Acedia

By Jonathan Zecher, Australian Catholic University

With some communities in rebooted lockdown conditions and movement restricted everywhere else, no one is posting pictures of their sourdough. Zoom cocktail parties have lost their novelty, Netflix can only release so many new series. The news seems worse every day, yet we compulsively scroll through it.

We get distracted by social media, yet have a pile of books unread. We keep meaning to go outside but somehow never find the time. We’re bored, listless, afraid and uncertain.

What is this feeling?

The Noonday Demon

John Cassian, a monk and theologian wrote in the early fifth century about an ancient Greek emotion called acedia. A mind ‘seized’ by this emotion is ‘horrified at where he is, disgusted with his room … It does not allow him to stay still in his cell or to devote any effort to reading’. He feels:

such bodily listlessness and yawning hunger as though he were worn by a long journey or a prolonged fast … Next he glances about and sighs that no one is coming to see him. Constantly in and out of his cell, he looks at the sun as if it were too slow in setting.[1]

Cassian and other early Christians called acedia ‘the noonday demon’, and sometimes described it as a ‘train of thought’. It was both an external force and an internal disorder, but they did not think it affected city-dwellers or even monks in communities. Rather, acedia arose directly out the spatial and social constrictions that a solitary monastic life necessitates. These conditions generate a strange combination of listlessness, undirected anxiety, and inability to concentrate. Together these cognitive and bodily states make up the paradoxical emotion of acedia.

Cassian’s description of acedia sounds eerily familiar. Yet, the name that so aptly describes our current state was lost to time and translation.

Image from Odilon Redon's series Tentation de saint Antoine from 1896
Image from Odilon Redon’s series Tentation de saint Antoine (1896). Wikimedia Commons

The Rise and Fall of Acedia

Emotional expressions, norms, and scripts change over time and vary between cultures. They mark out constellations of bodily sensations, patterns of thought and perceived social causes or effects. Since these constellations are culturally or socially specific, as societies change, so do the emotions in their repertoire. The shifting fortunes of acedia are visible in its incorporation and eventual disappearance in lists of passions, or emotions.

Evagrius of Pontus included acedia among the eight trains of thought that needed to be overcome by devout Christians. Among these, acedia was considered the most insidious. It attacked only after monks had conquered the sins of gluttony, fornication, avarice, sadness, anger, vainglory and pride.

Cassian, a student of Evagrius, translated the list of sins into Latin, but simply transliterated acedia. His sense was that Latin had no direct counterpart for this word and the emotional states it denoted. In the sixth century Gregory the Great edited Cassian’s list into the famous Seven Deadly Sins. In this list, acedia was joined with tristitia (‘sadness’ or ‘grief’) into indolentia, or ‘sloth’, a word we now associate with laziness.

Nevertheless, acedia continued to appear throughout monastic and other literature of the Middle Ages. It was a key part of the emotional vocabulary of the Byzantine Empire, and can be found in all sorts of lists of ‘passions’ (or, emotions) in medical literature and lexicons, as well as theological treatises and sermons. Outside of Evagrius’s ‘Eight Thoughts’, acedia appears most commonly as a species of distress or sadness (Greek, lupê; Latin, dolor/aegritudo).

Of course, by the Enlightenment, Byzantine literature was hardly popular or well regarded, and ‘monkish’ terms came to have an archaic, regressive aura about them. With the decline of theological moralising, not to mention monastic influence, acedia has largely disappeared from secular vocabularies. Thus, unlike some of its ancient companions like anger, hatred, desire, and greed, acedia no longer appears in lists of passions by Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan I.6) John Locke (Essay Concerning Human Understanding II.20), Renée Descartes (Passions of the Soul 69), Baruch Spinoza (Ethics, III.Definitions of Emotions.1-48), or others. Later, as the rise of clinical psychology reclassified emotions and mental states, terms like ‘melancholy’ came to sound archaic and moralising.

Image of Melancholia I by Albrecht Dürer from 1514
Albrecht Dürer, Melancholia I (1514), Wikimedia Commons

The Desert Returns

Now, however, the pandemic and governmental responses to it create social conditions that approximate those of desert monks. No demons, perhaps, but social media offers a barrage of bad (or misleading) news. Social distancing limits physical contact. Lockdown constricts physical space and movement. Working from home or having lost work entirely both upend routines and habits. In these conditions, perhaps it’s time to bring back the term.

Reviving the language of acedia is important to our experience in two ways. First, it distinguishes the complex of emotions brought on by enforced isolation, constant uncertainty and the barrage of bad news from clinical terms like ‘depression’ or ‘anxiety’. Saying, ‘I’m feeling acedia’ could legitimise feelings of listlessness and anxiety as valid emotions in our current context without inducing guilt that others have things worse.

Second, and more importantly, the feelings associated with physical isolation are exacerbated by emotional isolation – that terrible sense that this thing I feel is mine alone. When an experience can be named, it can be communicated and even shared. Learning to express new or previously unrecognised constellations of feelings, sensations, and thoughts, builds an emotional repertoire, which assists in emotional regulation. Did we take pleasure in another’s pain before we heard about Schadenfreude from Avenue Q? Did we know that we love to be cuddled and warm and safe until we learned the Danish word, hygge? Of course. However, naming and expressing experiences allows us to claim some agency in dealing with them.

As we, like Cassian’s desert monks, struggle through our own ‘long, dark teatime of the soul’, we can name this experience, which is now part of our emotional repertoire.

 

Jonathan Zecher is a Research Fellow at Australian Catholic University who studies early Christian asceticism, the medical cultures of late antiquity, and traditions of prayer and spiritual practice in Byzantium and Eastern Orthodox Christianity.


[1] St John Cassian, The Institutes, translated and annotated by Boniface Ramsey. Mahwah, N.J.:  Newman Press of the Paulist Press, 2000, pp. 219–20.

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