloth is the will’s aversion to our “participation” in God—that is, our resistance to his making us “like-natured” to him through the Holy Spirit’s presence in us, and thus our resistance to the friendship and love grounded in that likeness of nature. Charity’s joy at God’s presence in us, conceived of as something good, is replaced by distaste for and aversion to it as something evil or to be avoided.

This is why Aquinas agrees with Evagrius, Cassian, and Gregory the Great that sloth is a spiritual vice, not a carnal one.24 Sloth’s main target is our love relationship with God, in the context of a life in which we take our likeness to God to be our defining identity and loving communion with God as our main vocation. The slothful person resists this relationship, and the kind of like-naturedness to God that she must accept in herself to sustain it. Sloth is not, therefore, an aversion to physical effort per se; sloth is not the excessive desire for physical ease or comfort. That would make sloth a carnal vice with a carnal object—the same way that lust draws us away from God on account of our desire for physical pleasure. But sloth is still a resistance to effort and a kind of inertia. It is laziness about love for God and what this love relationship requires of its participants. (Because we are embodied creatures, and our love and worship are embodied, this will often take physical form and require physical effort. The key is not to mistake the expression of sloth for its spiritual root.)

The difficulty with Aquinas’s definition, however, is that a relationship of love with God is what constitutes human fulfillment, and human fulfillment is something we are naturally wired to seek. As Augustine put it, “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” How can our will shrink back from the only thing that can fulfill us? Aquinas’s answer to this psychological puzzle is equally puzzling—at least initially. He quotes St. Paul: The slothful person can resist human fulfillment “on account of the flesh utterly prevailing over the spirit.”25 “The flesh utterly prevailing over the spirit” initially makes sloth sound like a carnal vice again, as if the slothful person resisted her spiritual good because desires for the comforts of the flesh won her over and tempted her away.

Of course Aquinas cannot endorse that interpretation of Paul, because he just denied that sloth was a carnal vice of bodily pleasure-and-comfort-seeking. What he means, therefore, is what Paul also means: the flesh is not to be equated with the physical body, but instead, the sinful nature, which Paul calls the “old self.” Likewise, the spirit includes all of our redeemed, regenerated nature. This he calls the “new self.” Paul’s distinction applies to the whole person, in all of her bodily and spiritual aspects; he is after the difference between a person enslaved to sin, on the one hand, and a person devoted to God, on the other.

How does this help us solve the puzzle about sloth? Sloth is resistance—not of bodily flesh to spirit—but of the old sinful tendencies and desires and attachments to the new ones faithful to Christ and like-natured to him. This transformation of the person is nothing but sanctification—the transformation that is the essential work of the virtue of charity. Charity has a now-and-not-yet character to it: It is like a married couple who say their vows on their wedding day and therefore are married, but still have to learn to live out those vows for as long as their lives shall last.26 So with charity: we receive the Holy Spirit, but the process of becoming more and more like-natured to God is the task of a lifetime (and Aquinas might argue, more than a lifetime—there’s also purgatory).27Sloth, then, is resistance to the transformation that God’s love works in us, and in particular the painful nature of the death of the old self—that is, our willingness to let old sinful habits and attachments die and be made new.28 The slothful person refuses to accept the demands that a like-naturedness to God and a love relationship with him brings; she refuses the surrender of the old self required for her own fulfillment. Sloth is thus rooted in pride, in which we seek happiness and fulfillment not in God but in something else we have chosen, and we seek it on our own terms, with a will resistant, not subject, to God’s.

The traditional Scriptural type of sloth29 is Lot’s wife—instead of hanging on to the rescuing angels for dear life, she longingly turns back, unable fully to give up her attachment to her old home in Sodom. Like the Israelites facing the Promised Land, the slothful person can’t bring herself fully to accept what her identity as God’s own people entails, and so she hangs back from the rest and fulfillment promised. She prefers the comfortably familiar discomforts of her desert wandering to a chance at real rest, a chance that comes with a challenge to live out her identity. She prefers slow death by spiritual suffocation to the risks and birthpangs of new life. Hence there is a natural connection between sloth and inertia or lifelessness. Garret Keizer puts the point more poetically this way, “Dead men throw no fits, or it seems they wouldn’t. . . . Death hates resurrection. No one likes to be woken from a sound sleep. Where those afflicted by sloth . . . can become most angry is when someone or something—like a dissatisfied spouse—disturbs the tranquility of their sarcophagus.”30

