From Eight Bad Thoughts to Seven Sins

July 20, 2009


Naming the Demon
The era of the desert fathers and mothers was no less complex than our own — the fourth-century Mediterranean was in great political and social turmoil — but monks such as Evagrius were free of the heavy baggage of Western Christendom’s concept of sin. What the Church later defined as sin, desert monks termed “bad thoughts’ which to my mind is a much more helpful designation.

Given the history of the Church’s emphasis on sins of the flesh, contemporary readers may find it odd that the early monks regarded lust as one of the lesser temptations. They identified it as a form of greed, the desire to possess and use another person inappropriately in the pursuit of one’s own satisfaction. Anger, pride, and acedia were considered the worst of the “thoughts” with acedia the most harmful of all, for it could inflict a complete loss of hope and capacity for trust in God.

As the “eight bad thoughts” of the desert monks eventually became the Church’s “seven deadly sins” acedia was dropped from the list, and the monks’ profound understanding of the common temptations that all people suffer lost ground to a concept of sin as an individual’s commission of a bad act or omission of a good one. This in turn led to a superficial form of self-justification, for instance:  If I don’t overeat, then I’m not guilty of gluttony; if I don’t commit adultery, I am free of lust.

The new emphasis on acts also contributed to the Church’s power; it alone could identify the acts that it alone had the power to absolve. The monks’ subtle comprehension of temptation as thoughts that the individual may identify and resist before they turn into harmful actions was largely submerged. The insidious thought of acedia was not easily defined as an act, and it was soon subsumed within the sin of sloth.

I regard the early monastic perspective on the basic temptations that all people face as an ur-psychology that is as relevant today as when it was first conceived. In The Praktikos, his primary work on these temptations as he experienced them, Evagrius characterizes them as gluttony, lust, greed, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride.

The idea of sadness as a “bad thought” may strike modern readers as perverse, but Evagrius explains that it often comes upon us when our desires are thwarted, and we call to mind poignant memories of our parents caring for us at a time when we felt more at home in the world. this exercise in nostalgia can be treacherous.  As the scholar Lucien Regnault points out,  Evagrius came to believe that the demons “cannot act directly on the intellect.” They arouse evil thoughts by working on the memory and imagination.

Evagrius warns that if we do not resist these seemingly harmless thoughts at the outset, they soon pour out in pleasures that are. . . only mental in nature and then seize us and drench us in sadness. As we come to prefer living in the past, we grow less able to enjoy the present or invest in the future.

Evagrius is quite astute on the subject of how quickly a person’s unresolved anger can turn against him, building an intensity that is inappropriate to its presumed cause. The one who inwardly harbors such an all encompassing indignation manifests “a general debility of the body, malnutrition with its attendant pallor, and the illusion of being attacked by poisonous wild beasts.”  John Eudes Bamberger, the Cistercian monk who translated The Praktikos into English, and who is a physician, notes that Evagrius’s “description of the dynamics of disproportionate anger” is best “appreciated for its accuracy … by those who have carefully followed the progression of certain forms of schizophrenia.”

I recognize all too well anger as Evagrius describes it: “a boiling and stirring up of wrath against one who has given injury — or is thought to have done so. It constantly irritates the soul and above all at the time of prayer it seizes the mind and flashes the picture of the offensive person before one’s eyes.  I have endured what Evagrius terms “alarming experiences by night” when indignation overpowers me and disrupts my sleep.

I may dwell for a time on the immediate cause of my anger, but if I do not check my rage, I am likely to think of other slights, other people who have been disagreeable, or whom I feel I have good reason to detest. Once when I was furious with my husband, the importance of resisting the “bad thought” of anger was brought home to me.

I found myself wide awake in the middle of the night, brimming with resentment. David had acted irresponsibly, and I felt thoroughly justified in my rage. But as my litany of complaint raced on, moving from my husband to others who had recently wronged me, and then to those who had annoyed me in the more distant past, I stopped. Wait a minute, I said to myself, this could go on forever. What’s really happening here?

