Guest Column: Acedia – An Existential Solitude Towards Meaning

An unknown monk in solitude. Source. Pexels. Hakeem James Hausley, Photographer

by Edward Reid 

“He looks about anxiously this way and that, and sighs that none of the brethren come to see him, and often goes in and out of his cell, and frequently gazes up at the sun, as if it was too slow in setting, and so a kind of unreasonable confusion of mind takes possession of him like some foul darkness.”

This unusual and dark comment is depicted by the Desert Father John Cassian, innreference to the apathetic restlessness of Acedia, “the noonday demon”, in the Coenobitic monk:

Coenobitic monks came after the eremitic, which were more hermetical.  They found that kind of life too lonely and challenging, and if one was not spiritually prepared for that life, it could lead to mental breakdowns.  For this reason, organized monastic communities were established so that monks could have more support in their spiritual struggle.

Being amongst others did not stop the struggle with Acedia for many monks in their spiritual quests, nor would it ever stop the battle for us in the modern era.  In Ancient Greece, Acedia originally meant indifference or carelessness along the lines of its etymological meaning of lack of care.  Yet, in early Christianity, the demon of Acedia holds an important place, especially in early monastic demonology and proto-psychology. In the late fourth century, Evagrius of Pontus, for example, characterizes it as, “the most troublesome of all” of the eight genera of evil thoughts.

Reading the Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church ” we will find that by the early 5th century, the word had become a technical term in Christian asceticism, signifying a state of restlessness and inability either to work or to pray.  ” Not only monks and theologians spoke of the vice, but it appears in the writings of laymen as well. It even makes its appearance in Dante’s Divine Comedy not only as a sin to be punished in the damned but as the sin that leads Dante to the edge of Hell, to begin with.  

The start of it all begins with his indifference and sloth in religious matters.  Dante thought he was “okay” since he wasn’t really doing anything wrong, but he was not paying attention to his life.  He was careless and “drugged and loose with” sleep.  In short, he was not watching where he was going, and he was apathetic.  In short as well, he did not appreciate his life.

In the medieval Latin tradition of the seven deadly sins, Acedia has generally been folded into the sin of sloth.  Sloth gets us to the edge. The Benedictine Rule directed that a monk displaying the outward signs of Acedia that he should, “be reproved a first and a second time. If he does not amend, this he must be subjected to the punishment of the rule so that the others may have fear.”

In some cases, it may be so severe that the only correction may be alleviating the physical.  Tormenting our actual flesh may be a reprieve from mental anguish.  This kind of reaction sounds similar to modern-day “self-harm”. Ut ceteri timeant: The Rule of Benedict 48: 19 20 advises that “The symptoms of psychic pain would be driven out with physical pain”.

We see the seriousness of Acedia even early in history, and it is identified in western civilization and Christianity as something that affects humanity.  It is part of our human condition.  This “noon-day demon” already affected men from the beginning and with this, it would evolve into different names and coping mechanisms.  

Chaucer’s parson includes Acedia in his list of vices. It follows anger and envy in the list, and the parson connects the three vices together: “For Envye blindeth the herte of a man, and Ire troubleth a man; and Accidie maketh him hevy, thoghtful, and wrawe. Envye and Ire maken bitternese in herte; which bitternesse is moder of Accidie, and binimeth him the love of alle goodnesse.”

Pieter Jalhea Furnius, Luiheid, from Zeven doodzonden, 1550-1625

We see it in “The Summa Theologiae or Summa Theologica”, the best-known work of Thomas Aquinas. It is a compendium of all of the main theological teachings of the Catholic Church, intended to be an instructional guide for theology students, including seminarians and the literate laity. It sets out to present the reasoning for almost all points of Christian theology in the West.  It is indeed one of the most critical documents in Christianity. 

In this work, Aquinas identifies Acedia with “the sorrow of the world” that “worketh death” and contrasts it with that sorrow “according to God” described by St. Paul in 2 Cor. 7:10. For Aquinas, Acedia is “sorrow about spiritual good in as much as it is a Divine good”.

It becomes a mortal sin when reason consents to man’s “flight” from the Divine good, “on account of the flesh utterly prevailing over the spirit.”. Acedia is essentially a flight from the divine that leads to not even caring about anything at all. The ultimate expression of this is despair that ends in suicide.