Why are the slothful often perceived as apathetic? Perhaps it is safer to try not to feel anything, when the alternative is to feel the unbearable and inescapable tension that comes with refusing to be who you really are. The main features of the historical conception of sloth from Evagrius and Cassian are present in Aquinas’s account. Evagrius and Cassian agree that sloth is a spiritual vice because it threatens one’s commitment to one’s spiritual vocation; likewise, Aquinas defines sloth as resisting or resenting the indwelling of the Spirit and the supernatural love which is the root of our spiritual life and our vocation to become like-natured to God (Aquinas thinks of this as the perfection of the imago dei).31

By defining sloth in terms of its opposition to the virtue of charity, however, Aquinas broadens sloth’s application beyond the monastery. Now everyone who has charity—that is, all baptized Christians, not just those who have taken particular religious vows—is potentially susceptible to sloth. Anyone with a relationship of love for God is now in principle susceptible to slothful abhorrence and resistance to the practices that draw us closer to God and affirm our identity and union with him.

In Aquinas’s account, sloth’s symptoms and effects also remain familiar. Aquinas uses his definition of sloth as oppressive sorrow to explain its typical expression in restless activity on the one hand, and inertia or despairing resignation on the other. Sorrow is the natural reaction to a present evil which seems inescapable.32 This sort of situation leads to two typical responses, according to Aquinas. First, through distraction and denial, we pretend it is not there or try not to think about it. Second, if we cannot avoid thinking about it and we cannot get rid of it, we become depressed, overwhelmed by helplessness, or paralyzed in despair. The first response gives rise to restlessness, easy pleasure-seeking, and a wandering mind, and the second, to inertia, apathy, and despair. Like Evagrius’s slothful desert anchorite, Aquinas says the slothful person either stays busy with desperate measures to escape (either in reality or fantasy) or slumps into despair and inactivity.

A Contemporary Illustration of “Relational Acedia”—Being Lazy About Love

Our first look at the historical conception of sloth brought us to an analysis of contemporary workaholisms, whether secular or sacred. Aquinas’s take on sloth, however, leads us to ponder the effects of sloth on relationships of love. Rather than focusing on laziness—the outer symptom of sloth—we now turn to contemporary forms of sloth’s inner laziness about the transformational demands of love.

On Aquinas’s relational conception of sloth, slothful people want all the comforts of being in a relationship, the identity and love and happiness that it brings, but ultimately resist or refuse to let love change them or to make demands of them. They are like a married couple who long for a relationship of unconditional love, but who chafe at the thought of conditioning their own desires in order to maintain that relationship and let it flourish. In one of her autobiographical novels, Anne Lamott recounts the words of a wise old woman at her church who told her, “the secret is that God loves us exactly the way we are and that he loves us too much to let us stay like this.”33 Those with sloth object to not being able to stay the way they are. Something must die in order for the new self to be born, and it might be an old self to which we are very attached.

In a contemporary account of Aquinas’s relational sloth, we would also expect to see something like spiritual sloth’s familiar symptoms: on the one hand, resisting or averting our eyes from what loving another person really requires of us—a constant, restless busyness, or diversions that provide escape from facing our true condition; and, on the other hand, when we must face what we cannot bear to acknowledge—that the relationship will require growth or change in character or it will fade and die—we find the same old inertia, oppressiveness, and despair.

I think the film Groundhog Day provides a fictional, but no less truthful, analogue of Aquinas’s relational conception of sloth. This film illustrates well sloth’s opposition to the transforming demands of love, and the effects of the will’s inner resistance to this transformation. The film’s depiction of sloth is onlyanalogous to Aquinas’s account because it tracks a love relationship between two human beings rather than a relationship between a human being and God. Nevertheless, I think Aquinas’s analysis of sloth offers a fruitful explanation of what goes wrong—and what goes right—in the film’s love relationship.Groundhog Day is ultimately a story about one man’s resistance to the demands of love.

In the film Groundhog Day, the main character, big city weatherman Phil Connors gets stuck reliving the same day—Groundhog Day—over and over in the small town of Punxatawny, Pennsylvania. Smug, self-centered Phil takes advantage of his predicament by living a life of flagrant, hedonistic self-gratification. The main project that keeps him busy in this part of the film, however, is the elaborate seduction of his producer, Rita. Phil is attracted to Rita because of her goodness, but he does not, indeed cannot, really love her—at least, not yet. Rather than change his own character, he figures out what she wants and then deceptively plays the part, putting up just the right false front—quoting a line of French poetry he memorized overnight, pretending to share her interest in world peace and her taste in ice cream—all the while manipulating her into giving him what he wants from the relationship. Although she is initially taken in by his schemes, in the end Rita sees through Phil’s selfish strategy, and rejects his advances. “I can’t believe I fell for this!” Rita cries at him in anger. “You don’t love me! I could never love someone like you, Phil, because you could never love anyone but yourself!”

