Thursday, April 10, 2014

Sloth (the "Nothing" Vice)

The Ant and the Sluggard at Harvest (Proverbs 6: 6-11)

Go to the ant, O sluggard, study her ways and learn wisdom;
For though she has no chief, no commander or ruler,
She procures her food in the summer, stores up her provisions in the harvest.
How long, O sluggard, will you lie there? When will you rise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the arms to rest—
Then poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like a brigand.

I'll begin by saying that this was a tough one for me.  Like most people, I probably looked upon Sloth as something not-so-great, but not intuitively or necessarily a "deadly" or "capital" sin or vice.  As usual, I had a lot to learn.  I always knew that Sloth is more than simple laziness, but I was never sure just why and just how much more.  So, before I went in depth into what the bible, the ancients, and the Church Fathers/Doctors had to say, I challenged myself to come up with a compendium of Sloth's impact.  Like all the Capital Vices, you can come at it from a secular or a "religious" angle and you will get the same basic result: it is a bad thing that leads to more bad things and makes you less than what you should be.  When you add the "generic" bad things to the spiritual bad things, it becomes easy to see how Sloth came to be held as one of the big seven.

~~  “[Sloth is] the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.”   --Dorothy Sayers  ~~

That quote really resonates with me... Sloth is the "nothing" vice.  In general, we are talking about a vice that leads us to avoid what we ought to be doing in favor of... anything else.  Some have called it a "sluggishness of the mind" which neglects to begin doing good.  Sloth's Latin equivalent is Acedia (Greek Akedia) - which means the "I don't care feeling."  That is a good place to start, because essentially if we really cared about the good thing we were supposed to be doing, then we would do it.  This immediately shows us that Sloth is much deeper than mere "laziness."  You could say that, even if Sloth is not actively "sinning," per se, it is acting to smother the virtues by preventing their acts.

"Through sloth, the rafters sag; when hands are slack, the house leaks."  Ecclesiastes 10: 18

At the risk of sounding audacious, I think Sloth is the very thing that keeps all of us-- to a relative extent-- from achieving all that we can.  François duc de La Rochefoucauld (pretty smart guy, for a Frenchman) said that "the mind attaches itself by idleness and habit to whatever is easy or pleasant," thereby preventing us from enlarging and expanding our mind to its full capacity.  For a quick self-test, ask yourself if you can think of a time when you delayed (or simply avoided altogether) doing something that needed to be done by telling yourself that it was just "too difficult" or "too time-consuming."  That is what we often do (and always have).  How many good and noble things have I not done in my life, due to a vexatious tendency to talk myself out of it because of Sloth's insidious influence?

~~  “We excuse our sloth under the pretext of difficulty.”  --Marcus Fabius Quintilian  ~~

The lengths that Sloth will go to vary among individuals, but the general effect is universal.  Sloth would have us think that the practice of doing good and righteous things is filled with difficulties and so, as St. Thomas Aquinas said, we begin to "chafe under the perceived restraints imposed by the Virtues."  As we Christians know, the true way is narrow and Sloth uses that truth to lead us to (falsely) see it as also long and weary.  No wonder that our mind and soul grow sluggish at the thought of such a painful journey.  Next thing you know, the very idea of living rightly-- of doing all we ought to do-- does not inspire joy in us, but instead, other things... maybe disgust and sorrow.

"Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin."  James 4: 17

Now, man shuns things that cause sorrow- even if those things are, in themselves, good and spiritual.  It follows that Sloth would be a sin since the "sorrow" is borne of not wanting to do the good things that one ought to do. Also, since it is a "sorrow," it is opposed to joy.  That alone is worth remembering.  True joy, not transitory feelings like pleasure, can come only from true good.  According to Aristotle, a man who shuns good things will move to other things that give him pleasure: thus "those who find no joy in spiritual pleasures, have recourse to pleasures of the body."  Plainly: Sloth is troublesome since it is essentially the opposition of the flesh to the spirit.