Here we see in Aquinas a more humane, sympathetic, and more moderate view of this condition.  Quite possibly, he sees it not so much as a sinful matter unless the individual lets himself become overwhelmed with it.  Letting the “flesh utterly prevail over the spirit”.  So indeed, there may be a way to deviate from this path before it is too late with the ultimate expression, suicide.  

Acedia, as a term, all but died out in common usage by the beginning of the 20th century. “In the 1933 Oxford English Dictionary, accidie was confidently declared obsolete, with references dating from 1520 and 1730. But considering what would happen in the 20th century, with the mass devastation and genocide, accidie would revive in the writings of authors such as Aldous Huxley and Ian Fleming, no longer exclusive property of theologians. 

In a world that brought on such unneeded tragedies as the “Great War” decimating a generation while both sides were fighting for God, it is no wonder why society would question their humanity, and terms like Acedia would reappear.  Out of that came a people, religious with questions as to why this could happen? Wasn’t God on our side?  Where is he? 

Aldous Huxley wrote an essay on Acedia called “Accidie”. As a non-Christian, he examines “the noonday demons” original delineation by the Desert Fathers and concludes that it is one of the primary diseases of the modern age.  Could it still be today?  Maybe we have just renamed it as we have done many words in our vocabulary over time.  

Depression, anxiety, listlessness, and overall demoralization.  Does this sound familiar in our “modern age” as Huxley identified in his examination?  This “Acedia”, has always been around, apparently. Yet, a sin?  I am not sure except in excess or possibly when you abuse the condition. 

How does one deal with this?  Today many of us take prescriptions, abuse drugs, go to therapy, and so on.  Some deal with and accept it and, well, live miserable lives, sometimes to the detriment of others.  Alas, in the more severe cases, men and women will make the ultimate sacrifice to escape this “demon” that they feel will never stop haunting them.

For someone that is spiritual and that is a believer, this could feel like disconnection and abandonment.  Being adrift or lost in a desert far from your faith that you once knew.  Ultimately this could lead to the abandonment of religion altogether. 

William James, the father of American philosophy, was quite a spiritual man.  He was active well before the advent of the horrors of the 20th century, though.  In his book “Varieties of Religious Experiences” he was able to identify, at least in his experience, two different kinds of living and engaging.  Two of different make-ups really, the “Sick Souls” and the “Healthy Minds”.

John Kaag writes, “James’s entire philosophy, from beginning to end, was geared to save a life, his life”.  In his “Will to Believe” essay it is designed to be a defense of religious faith in the absence of conclusive logical argumentation or scientific evidence.  

“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1.  Kierkegaard states; “In order to swim one takes off all one’s clothes–in order to aspire to the truth one must undress in a far more inward sense, divest oneself of all one’s inward clothes, of thoughts, conceptions, selfishness etc., before one is sufficiently naked.”

Absurdity and the Leap of Faith Kierkegaard suggests here may be the importance of such a journey as well. Kierkegaard wisely implies that the “truth” we so adamantly search for lies outside the ready-made conceptions of our understanding of the world in which we exist.

James defends as best he can his rational and logical arguments and does well.  All of his life, Kierkegaard did the same and concluded that faith itself could be of the absurd, but it is our best choice, something I, as a believer, agree with.  I support the philosophies of both James and Kierkegaard.  

There can be rational and absurd reasons for having faith.  This in itself is a paradox, but life is a paradox, and all of us must find meaning in something.  The absurd becomes reasonable when I see goodness exemplified.

For me, I do find goodness exemplified when I look for it.  Not in the news, the “Christians” the media shows, but the followers of Jesus in action, the ones that we don’t often see or hear, because that is not what they are not how they live.  “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips.”

”Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your hand with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Maybe loving God first, although reasonably absurd for some, gives you meaning, and then loving your neighbor as yourself rescues you from despair, such as Acedia or whatever we may call it today.  

From reading Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”, a concentration camp survivor, a philosopher, and a psychotherapist, one passage always stood out to me. “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts, comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

These seemed like the real Jesus followers, although they may not have been at all.  But in my mind, in the essence of their actions and in what they did, I felt they acted in the way followers of Christ would act.  

Frankl already, in 1970, when talking with students, coined the term “existential vacuum”.  Perhaps we had too much Freud, and we believed that our problems and our lives resulted from repressed sexual frustrations going back to our mother.  