Rita is right—Phil cannot love anyone but himself. Although at some level he is deeply drawn to her and wants a relationship with her, he cannot wholeheartedly commit to becoming the sort of person that would make for a real relationship of love between them. He wants to stay the way he is. Phil wants Rita’s love but is unwilling to become the sort of person who could sustain a love relationship with her. It is his old self—his selfish sinful nature, in Aquinas’s terms—that makes a relationship of love to Rita something he wants, but finds impossible to have on his own terms without any personal transformation required.

Thus Phil is also right to reply that he doesn’t even love himself. For in his present predicament, he alone is responsible for putting obstacles in the way of his own fulfillment—for refusing to be open to real love and its demands on him. Thus his sloth is self-defeating in the same way that Aquinas describes—he clings to his old self at the expense of love and the fulfillment it brings. But if we need love for fulfillment, then resisting what we need to do to be in a genuine relationship of love is to resist our own fulfillment, to choose unhappiness. No wonder Aquinas describes sloth as a willful sorrow. And that is where we now find Phil—in despair.

Unlike his previous busy self, Groundhog Day’s Jeopardy scene matches our stereotypical view of slothfulness. Phil sits apathetically in the Lazy Boy recliner, mindlessly watching television, and drinking himself into oblivion. But from our knowledge of the tradition, we realize that both the previous diversionary tactics of using women and now this Jeopardy scene both count equally as expressions of sloth. In his first strategy, Phil attempts the escapist route, and his restless need for one diversion after another attests to his lack of peace. In the second scene, Phil has no alternative but to face up to his condition but will not accept the only way out. He now realizes that he can’t have a relationship with Rita in his current state of character, nor can he find real fulfillment outside of a relationship of genuine love. He has run endlessly through one entertaining criminal scheme and gratifying sexual exploit after another and found them all empty. But he also refuses to change. And so he is at an impasse. He despairs.

After all his escape attempts fail (including suicide), Phil finally tries a new tactic. He attempts to change his character—to let the demands of love transform him from selfishness to selfless giving. He begins, little by little, to become the sort of person who could be both capable and worthy of love. Like his earlier deceptive schemes, this does take effort on his part—he earns a medical degree, he takes piano lessons, he studies French poetry, he extends a helping hand to the young and the old. But these efforts—especially his attempt to save an elderly, homeless man—unlike his previous stratagems, change his heart. Unlike the old Phil, he is no longer bored and restless, filling time with self-centered diversions and empty pleasures. For this time he does not merely pretend, but really becomes, not just a poet and pianist, but a person who is capable of real love. Phil is no longer motivated by the sole desire to get what he wants in his relationship with Rita. Instead, his actions show that he has learned to genuinely love and give himself for others. In the end, his changed character not only wins the affection of all the townspeople, but the love of Rita herself. In the end Phil gets, not the sex he originally wanted, but real rest, both physically (a good night’s sleep) and spiritually (in something analogous to Augustine’s sense).

If sloth were “mere laziness,” the only time Phil could be described as slothful is when he sits in his recliner in despair, drinking vodka from the bottle and watching Jeopardy in idle apathy. Using Aquinas’s view of relational sloth, however, we can see that Phil’s busy efforts to amuse himself in the first half of the film are nothing but his tremendous effort to get what he wants without having to change himself—just another face of sloth. As Aquinas’s account would predict, the slothful Phil finds himself unloved, unhappy, and unable to live with or without fulfillment that comes from genuine, sustained relationships of love.

By the end of the film, Phil has overcome his relational sloth by accepting the demands of love. What marks his lustful attempts at seduction earlier in the film is his substitution of self-centered self-gratification for the gift of himself in love. By the end of the film, when he has won Rita’s love, Phil has not only discovered but has also accepted the fact that real love costs us and transforms us. The real work sloth resists, therefore, is not mere physical effort but a change of heart—the kind of change from the old self to the new that love demands of us, and the kind of change that makes us capable of genuine love for others in return.

