Acedia, Bane of Solitaries

Acedia (or accedie) has a narrow religious definition but is a far larger and wider psychological and spiritual term relevant to the history of eremiticism and solitude.

The narrow sense is that of sloth, indolence, laziness, as in the Western world's list of seven capital sins. Eastern Christianity is a little more comprehensive in referring to seven "temptations." Acedia is a psychological rather than moral condition, with implications for modern attitudes toward culture, conformity, and contentment. Acedia was a historical bane to monks, hermits, solitaries, and -- by extension -- to any one spiritually or intellectually inclined.

Acedia and the Desert Fathers and Mothers

The concept of acedia begins with the ever-observant desert fathers and mothers who first perceived and diagnosed the condition. Their first impulse was to shoo it away like a pesky insect by keeping occupied, as in the narrative of Anthony beset "by many sinful thoughts" and cured by angelic advice to stay busy  plaiting rope. Poemen avers that "acedia is there every time one begins something, and there is no worse passion, but if one recognizes it for what it is, one will gain peace." And John Cassian adds:

It is also good to recall what Abba Moses, one of the most experienced of the fathers, told me. I had not been living long in the desert when I was troubled by listlessness [i.e., acedia]. So I went to him and said: Yesterday I was greatly troubled and weakened by listlessness, and I was not able to free myself from it until I went to see Abba Paul. Abba Moses replied to me by saying: So far from freeing yourself from it, you have surrendered to it completely and become its slave. You must realize that it will attack all the more severely because you have deserted your post, unless from now on you strive to subdue it through patience, prayer and manual labor.

Clearly acedia is not willful sloth or indolence, less so "sin," but a spiritual lethargy or indifference, a turpitude that affects the well-intentioned. Amma Theodora says:

You should realize that as soon as you intend to live in peace, at once evil comes and weighs down your soul through acedia, faint-heartedness, and evil thoughts. It also attacks your body through sickness, debility, weakening of the knees, and all the members. It dissipates the strength of soul and body. ... But if we are vigilant, all the temptations fall away.

A practical experience of acedia is described by the desert hermit Heraclides, who received a brother troubled by restlessness in his new cell. Heraclides advised him not to follow an extreme regimen of self-discipline but to eat, drink, and sleep as needed. He only asked that the brother not leave his cell. But, the narrator tells us, the brother fell "prey to acedia" and doubted the old man's advice. The brother followed his regimen but when he went to bed he found a demon lying on it, gnashing its teeth at him. The brother fled his cell to the old man's dwelling, imploring his help. Heraclides, seeing that the younger man had not followed his counsel to stay in his cell, refused to open, but the next morning, finding him still at the doorstep, Heraclides took pity on him. "Then, according to his capacity, he taught him the discipline of the solitary life, and in a short time he became a good monk."

John Cassian went further than his conversation with Abba Moses to describe the physical symptoms so literally, even to the hour of the day when they peak, that acedia became known as the "noonday devil." He provides an excellent description of the psychology of acedia as well, indicating that acedia is a "tedium or perturbation of heart ... akin to dejection and especially felt by wandering monks and solitaries, a persistent and obnoxious enemy to such as dwell in the desert." He goes on:

When this [acedia] besieges the unhappy mind, it begets aversion from the place, boredom with one's cell, and scorn and contempt for one's brethren, whether they be dwelling with one or some way off, as careless and unspiritual-minded persons.

The listlessness of acedia is akin to a feeling of inertness, John Cassian notes, producing no spiritual fruit, a sense of any practice being "empty of spiritual profit." John's remedy, following desert tradition, is a level of sustained activity approximating rigorous physical labor and what were to be called works of mercy, which fend off cynicisms. Physical labor as a solution is seen in the example of the first Christian desert hermit Paul, who regularly wove baskets of palm leaves. But being too far from a market to sell them Paul would burn his handiwork once a year and start over.

Acedia and Modern Thought

Modern categories of thinking about acedia appear with medieval and later scholasticism, which transformed acedia into sin, a process begun in the West by St. Gregory. This opposed the sense of the desert fathers and mothers, who saw acedia as a kind of occupational hazard of monks and hermits. This point of view resurrects the harsh line of thought in St. Paul the Apostle, who railed against contemplatives as those who would not work (i.e., slothful) and therefore not worthy of sharing the food of the community.

The dilemma for scholastic philosophy was clear. Acedia was not a rejection of virtuous behavior, not an embrace of sloth, not a product of belief or faith, not even a condition of will. Acedia presented a third category besides good and evil. Unable to resolve a third state, scholasticism settled into the concept of sloth.

Not restricted to scholastic vocabulary, the Carmelite mystic John of the Cross (1542-1591) sees acedia as the bane of novice solitaries in particular, who

become weary in the more spiritual exercises and flee from them, since these exercises are contrary to sensory satisfaction. Since they are so used to finding delight in spiritual practices, they become bored whey they do not find it.