~~  “That destructive siren, sloth, is ever to be avoided.”  --Horace  ~~

There it is, then.  There is how Sloth earns a spot in the top seven.  If I am sorrowful and distressed at the prospect of what I must do to be truly good and keep my friendship with God, then that is directly opposed to the high virtue of Charity.  Taken to its full potential, I would be violating the greatest of the Commandments:  "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind, and with thy whole might."  James made it crystal clear that working on doing what is good and right is the surest sign of fidelity to the Almighty.

"But someone may well say, 'You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.'"  James 2: 18

Speaking of work, how about a topic that is timely and relevant to modern society.  What of those (generations) whom Sloth has brought to live off the public dole?  I'm not referring to anyone legitimately unable to work (or find work).  No, I mean the folks who have become virtual wards of the state, and who do not do the right thing by providing for themselves.  It may be government abetted Sloth... but it is Sloth, nonetheless.  Oh, and lest we think our generation is the only one to deal with this topic-- let's not forget that it is as old as humanity... because the Capital Vices are as old as humanity.  The bible is rife with warnings and recriminations against all kinds of Sloth, including the "welfare state" kind.  Here are two examples from the New Testament:

"In fact, when we were with you, we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat."  2 Thessalonians 3: 10

"And whoever does not provide for relatives and especially family members has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever."  1 Timothy 5: 8

We must, of course, spend a moment covering Sloth's progeny.  We know that all of the big seven lead to other vices, so let's see about Sloth.  St. Gregory the Great assigns six "daughters" to Sloth:  "malice, spite, faint-heartedness, despair, sluggishness in regard to the commandments, and wandering of the mind after unlawful things."  That listing seems rightly assigned to me, if not exhaustive.  Other thinkers have added a few others, among them idleness and restlessness.  I would add the potential to harm one's physical self by too much "down time."  I would also consider the viral effect that Sloth can produce-- it is not just the personal things that affect me that are endangered by Sloth.  What about all of the wrongs out there that I am not fighting against because Sloth has me in a headlock?

~~  "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."  --Edmond Burke  ~~

Effectively fighting this vice might look a bit different than the ways we combat some other sins.  St. John Cassian famously said "Experience shows that the onslaught of sloth is not to be evaded by flight but to be conquered by resistance."  I take that to be a common sense approach, considering that the nature of Sloth is to ease its way into our lives and overtake our will.  That is something that will only be overcome by creating and maintaining good habits and effective mental models.  Thank God for our weapons: Fortitude will keep us moving when Justice and Prudence tell us we should, because Temperance announced that we had rested long enough.  Faith will embrace us because we worked in its name and in the name of Charity.  Finally, in response to the "sorrow" we might feel at the narrow and long road of righteousness, Hope will shine its bright light to show us that it's not really so hard, after all.

Of course, the simple answer is to just "get busy," right?  After all, Ben Franklin himself said “Sloth makes all things difficult, but industry all easy."  I would insert a small caveat, though, to remind us that "busy" alone is not a solution to this vice.  Busy in what we ought to be busy in is the real key.  For example, Francis Bacon asserted that to spend too much time in studies is a form of Sloth.  It is not, although it may seem at first, counter-intuitive that "being busy" can also mean "being slothful;" especially when considered in light of all the above.  One can be "busy" sleeping, eating, talking, walking, studying, etc., etc., etc.  Although none of those activities are in and of themselves bad or "sinful," all of that "busy-ness" becomes Sloth when it becomes inordinate... and, mostly, when it gets in the way of the thing(s) we ought to be doing.

St. Paul sends us along with a cheerful antidote to the poison of old Mr. Sloth:

"Therefore, my beloved brothers, be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain."  1 Corinthians 15: 58

God bless!



Anonymous Jess said...

So great! I never thought past laziness here, but I see it so clearly now. Thanks!

12/4/14 01:40  

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