In my title, I said that Groundhog Day could also serve as a model of therapy for the vice of sloth. How could this be so? Evagrius and the other Desert Fathers described the various vices, not for the fun of reveling in sin, but to learn how to recognize them and combat them.34 So for the vice of sloth they offered not only a diagnosis, but also a remedy. The remedy was perseverance, endurance, even courage. For Evagrius, the spiritual discipline was called stabilitas loci—stability of place, staying put in one’s cell.35 He says, “You must not abandon the cell in the time of temptations, fashioning excuses seemingly reasonable. Rather, you must remain seated inside, exercise perseverance. . . . Fleeing and circumventing such struggles teaches the mind to be unskilled, cowardly, and evasive.”36 In this discipline, the soul should mirror the body. In a nutshell, this discipline is about not running away from what you’re called to be and do—whether through busyness at work or through imaginative diversions—but rather accepting and staying committed to your true spiritual vocation and identity.37

Applying the wisdom of the desert today, we can see why a culture of busy escapism is spiritually dangerous: it too easily and quickly gives us a way out of this disciplined effort of learning to love. Overcoming slothful tendencies requires us to face up to the sources of our own resistance to the demands of our relationship to God, rather than grasping at a way out or a ready diversion any time we start to feel stretched or uncomfortable. This is why love flourishes in a context of lasting commitment (spiritual stabilitas), and sloth flourishes in a context of conveniently easy escape. As the Desert Fathers knew, the remedy for sloth is staying the course, resisting the temptation to flee or take the easy way out—in mind or in body. Likewise for any human friendship or relationship of love, there is a certain stability and endurance that sustains it, a commitment which comes with demands on us. Sloth prefers the easy way out.

Conclusion

In contemporary thinking about sloth, then, what’s right is that sloth involves a kind of laziness or resistance to making an effort. This aversion to effort is the common thread between all the conceptions of sloth we’ve looked at, both old and new. It is just that contemporary accounts like the ones I began with usually reduce the meaning and scope of “effort” to “mere laziness,” rather than uncovering its roots in the soul and its link to our spiritual identity and our relationships of love.

I think it is especially important to retrieve Aquinas’s notion of relational sloth now, in a contemporary American context which glorifies activity—both in the form of devotion to work and the constant diversions of an entertainment culture. If we limit our concept of sloth to an aversion to work or physical effort, we are in danger of confusing or even praising one of sloth’s common symptoms—busy activity, even workaholism—with virtue. Looking at the Christian tradition of sloth helps us see how “diligence” in one’s work can itself be a form of slothful and prideful resistance to God’s love and life-transforming call. Likewise, if we overlook sloth’s inner dynamics, we may not recognize our culture’s restless distractibility and endless diversions for their moral danger. For those looking for an easy way out of facing their spiritual identity or the transforming demands of real love, denial and escapism have never been more convenient. Thus, working from the historical perspective provided by the traditional conception of sloth helps us both to diagnosis and to remedy sloth’s self-centered resistance to the demands of love, whether human or divine.


Notes

1. Evelyn Waugh, London Sunday Times, Akadine Press, 2002, p. 57.

2. Wasserstein, Sloth. Oxford University Press, 2005.

3. Capital vices = source vices (prolific, not worse); deadly = mortal sin (a later title for the seven).

4. Praktikos VI.12, trans. R Sinkewicz, Evagrius of Pontus, Oxford Early Christian Studies, 2003. Acedia comes from the Greek, a-kedeia, or “lack of care.”

5. Institutes. X.xxi, trans. Ramsey, Ancient Christian Writers 58, 2000. See also Conferences V, in volume 57 of the same series.

6. Ibid.

7. Originally, acedia and the vice of sorrow were distinguished from each other, but linked in the concatenation of vices (Cassian especially subscribed to the view that falling prey to one vice made one susceptible to the next one in the chain). Cassian and Evagrius describe sorrow’s cause as excessive attachment to (or insufficient detachment from) worldly desires, pleasures, and possessions. One’s religious commitment makes one unable to satisfy or attain these desires, and one feels disappointed as a result. This is the vice of sorrow. (Thus Cassian makes much of total renunciation: the monk cannot keep even a penny of his former fortune when he joins the monastery; this in contrast to the Desert Fathers who were allowed a sub-poverty level of personal possessions to maintain their livelihood—e.g. basket weaving materials.) This sorrow in turn produces resentment of one’s religious vocation which now presents itself as the major obstacle to the fulfillment of worldly desires. As such, the vocation and its demands is resented and resisted. This is the vice of sloth. Gregory will later combine sorrow and sloth under the title, tristitia, and many in the tradition (including Aquinas) will describe sloth itself as an oppressive sorrow on the basis of this relationship. My account of sloth, based on Aquinas’s texts, also maintains the link Evagrius and Cassian first described, with excessive attachment to the “old self” making commitment to and joy in the “new self” difficult and distasteful.