If that was all our life was about, repressed sexual frustrations and our mother, maybe life was not worth much.  Maslow referred to this as an abyss experience.  Our core, our soul, our innermost being was empty.

This is a real sense of meaninglessness, and again I could go back to Acedia if I challenged this on a spiritual level.  Frankl also writes at this time that the students he spoke with were acting out sexually. They were trying to fill a void.  Much of this has not changed. It has just become more accessible because of technology. 

In my opinion, we are filling that “void” whether sexually or in other ways related to the abyss experience.  In the abyss, we have to latch onto something to give us some meaning.  We choose what that is, healthy or not. 

Frankl finds that their education enforces the way that the students feel.  Education must equip man with the means to find meaning.  Emptiness and meaninglessness are enforced by the education taught – in a scientific and reductionist manner—a mechanistic theory followed by relativism. 

Oh, how Frankl was ahead of his time.  Who better to listen to than a man that lost all of his family and survived a concentration camp.  How often do we take advice from people that have no experience or listen to those with motives?  Wisdom often comes from failing and learning from those failures.  Such as who we should listen to regarding some of the most determining parts of our lives.

If we are taught that we are mere objects that will one day oxidize or decay, then what is the point?  William Irwin Thompson wrote, “Humans are not objects that exist as chairs or tables; they live, and they find that their lives are reduced to the mere existence of chairs and tables, they commit suicide”. 

Isn’t this more of evolutionary thinking and where our society is now?  And what happens when people believe they are just objects?  It is not just about them being objects; it is also about others, how they treat others.  There may no longer be a sense of moral duty in this regard.  If people have no meaning, then it doesn’t matter how they deal with them.

As an individual, so is society, and so they can also be assessed in many ways psychologically and morally.  Acedia can push people, anyone, people once that were believers so far from God and grace to have their boredom/depression manifest into a hatred of morality, to despise what God has given them, to balk, and then proceed into the worldly belief that they are nothing and with that, there are no rules; they are free to what they want.   

There’s a famous passage from “The Grand Inquisitor” section of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in which Ivan Karamazov claims that if God does not exist, then everything is permitted. If there is no God, then there are no rules to live by, no moral law we must follow; we can do whatever we want.

And it does seem that Dostoevsky, the moralist himself, was not much of a man to follow the law he wrote about, but perhaps we are all hypocrites in our way. 

«I can’t say that Dostoevsky was a good or a happy person… He was mean, corrupt and full of jealousy. His entire life he was a victim of passion, which would have made him ridiculous and miserable, if he had been less intelligent and less mean.  In Switzerland, right before my eyes, he treated his servant so badly that the man revolted and exclaimed ‘…but I too am a human being!’  I remember the impression that those words gave me… addressed to someone who always taught humane feelings to the rest of mankind”. These words belong to Strachov, a man who knew Dostoevsky quite well. 

Without a moral code or some form or prescribed law living inflicted with Acedia, to do unto others what one may not want to be done unto themselves or even perhaps within that state not even care or want to be done to them, it is easier to perpetrate acts against others.  Acedia could and possibly is a widespread condition of our time that could be remedied by sharing the words and the stories of the men and women who changed history with how they lived.  The ones who did have a moral code of some sort, so we may understand them and possibly follow in their steps.  

Possibly the nameless ones in the camps, the ones Frankl reminds us of.  Indeed, that was not boredom, melancholy…  Acadia, but Hell, and they lived uncompromisingly unfettered genuine brotherly love.  These men did not live and die in the manner of those today, succumbing to the nihilistic ideal settling down over our civilization.  Perhaps some could and would say, who cares?  Indeed ,I care, and the millions that read Frankl care and have taken those stories to heart.  

I will always believe that giving is better than receiving.  Getting out of yourself is one of the best remedies for when you are feeling down.  We will always face hardship, and Acedia may be one of the hardships that have been primarily forgotten, but it seems to be an actual condition.  A condition we may face but also may have techniques to overcome.  Remedies to, in a sense, get well, maybe over time, but it is possible as an individual and a society.  

After all, Frankl also wrote that “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”  Maybe, not just seeing Acadia or any form of hardship for that matter as something just to endure, but something as a means to find significance in could make us all better individuals and a better society.