That question had an answer. And only after I had consciously dismissed my anger for the phantom it was could I see past the shadows. My husband had not been able to help himself, and was in fact in a highly fragile state. My anger had masked what I really felt for him, which was fear. Somewhere in my reading of monastic literature I had found a description of anger as the seed of compassion, and I felt this keenly on that night. What my husband needed most was hospitality, and an open ear. I had to reject my feelings of hurt and anger, which were self-indulgent under the circumstances. I needed to clear my vision.

But even as I recognize the psychology involved in this change of perspective, I have to admit to its theological import. If anger had imprisoned me within myself, only love could free me, the love that is the gift of a merciful God.

When discussing the psychology of the desert monks, we must remember that for them God was at the center of it all. They disdained discussing theology, and while they often spoke about the importance of loving one’s neighbor, they did not specifically mention the love of God. But God was always their reference point. As John Eudes Bamberger has commented, the monks’ concerns were eminently practical, yet they were also directed at more than the psychological and social consequences of bad thoughts and actions. If their hearts and their lives were to mirror God’s pure and unconditional love, they needed to concern themselves with anything that clouded that divine image.

To Speak of Sin
A friend who is a monk, a scholar, and, like some contemporary Benedictines, the client of a psychiatrist and a user of psychotropics, once remarked that what we call “issues” the early monks called “demons” It’s probably not that simple, but I’m tempted to brandish my poetic license and say that he’s right. And what of sin?

Shouldn’t we dump the sick old theology that makes the depressed person feel not only worthless but evil as well? Of course, but we need to be clear about what we are doing, and recognize that this subject is likely to trigger an intense and also polarized response. Some people bristle at the suggestion that they be held in any way accountable for their mental states, while others regard a concern with underlying causes or motivations as an attempt to excuse bad behavior and evil acts.

The psychiatrist Karl Menninger, struggling with this dilemma in the latter half of the twentieth century, observed that even though one may detect the reasons behind a sin, this “does not correct its offensiveness, its destructiveness, its essential wrongness. If  “ignorance of the law excuses no one,” ignorance of the truth surely cannot absolve one from all sins of omission.

Call it sloth, acedia, apathy, indifference, laziness, callousness, or whatever — if refusal to learn permits the continuity of destructive evil, such willful ignorance is surely wrong. It may be, for example, that a person abuses a child because he or she suffered similar cruelty in childhood. This does not diminish the reality of pain for the child now undergoing the abuse, or in Menninger’s terms, its “wrongness.” And unless that wrong is named and addressed, its harmful effects will be passed on to future generations of innocent children.

By treating acedia as a sin, I am not suggesting that people bear responsibility for being overwhelmed by the medical condition diagnosed as depression, which is not a moral failing but an illness. Yet like any essayist, I am an explorer, and I mean to explore freely what I have experienced for most of my life as acedia —  in the light of literature, theology, psychology, and pharmacology. I need to essay, in all its senses —  try out, test, weigh, and probe the distinctions between the disease of depression and the vice of acedia. I suspect that an informed understanding of sin can assist us in sorting them out.

I regard sin as a viable concept, one that helps explain the mess we’ve made of our battered, embattled world, and the shambles we make of so many personal relationships. It’s the abuse of the doctrine that trips us up, as theologians and church leaders have often settled for a facile and narrow view of sin that leaves people either firmly convinced of their own virtue or resigned to believing that they are beyond redemption. I find it instructive that while the early monks tossed around the words “demons” and “bad thoughts” with abandon, they did not speak of sin.

Acedia is best understood not as one of the seven deadly sins, but as the eighth bad thought. Depression may well be one of its names, yet I sense that acedia contains something more than what we generally mean when we say that someone is depressed. I am in good company Both John Cassian and Thomas Aquinas recognized that acedia operates on the border between the physical and the spiritual life. They considered it both a sin and an ailment — a recurring theme in the history of acedia. As a remedy for the affliction, Thomas Aquinas recommended a hot bath, a glass of wine, and a good night’s sleep.