Although the definition of acedia in John of the Cross borders on "sin," it sensibly recognizes, like Heraclides, the desert hermit, that acedia plagues the novice more that the experienced solitary. To John of the Cross, acedia is part of a "dark night of the soul," and can strike anyone on a spiritual path, simply because of the rigors of that very path.

After progress, the solitary discovers how simplification of desire (or, "purgation of the appetite," as John of the Cross puts it, resolves acedia.

The individual is wondrously liberated from the hands of the enemies: the world, the flesh, and the devil. For when the sensory delight and gratification of things is quenched, neither the devil, nor the world, nor sensuality, has arms or power against the spirit.

It is easy to secularize this terminology and arrive at the same conclusion about spirituality and the psychology of simplicity.

With Immanuel Kant, philosophy clarifies acedia by taking into account the totality of factors involved in a person's values.

To the "virtuous" person (by which is meant the person seeking integrity) no value is attached to happiness that involves non-virtuous means. But the solitary by nature of his or her disengagement from the world and society has a very low threshold for non-virtue. Put another way, they have high expectations and standards for what should be considered good and worthy in life.

Kant's conception of proportionality shows how one can judge something we are calling a "non-virtue" as not necessarily affecting individual contentment or happiness. The existence on non-virtue in the world need not affect one's ultimate contentment. The psychology of accedia omits or denigrates the element of contentment which springs from integrity, wisdom, nature, and identification with the patterns of the universe, what might be called the Tao or God.

Hence, younger hermits and solitaries are more likely to be troubled by acedia because of their immature concept of contentment, their impatience with non-virtue. Their acedia is evidence of an incomplete view of the nature of things. Acedia was historically a signal about maturity -- but not a "sin." By resolving the issue of good or evil in acedia and by "fine-tuning" one's threshold for non-virtue, the individual could reach a functional state of equanimity that would dispel acedia.

Acedia became even less of a moral condition or issue with the growth of science in the West. Robert Burton's classic The Anatomy of Melancholy, while never using the term acedia, attempts to rationalize the psychological dispositions by assigning their cause to temperaments or "humors," which are fluids in the circulation corresponding with elements.

Melancholia (in Burton's scheme) is the obvious counterpart of acedia. Melancholia was associated with earth, pointing to that personality that is meditative, somber, thoughtful, prone to reflection. It is important to note that by this time no moral or intellectual quality was associated with melancholia or with any of the other temperaments (choleric, sanguinary, phlegmatic). They were seen to represent basic emotional potentials. To suffer melancholia was to suffer from a rectifiable imbalance -- an imbalance of energy, as Ayurveda or Chinese medicine might put it.

Modern psychiatry, psychology and medicine do not even credit acedia as an emotion, folding it into depression, dismissing it as a "discarded diagnosis." How valid is this? Depression is usually identified in extroverts, and remains too broad a brush with which to paint an individual, carrying with it the notion of chemical imbalances on the analogy of the humors. Perhaps the reductionism of modern science cannot comprehend the nuances of acedia.

Resolving Acedia

Is not acedia the original perception of alienation and revolt against complacency and the burdens of culture? Is it the angst of Kierkegaard, the "nausea" of Sartre, the alienation and revolt of existentialists from Camus to Marcel? Acedia is never without a sense of guilt or complicity, not as sin but as complicity in the horrors of contemporary life. To the modern mind, acedia remains real and relevant. It is a personal statement against the contrivances of culture, the hypocrisy of public morality, alienation from the natural patterns of nature and simplicity.

How can acedia be resolved or "cured"? As already noted, acedia is first resolved as a factor in the threshold for non-virtue, in the ability to seek contentment. But the gravest danger of acedia -- especially for the solitary -- is a lack of gratitude for living, as the sufferers in Dante's Inferno (Canto 8), fixed in the slime, cried out:

Sullen were we in the sweet air that is gladdened by the sun, carrying lazy smoke within our heart...

Acedia risks extending into indifference towards charity. But the solitary can resolve this pitfall through the practice of refraining from harm, the Hindu/Jain/Buddhist ahimsa. The opposite of ahimsa is active complicity with the forces of power in the world. The use of power in the modern world is a far more telling capital sin than the familiar and sometimes buffoonish vices such as gluttony, anger, avarice, and pride. If Sartre's character in the play Nausea has "the terrible impression of being turned into a block of ice enveloped in fire," there is the worse sense in modern times of selling one's soul for a respite from acedia.

Acedia can have a strong spiritual component in the life of the one who experiences it, and that very component makes acedia the sign of great potential for insight and wisdom. The solitary need not fear acedia. Acedia, at a minimum, signifies no complacency or superficial contentment with the contemporary cultural order. Acedia can be a tacit expectation that life can be better, or at least better understood.


Quotations of the Desert Fathers and Mothers from Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publication, 1987); quotations of John Cassian from The Desert Fathers, translated by Helen Waddell (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1957; New York: Vintage, 1998) and Philokalia, vol. 1, translated by G. H. E. Palmer and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber, 1983); quotations from John of the Cross from The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1979).