8. Inst. X.ii-v.

9. Praktikos VI: “The demon of acedia, also called the noonday demon (cf. Ps. 90:6), is the most oppressive of all the demons….First of all, he makes it appear that the sun moves slowly or not at all, and that the day seems to be fifty hours long. Then he compels the monk to look constantly toward the windows, to jump out of the cell, to watch the sun to see how far it is from the ninth hour, to look this way and that lest one of the brothers… And further he instills in him a dislike for the place and for his state of life itself, for manual labor, and also the idea that love has disappeared from among the brothers and there is no one to console him. And should there be someone who has offended the monk, this too the emon uses to add further to his dislike (of the place). He leads him on to the desire for other places where he can easily find the wherewithal to meet his needs and pursue a trade that is easier and more productive; he adds that pleasing the Lord is not a question of being in a particular place…and as the saying has it, he deploys every device in order to have the monk leave his cell and flee the stadium.” Also, in Eight Thoughts (in Sinkewicz) 6.5 he says: “The spirit of acedia drives the monk out of his cell, but the monk who possesses perseverance will ever cultivate stillness.”

10. Gregory, Moralia in Iob, 31.45.88 ff. Aquinas quotes him authoritatively at ST IIaIIae.35.4.obj and ad 2.

11. I have already noted connections to laziness in Cassian’s account of sloth, but I think there is a larger story to be told about how the concept of sloth evolved toward secularization during the Renaissance, Reformation, and Industrial Revolution up to the present. This history is fairly speculative on my part, but, nevertheless, I think, a plausible story and one worth investigating further. For a further look at secular and religious views of sloth, see my “Resistance to the Demands of Love: A reflection on the vice of sloth” in the Calvin Spark (Spring 2005), available at www.calvin.edu/publications/spark/2005/spring/sloth.htm.

12. Quoted in Robert McCracken, What is Sin? What is Virtue? (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), p. 29.

13. Pieper, trans. McCarthy, On Hope (SanFrancisco: Ignatius, 1986), p. 54.

14. To be fair, the list is not meant to be ordered. But it is a notable historical development that diligence even makes the list at a Christian college, much less that it is the first virtue to spring to mind when we think about shaping our students’ character.
In a culture devoted to personal fulfillment through work, sloth functions in parallel ways to the original concept—the sloth is a psychological puzzle, as a person who resists her own happiness

15.  It is most often used by secularists and Protestants who don’t believe, respectively, in sin and hell or mortal sin. See the “Introduction” to my Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins (Brazos, forthcoming).

16.  Aquinas’s account of sloth generally follows the Evagrian/Cassianic conception of acedia. The list of seven deadly sins was originally a list of eight or nine. Gregory the Great organized it into ‘the perfect seven’ by combining the vices of acedia and sorrow and making the vice of pride the root of the seven remaining vices, rather than an additional item on the list. As we will see shortly in his definition of sloth, Aquinas accepts Gregory’s combination but calls the vicesacedia instead of tristitia.

17. De Malo is organized by the vices, in Gregorian order. The different format occasionally leads to different content: for example, Aquinas has a long argument against usury in the question on avarice in De Malo, where he argues that usury, as an act of avarice, undermines the strict obligations of justice. In theSumma, he opposes covetousness or avarice to liberality (generosity), which is related to justice, but not a strict requirement of it. Both are late works, and contain Aquinas’s mature thought. The treatment of sloth is largely the same in ST and DM, but only in ST is sloth’s relation to charity structurally evident, rather than (as in DM) simply asserted.

18. ST IIaIIae.23.8. For a more detailed exposition of Aquinas’s view of sloth and the interpretive puzzles that arise from it, see my “Resistance to the Demands of Love: Aquinas on the Vice of Acedia” Thomist 68:2 (April 2004): 173-204.