Certainly I am grateful for the great advances that have helped destigmatize mental illness and brought relief to millions, including my husband and me. Still, labeling despair as an illness may be less helpful than it seems. It’s a start in the right direction, but only that. We are at a primitive stage in determining the role of genetics and environment in influencing our behavior, and what we believe to be our enlightened and sophisticated understanding of the human character may prove, within a few short years, to be as primitive as Aristotle’s notion that four humors are the prime determinants of temperament.

Acedia and Vocation
The concept of acedia has always been closely linked with that of vocation. Acedia was, and remains, the monk’s most dangerous temptation, as it makes the life he has vowed to undertake seem foolish, if not completely futile. As one scholar has stated, the monk struggling with acedia is “dealing with more than bad moods, psychic fluctuations, or moral defeats.

It is a question of the resolve that arises in the wake of a decisive choice for which the monk has risked his life and to which he must hold . . . to realize [his] full potential in oneness with God. He has bet everything that he has and everything that he is on this.” Monastic people live with the tension of having to find meaning in a way of life that the world, for all the reverent lip service paid to “holy orders” considers largely anachronistic and useless. Artists can feel a similar disconnect, and many could no doubt identify with a caustic remark attributed to T. S. Eliot, to the effect that when all is said and done, the writer may realize that he has wasted his youth and wrecked his health for nothing.

Acedia has been observed in other areas in which the labor is long and the rewards are slow to appear, if they come at all. An article published in the 1960s, “Scientific Acedia” elaborates on the vice as “an occupational hazard among men of learning that takes the form of a general withdrawal of motivation for research and an increasing alienation from science.” Acedia is a danger to anyone whose work requires great concentration and discipline yet is considered by many to be of little practical value. The world does not care if I write another word, and if I am to care, I have to summon all my interior motivation and strength. But the demon of acedia is adept at striking when those resources are at a low ebb, as John Berryman notes:

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) Ever to confess you’re bored means you have no
Inner Resources? I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature.

One would expect that literature, especially great literature, would inspire a writer such as Berryman, or at least enhance his faith in the worthiness of his craft. But no, acedia insists, it’s just boring. Acedia’s genius is to seize us precisely where our hope lies, to tear away at the heart of who we are, and mock that which sustains us.

Liminal Acedia
Acedia’s liminal status in the history of Western culture, and in the Christian East, has allowed it to be a slippery operator, persistently eluding our attempts to comprehend it. Trying to talk about acedia is like trying to define a negative or grab a shadow. As the monks’ “eight bad thoughts” evolved into the Church’s “seven deadly sins,” and acedia was hidden within the sin of sloth, it played a terrible trick on us.

We came to regard sloth as an insignificant physical laziness, or a pleasant and even healthy lassitude. Evelyn Waugh acknowledges that most of us believe sloth to be “a mildly facetious variant of ‘indolence,’ and indolence, surely, so far from being a deadly sin, is one of the most amiable of weaknesses?’

But I wonder. Specifically, I wonder about our synonyms for laziness: listlessness, languor, lassitude, indolence. They sound harmless enough, a good, long stretch on plump pillows. Listlessness has a seductively soft sound, but at root it means being unable to desire, which is a cause, and a symptom, of serious mental distress. Languor derives from a Latin word meaning “to feel faint,” and lassitude from a word meaning “to fall forward because of weariness.  It is related to alas, connoting misfortune and unhappiness.

The harder sound of indolence clues us in to even more serious trouble. It is defined as “habitual laziness” and in its root we find a very bad habit indeed. Dolor is an ancient word for “pain” and indolence is the inability to feel it. We’ve now come close to the worst that acedia can do to us: not only does it make us unable to care, it takes away our ability to feel bad about that. If we can no longer weep, or desire, or feel pain and grief, well, that’s all right; we’ll settle for that, we’ll get by.

Whether there is a wily devil lurking out there or we have merely bedeviled ourselves with delusions concerning the true nature of sloth, I am intrigued that over the course of the last sixteen hundred years we managed to lose the word acedia, Maybe that’s one reason why, as we languish from spiritual drought, we are often unaware of what ails us. We spend greater sums on leisure but are more tense than ever, and hire lifestyle coaches to ease the stress. We turn away from the daily news, complaining of “compassion fatigue,” and enroll in classes to learn how to breathe and relax.

