The Seven Deadly Sins in a Digital Age: 4. Sloth
December 1, 2014
When we come to the subject of Sloth in a Digital Age, the diagnosis might seem obvious, if a tad moralistic. We are all familiar with the couch potato glued to the TV screen, or the teenager who neglects his homework for video games, or her homework for Instagram. In the modern world, we are taught to work only for the sake of attaining leisure, and digital media have become our favorite source of leisure. The vice of sloth, then, we deem, is the sin of laziness, of failing to be as productive as God calls us to be.
For all its apparent familiarity, though, perhaps none of the traditional vices is so unfamiliar to us as Sloth. Indeed, our English word is quite insufficient; the actual Latin name for the vice is acedia, a word for which there is really no good translation. Aquinas's formal definition of the vice--"sorrow for spiritual good"--will probably only confuse us still further. But let us try to unpack it. "Sloth," says Aquinas, "is an oppressive sorrow, which . . . so weighs upon man's mind, that he wants to do nothing" (ST IIaIIae Q. 35 a. 1 resp.). More specifically, it is "sorrow in the Divine good about which charity rejoices" (ST IIaIIae Q. 35 a. 2 resp.). "Sorrow" here means less an active sadness and more an apathetic lack of love and joy, above all, a lack of joy in God, a disposition that is deadly indeed.
For the love of all truly good things drives us toward God the source of all good, and the love of God, in turn, points us back to the richest earthly goods as sources of genuine delight. When our love for God turns to apathy, we will find our capacity for such delight running dry, replaced instead by the aimless questing after momentary pleasures, distractions, and stimulations. The resulting spiritual condition is the deadliest of all, as C.S. Lewis describes profoundly in one of the most chilling passages of the Screwtape Letters, which is worth quoting at some length:
In this state your patient will not omit, but he will increasingly dislike, his religious duties. He will think about them as little as he feels he decently can beforehand, and forget them as soon as possible when they are over... He will want his prayers to be unreal, for he will dread nothing so much as effective contact with the Enemy. His aim will be to let sleeping worms lie.
As this condition becomes more fully established, you will be gradually freed from the tiresome business of providing Pleasures as temptations. As the uneasiness and his reluctance to face it cut him off more and more from all real happiness, and as habit renders the pleasures of vanity and excitement and flippancy at once less pleasant and harder to forgo (for that is what habit fortunately does to a pleasure) you will find that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his wondering attention. You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday's paper will do. You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but in conversations with those he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him. You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. All the healthy and out-going activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at last he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, 'I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.' The Christians describe the Enemy as one 'without whom Nothing is strong.' And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man's best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heels, in whistling tunes that he does not like, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off" (1996 ed., pp. 59-60).
It is hard to read this passage without a shudder, and yet much of what Lewis describes here is all too familiar to our daily experience. How many of us know the experience of whiling away an evening on our laptops aimlessly following a series of ever more trivial and uninteresting links, while beside us sits a book we had been longing to read or a spouse we had been longing to talk to. How many of us know what it's like to spend a social gathering constantly checking our smartphones to see if something more interesting is happening elsewhere, or in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that we are only half aware of them, and only after we leave to realize with a pang of regret that we'd failed to engage in a single meaningful conversation. I have seen a family of five sit down together on a train and each pull out their iPhone or iPad, preferring its company to the loved ones in front of them.
Of course, it might seem like undue alarmism to worry about such banal distractibility. Screwtape anticipates this objection:
"You will say these are very small sins... [But] it does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one--the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts" (pp. 60-61).
Ours is an age of acedia. Indeed, though obviously not new, there is perhaps no sin so modern. Our pharmacies are full of drugs treating depression, our offices are full of motivational posters which try to persuade us our work is worth doing, and our films are full of characters who wander listlessly through life seeking petty pleasures to distract them from the meaninglessness of it all--Richard Linklater's recent masterpiece Boyhood, whatever else we might say of it, is surely a powerful illustration of this modern condition. No doubt this is all partly a symptom of the death of God, and our culture's uneasy conscience about our complicity in that death, and our incomplete efforts to bury Him. After all, Lewis begins this passage by suggesting that it is usually a "vague cloud of half-conscious guilt" that leads Christians into this slothful state.
But we should not overlook the role of our consumption patterns, in which a paralyzing proliferation of choices renders us increasingly indisposed to spend long enough on any one pleasure to develop a true and deep appreciation for it. We have been increasingly programmed to be semi-detached grazers and gazers, and with the advent of the internet and other digital technologies, this trend has accelerated dramatically, as Nicholas Carr documents in The Shallows. But if sloth is a spiritual sin, a matter of failing to seek the face of God, how exactly does this matter? To be sure, the compulsive shopper, or gamer, or Facebooker, may be trying to fill the God-sized hole in their life, or to drown out His summons with a white noise of frenetic triviality. But as with all vices and virtues, there is something of a feedback loop at work here. The more we take refuge in distraction, the more habituated we become to mere stimulation and the more desensitized to delight. We lose our capacity to stop and ponder something deeply, to admire something beautiful for its own sake, to lose ourselves in the passion for a game, a story, or a person. And as Lewis notes in the Screwtape Letters, every such passion or deeply felt pleasure, everything that truly draws us out of ourselves to contemplate the wonders that God has put into the world, is a step toward God, and makes the demons shudder.
The vicious circle of acedia, then, can move in either direction. Either we, out of fear and guilt, lose our delight in God the source of all good, and thus begin to lose our delight in all the goods he has given us, till we care less and less for anyone or anything, and lose ourselves in momentary diversions, which then become the only "pleasures" we know. Or we begin to thoughtlessly habituate ourselves to the ecosystems of distraction that surround us, until we begin to forget what it might feel like to truly attend to a poem or a person; our capacity for deep enjoyment thus destroyed, we quickly lose the capacity to enjoy the One who demands the most sustained attention of all. And it is not hard to see that either way, this vice of acedia, particularly in our digital age, leads naturally into each of the others we have discussed already--the Lust and Gluttony that have merged with "curiosity" to keep us hooked on novelty with ever-diminishing returns, and the spirit of Greed that turns us in upon ourselves to create our own little virtual world.
The way out of this vicious circle, then, requires effort in both directions. We must seek to re-ignite our love for God by worship, prayer, reading, and meditation. And yet we will constantly find our minds clouded in the attempt if we are living slothful lives of perpetual distraction. We should consciously cultivate a grateful enjoyment of the wholesome pleasures of beauty and knowledge and friendship that God has surrounded us with, rather than grazing restlessly in search of something else that might divert for a moment. And the more capable we are of taking joy in the goods that come from God, the more we will be drawn in gratitude back to joyful fellowship with Him.
Brad Littlejohn holds a Ph.D from the University of Edinburgh and is the Managing Editor of Political Theology Today, the General Editor of The Mercersburg Theology Study Series and can be found writing regularly at bradlittlejohn.com