19. In the Summa, vices are usually organized in Aristotelian fashion according the virtue they oppose either by excess or deficiency. Rather than defining sloth as a vice of deficiency with respect to love for God, however (pace Dante and Peraldus), Aquinas does not mention the Aristotelian categories at all in his account. It would make sense to downplay them, given that he says that there is no possible excess of charity. Thus all sins and vices are deficiencies of charity in some way or other.

20. The other two inner effects of charity are peace (concord of wills) and misericordia (often translated mercy, but something more like sympathy or compassion—fellow-feeling). The friendship of charity is therefore characterized by likeness: of nature—love is a natural inclination toward and delight in what we have an affinity for—Aquinas calls this “connaturality”, which is marked by joy; of will, which is marked by peace; and of feeling (sym-pathy, com-passio), which is marked by misericordia.

21. ST IIaIIae.35.2, DM 11.2.

22. DM 11.2.

23. ST II-II.23.2.

24. ST IIaIIae.35.2.

25. Gal. 5:17, ST 35.3.

26. ST IIaIIae.24.3.ad 2 (“grace is nothing else than a beginning of glory in us”) and IIaIIae.24.5, on the increase of charity. See especially ad.3: “This is what God does when He increases charity, that is, He makes it to have a greater hold on the soul, and the likeness of the Holy Spirit to be more perfectly participated by the soul.”

27. This is why angels can’t have sloth (ST Ia.63.2—their acceptance of grace is a single act of will).

28. Romans 12: 1-2, Ephesians 4: 22-24, Colossian 3: 9-14.

29. See S. Wenzel, The Sin of Sloth (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967 ).

30.  Garret Keizer, The Enigma of Anger (SanFrancisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002), p. 50. We should alse note the “trapped” feeling of the sloth person, on Aquinas’s view—she can’t get rid of natural desire for happiness (only suppress it), but is still insistent on refusing it. Hence his (and Evagrius’s) description of this vice as “oppressive.” Keying off sloth’s two main forms—false rest and restlessness, discussed later in the paper—Aquinas also opposes sloth to the commandment to rest on the Sabbath day, because the slothful person turns her back on the joy of charity and refuses to be at rest with the presence of God within her—the latter is Aquinas interpretation of the commandment. Sloth, then, is our attempt at self-manufactured ‘rest’ and fulfillment.

31. For all these thinkers, this spiritual vocation—being and living in communion with God—is at the core of human identity; it is what we are meant to be and it is what brings us fulfillment.

32. In the treatise on the passions (making the analogy again to the will), Aquinas defines sorrow as our response to a present evil which seems inescapable (it is present because we are unable to escape it). See ST IaIIae. 35-38 on the passion of sorrow, and ST IIaIIae.35.4, ad 1 and 2, DeMalo XI.4 on the offspring vices of sloth, which are explained in terms of not being able to endure sorrow.

33. Operating Instructions, p. 96.

34. The Desert Fathers, following the Scriptures, make clear that grace is necessary for this; see for example II Peter 1:3ff.

35. See Eight Thoughts (in Sinkewicz), ch. 6; for example, “A light breeze bends a feeble plant; a fantasy about a trip away drags off a person overcome with acedia,” or “The spirit of acedia drives the monk out of his cell, but the monk who possesses perseverance will ever cultivate stillness.”

36. Praktikos, VI.28.

37. This is why Aquinas said that slothful people chafe especially at the obeying the command to rest on the Sabbath. Spiritually speaking (on the inside), slothful people are resisting God’s presence in them, not resting in that presence. But it is obvious by this point in the argument, that people can stay very busy keeping God out of their lives.

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Author:
Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung :
Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung received her Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame in 2000. Since 1998, she has taught at Calvin College, where she is currently an associate professor of philosophy. She has published numerous articles and chapters on the virtues and vices and attended an NEH seminar on the seven deadly sins in Cambridge in July 2006. Her most recent projects include a book on the seven deadly sins in the Christian tradition under contract at Brazos Press, a co-authored book on Aquinas’s ethics forthcoming from the University of Notre Dame Press, and a curriculum on the seven deadly sins published by FaithAlive, published in September 2007. She and her husband live in Grandville, Michigan, and have four children.
  • Frank Attanucci

    Dr. DeYoung, I am currently reading the version of your essay that appeared in the April 2004 issue of The Thomist. It is excellent!
    I confess that I am helped in my understanding by having just read Servais Pinckaers’ “The Sources of Christian Ethics” and, especially, Robert Minor’s “Thomas Aquinas on the Passions.”
    Keep up the good work! I am hoping to find more of your work on-line.

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