Increasingly, we need drugs in order to sleep. We are tempted to regard with reverence those dedicated souls who make themselves available “twenty-four/seven” and regard silence as unproductive, solitude as irresponsible. But when distraction be comes the norm, we are in danger of becoming immunized from feel ing itself, We are more likely to indulge in public spectacles of undemanding pseudo-care than address humanity’s immediate needs. Is it possible that in twenty-first-century America, acedia has come into its own? How can that be, when so few know its name?

If only it were as easy as shouting “Rumpelstiltskin” and watching the fiend dissolve in a rage around his fire. But acedia has been called by many names. To the ancient Greeks it was the black gall; to the fourth-century monks it was a vicious and tenacious temptation to despair. Petrarch called it the nameless woe, and Dante named it a sin. It became known to Robert Burton and others in the Renaissance as melancholy.

In Shakespeare, it is the boredom of Richard III, arguably as responsible as ambition in triggering his monstrous violence. Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope called it spleen; to Baudelaire, and to many writers in the years to follow, it was ennui. To Kierkegaard it was the soul turned into a Dead Sea, over which no bird can soar without falling to its death.

To the nineteenth-century French, it was the mal du siècle, or the illness of the age. To twentieth-century playwrights — Chekhov, Ionesco, and Albee among them — it fuels the acrimony that underlies domestic relationships, making us suspect that relationship itself is absurd and unworkable. Acedia is the place where we wait for Godot, and it is the state of waiting. It is the fashionably negative pose of ironic detachment, of valuing life as “less than Zero.”

I can hear scholars howling, with some justification, that I am mixing it all up, failing to make the necessary and proper distinctions. That is their job, not mine. I am deeply indebted to the work of Reinhard Kuhn, who in The Demon of Noontide: Ennui in Western Literature examines acedia’s baleful effects on the human spirit over many centuries. He finds that already in the literature of antiquity, “the seeds of the modern plague were present” noting echoes of Aristotle’s “black bile” in Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, the horror loci (fear of place) of Lucretius and Horace in Baudelaire’s “The Voyage” and Beckett’s tramps, and the squeamishness of Seneca’s Serenus in the nausea of Sartre’s Roquentin.

As for me, I need to tell a story. More than twenty years ago, not long after I had been surprised to find myself in the description of acedia made by a fourth-century monk, I conceived this book. I had no idea how long and painful the labor would be, or I might have rejected it from the start. But in conversations with my husband, David, who was also a poet, I began to work with the connections I was making between my experience of acedia and my experience as a writer.

David suggested that I look at Aldous Huxley’s essay “Accidie.” I tried interlibrary loan, but despite its author’s renown, this work, like much that has been written about acedia, was not easy to locate. It took some time to track it down, and when I did I found something that changed my life.

Kathleen Norris’ story is in Acedia & Me from which these reading selections are taken.

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  1. [...]  It is deeper than sloth and is so dangerous because it can destroy our trust in God.  This blog post includes extensive passages from Kathleen Norris‘ Acedia & Me.  I learned about the [...]

    • So many of my previous posts remain buried on PayingAttentiontotheSky but I take great delight when someone as intelligent as the creator of writerwithacause blog finds one of the better ones and passes it on. Much more of Kathleen Norris and other writers on Acedia here.


  2. In America magazine 211/13 Thomas Bushlack authored an article : The age of Skepticism. In it he quotes Josef Pieper on acedia for Pieper it’s a “deep seated lack of calm but the author states today it manifests itself in excessive busyness. What do you think? George.Mattice@gmail.com

    • I liked the article and will respond to in depth in the near future — experiencing a slight content bottleneck, so expect it after next week.


      • You must be still working…anyway, Ernie Kurtz, in Spirituality of Imperfection, says acedia probably meaning “self pity” and the America article says it’s about “busyness”.. also I’ve read Kathleen Norris’s book and loved it and I still wonder what acedia is (Also Bill Wilson talks about the 7 deadly sins but I can’t right now remember what acedia was for him..I’ll look it up) thanks for your consideration…reply briefly if you get time. George.mattice@gmail.com

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