Sloth — for some of us, it’s a tree-dwelling mammal, especially the dimwitted but loveable Sid from Twentieth Century Fox’s Ice Age franchise. For others, it’s synonymous with laziness or indolence, an almost unforgivable vice in a culture which emphasizes achievement, success, and competition. However, you can still suffer from this particular sin even though you’re active, productive, even successful as the world accounts success. While it may sound strange to call any of the seven capital (“deadly”) sins or a passion “cold”, Sloth is indeed a cold passion, a passion for what our society now calls autonomy.
What is Sloth?
Saint Thomas Aquinas, referencing St. John of Damascus, defined Sloth as “an oppressive sorrow, which … so weighs upon man’s mind, that he wants to do nothing; thus acid things are also cold. Hence sloth implies a certain weariness of work, as appears from a gloss on [Psalm 107:18] … and from the definition of some who say that sloth is a ‘sluggishness of the mind which neglects to begin good.’” (Summa Theologiae II-II, Q. 35, A. 1, resp.) Joseph Delaney, citing a “Father Rickaby”, calls the Latin equivalent acedia (from the Greek akēdia) “the don’t-care” feeling.
It’s interesting that St. Thomas, given the state of chemical knowledge of his time, calls acid “cold.” Coldness in atomic physics is the relative absence or diminishment of energy. At absolute zero (– 459.67° F, – 273.15° C), the fundamental particles have minimal vibrational motion; even the toughest materials, when chilled this low, are easy to shatter. As hypothermia settles in, the human body loses the energy needed to struggle for survival, growing more sluggish, and the mind loses consciousness. Freezing to death may not be as painful as burning to death, but the result is the same.
We say to or about others, “I care,” which might suggest a derivation from the Latin caritas, the root of charity. But in fact, care stems from Anglo-Saxon and Proto-Germanic roots meaning concern, trouble, and anxiety, while the Latin noun derives from an adjective meaning dear, beloved, or expensive. Then again, we would think that something or someone we hold dear, even priceless, would be something or someone we would trouble ourselves about. To have too many concerns can lead us to be careworn, but to be carefree and to be careless are not the same thing at all.
The Van Pelt Paradox
As a practical matter, people generally have a subconscious hierarchy of cares, much like Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, by which we prioritize our concerns and efforts according to our personal situations. Some concerns may occupy a more or less permanent rank, while others slide up and down as our personal circumstances dictate. Some never climb off the bottom to reach our internal “to-do list”; or, at best, we give them only minimal attention — we “phone it in” or “check off the [whatever] box.”
The concrete precedes the abstract. Our experience of our world through our senses and emotions precedes the ideas we form about them. From these most immediate intersections of the intellectual and the experiential, we create further abstractions, attaching labels to them so we can communicate these ideas to one another.
In much the same fashion, our hierarchies of cares tend to follow this logical priority. The things most immediate and most concrete to us receive our greatest attention and concern, while more remote and more abstract things receive less as they affect us. However, communication, especially modern communications media, can bridge the temporal/spatial gaps, bringing remote people and events such as the Notre-Dame de Paris fire or the Sri Lankan massacres into a more immediate experience. On the other hand, social and cultural boundaries, such as race or class, may distance us as effectively as do space and time.
Not all people prioritize the concrete over the abstract. The archetypes of the Absent-Minded Professor and the Computer Nerd encode the type of person seemingly more at home with ideas than with real things and real people. In “Altruism Without a Chest”, I discussed modern altruism’s curious detachment from real, living people, the passion for an abstract, impersonal “humanity” that has led (some believe) to the worst outrages of the 20th century. This paradox was most famously stated by cartoonist Charles Schulz’s character Linus Van Pelt: “I love mankind … it’s PEOPLE I can’t stand!”
Relationships vs. Self-Interest
Real people make demands on us. All relationships come with implicit duties and obligations, some reciprocal, some unilateral. As relational, social, and political animals, we live and thrive within a complex web of interweaving relationships, each with its own unique conventions and demands which justice requires that we observe faithfully. Justice necessarily means fulfilling these demands to the best of our ability. Charity goes beyond the demands of simple justice: Where equity would mandate we give and receive no more or less than is due, charity will often give more and exact less for the sake of the other person’s good.
