Four more vices

The previous post mentioned the first four of eight vices described by John Cassian, as summarized in the Philokalia: gluttony, lust, avarice, and anger. Here are the other four.

Because John addresses monks, he warns against solitude as a retreat from others, justified by the vices of others, especially when the product of anger. John prefers the monk to be in salutary company than alone and made hard-hearted by resentment and false motives. This is wise advice for the monk but leaves others seeking John’s counsel a lack of clear resolution on how to invoke solitude and when.

The focus on the vices of dejection and listlessness have a similar focus between self and others. Dejection has no regularized counterpart today. Dejection is half of the classic acedia. The symptoms are more psychological than malicious, less self-conscious than moral or ethical. Acedia is described today as depression, and a century or two ago as melancholia. John can only call it a demon, characteristically leaving the self “senseless and paralyzed, tied and bound by … despairing thoughts.”

Perhaps the solitary, by disposition and personality, is less a prey to acedia than the gregarious or extrovert who is attempting solitude as alien and unnatural. For John, acedia is a coenobitic bane that seems to engender a solitary but hostile attitude.

Just as moth devours clothing and a worm devours wood, so dejection devours a man’s soul. It persuades him to shun every helpful encounter and stops him accepting advice from his true friends or giving them a courteous and peaceful reply. Seizing the entire soul, dejection fills the soul with bitterness and listlessness. Then it suggests to the soul that we should go away from other people, since they are the cause of its agitation.

Here again John distinguishes acedia as cause of solitude rather than result. He addresses monks living in a community wherein advice from superiors is expected, where friendship is based on mutual goals and values, and externals are not the cause of acedia as much as is a faulty mind.

But who — even the monk, for that matter — enjoys such companionship and fellow-feeling? Who can depend on the wisdom or advice from elders or friends? Who can find soul-mates who understand the nuances of self and solitude?

Courtesy and cooperation are overt and social necessities in a community, workplace, neighborhood, or family. But the solitary is not hostile simply because he or she cannot accommodate to a setting where more than minimal external etiquette is expected. The solitary becomes dejected by pressures on the inner self, invasions and assaults to the inner vision, to the subjective identity. The delicate task of the solitary is to gracefully negotiate being in the world but avoiding its compromises and the “authority” and “advice” of the groups mentioned. To accomplish this, the solitary must thoroughly understand the self and carefully position it in a discrete and well-guarded place while donning a mask of sociability.

Our whole fight is against the passions within. Once these have been extirpated from our heart … we will readily be able to live not simply with others but even with wild beasts.

On dejection, John concludes that while some aspects come from outside the self (he ascribes them to demons, not to society and culture), others are our own responsibility. Besides spiritual practices, he counsels “living with godly people,” but, again, there is not much chance of pursuing the latter except vicariously.

Listlessness is called sloth in most translations, but is here the result of dejection or acedia, and is properly an extension of it. Again, John treats of it in a coenobitic setting we will have to interpret for the solitary.

Listlessness is a “harsh, terrible demon … who works hand in hand with the demon of dejection.” Listlessness encourages a monk to despair of his fellow monks and community, to wish to be elsewhere, to visit when he should be solitary, to be alone when he should be with others, to oversleep, to crave food and drink, to be unable to concentrate, focus, meditate, to waver between lethargy and nervous energy. All of this is symptomatic of acedia, not the cultivated vice of sloth.

From a contemporary perspective, one may wonder if acedia is largely physiology at work: a pollution or toxicity of the body that inevitably affects nerves and mind. The most compelling solution to acedia is full engagement of the body and disengagement of the mind. Evey tradition understands this. If not in a formal way — pursuing yoga or qigong or the outdoors, etc., some exercise is necessary, as well as a rigorously clean diet of living foods — then certainly the way of the ancients is to be prescribed: work, physical or manual labor. “Someone who works is attacked or affected by but a single demon, while someone who does not work is taken prisoner by a thousand evil spirits,” notes John.

Self-esteem is the paradox of self. Enough is essential to establish the continuity of identity with our values and goals, but too much is a vice that undermines the most virtuous activity. John gives the example of a monk who imagines himself a priest and so John ascribes a touch of madness to excessive self-esteem. When we celebrate ourselves for something well done, there is always an overestimation. When we imagine ourselves other than what we are, there is a clear danger. But knowing who we are — that is the challenge. John would have us regard ourselves as “nothing before God,” and that is a prerogative to be taken as needed, though it should not confuse our simple pleasure in a task well done or the silent appreciation of nature and its beauty.

How does self-esteem differ from pride? John sees pride as overwhelming the more targeted vices aforementioned. Pride is like a “harsh tyrant who has gained control of a great city and destroys it completely, razing it to its foundation.” To John, pride is simply equating the self with God or perfection.

But pride, unlike self-esteem, has a social dimension bound up with power, whether over others in one’s immediate sphere or over an empire that sways the world. In this context, self-esteem is a personal flaw but pride is an aggrandizement, an active and pernicious engagement with the world. Although John does not follow up the concept of pride as will to power over others, he intuits that pride is indeed the master vice that enables, fosters, extends, and justifies the others. The exercise of power is always the opposite of disengagement, humility, renunciation, and solitude.