Through the Incarnation, the abstract God concretized Himself, taking on materiality, “[humbling] Himself to share in our humanity” in the Person of Christ. Revelation and prophecy became witness: The Source of all reality became real to human senses. In doing so, God gave immediacy and concreteness to our relationship with Him, circumventing the abstract mediation of the Law and the Prophets. Further, He gave us signs of His concreteness not only in the Eucharist but also in each other, equating our relationship with Himself to our relations with the least of us. God’s demands now take special urgency.
One thing all the vices have in common is exaggerated self-interest. Only great faith in God’s providence makes survival possible for those lacking some little self-concern. And yet, the more the Self occupies our attention and dominates our hierarchy of cares, the less time and care we have for others. Again, without great faith, it isn’t humanly possible to care for all people to the same degree; yet self-interest can deny space in the hierarchy even to those with the greatest claim to our concern.
How Does Sloth Work?
Sloth resists others’ demands on us. They are diversions of time, energy, and resources that we could spend on our own needs, desires, and interests. Rights without responsibilities, relationships without obligations, are what define autonomy. Charity insists we prioritize others’ needs ahead of our own, but self-interest doesn’t want to take a back seat to anyone or anything. Even those obligations we acknowledge to be good and just we consider heavy burdens we would rather shuck than carry. Good relationships take effort to maintain, let alone cultivate; when one goes sour, it’s easier to abandon than rescue it.
The easiest relationship to end is with God. Sloth, having damaged charity, eventually returns God to abstraction. We pray and go to church, if at all, merely to “check the God box;” we can’t scare up the energy to discern and pursue His will. Or we become “moralistic therapeutic deists,” occasionally paying God a visit in our thoughts as we might an elderly great-aunt, but not seeking His daily companionship or His presence in others.
Sloth, at its coldest, is colder than any atheism — God becomes irrelevant, not even important enough to deny existence.
Sloth shows up at minimum as reluctance, often as a lackaday attitude towards one’s duty, giving it less attention than it needs and deserves. Or it’ll cause despair by magnifying the size, complexity, or difficulty of the obligation. Or it will show up as an inability to stay focused on the objective. The unwillingness to sacrifice “me time” may turn into hostility, into our studied refusal to recognize an obligation, and even into spite and malice.
And if Sloth saps the energy out of the performance of good, it equally undermines our efforts to avoid temptation, allowing at most perfunctory requests to God for help we don’t really want. For instance, the sin of presumption is the “rash expectation of salvation without making proper use of the necessary means to obtain it.” Sloth urges us to presume upon God’s forgiveness in order to commit other sins, diminishing the proper love and respect for God that would resist sin and repent of its commission. In this manner, Sloth leads us to sin against the First Commandment (cf. CCC 2092).
Conclusion: Working Against Sloth
Brother, if you do a bad thing with pleasure, the pleasure passes and the badness remains. If you do a good thing wearily, the weariness passes and the goodness remains. (St. Camillus de Lellis)
Sloth, then, is a coldness of the soul, a coldness that separates us from God and other people. It may occasionally mask itself as a passion for social and economic justice on the community, national, or global scale. But it reveals itself in our reluctance to do good for the benefit of the real, concrete people in our lives, or to avoid near occasions of sin. It is the sin which “takes little trouble to find out what is true and good,” which doesn’t willingly discern evil in self-indulgence or goodness in self-denial (CCC 1791; cf. Gaudium et Spes 16).
One response to Sloth is to pray for greater charity, to imitate God’s love for others. Another suggestion comes indirectly from Marian Oblate Fr. Ron Rolheiser: Besides spending time in prayer and contemplation, immerse yourself more fully in responding to the needs of others — yes, doing more of what your self-interest hates. Work can be a kind of prayer; if Sloth is spiritual laziness, the antidote is to put the spirit to work. The Son of God has concretized himself in the poor, the sick, the unfortunate, and the distressed. The more we do for their sake, the more we do for His sake.