Acedia is in many ways the vice of our age, but it is almost entirely unknown. In this article we’ll look at the classic definition of acedia by the great theologian of the Egyptian Desert Fathers, Evagrius of Pontus, and a modern commentary on the definition by poet and author Kathleen Norris from her excellent book Acedia & me.
The demon of acedia—also called the noonday demon—is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all. He presses his attack upon the monk about the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour [or lunchtime], to look this way and now that to see if perhaps [one of the brethren appears from his cell]. Then too he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labor. He leads him to reflect that charity has departed from among the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. Should there be someone at this period who happens to offend him in some way or other, this too the demon uses to contribute further to his hatred. This demon drives him along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life’s necessities, more readily find work and make a real success of himself. He goes on to suggest that, after all, it is not the place that is the basis of pleasing the Lord. God is to be adored everywhere. He joins to these reflections the memory of his dear ones and of his former way of life. He depicts life stretching out for a long period of time, and brings before the mind’s eye the toil of the ascetic struggle and, as the saying has it, leaves no leaf unturned to induce the monk to forsake his cell and drop out of the fight. No other demon follows close upon the heels of this one (when he is defeated) but only a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy arise out of this struggle.
Evagrius Ponticus (345–399), The Praktikos
Standard dictionary definitions of acedia as “apathy,” “boredom,” or “torpor” do not begin to cover it, and while we may find it convenient to regard it as a more primitive word for what we now term depression, the truth is much more complex. Having experienced both conditions, I think it likely that much of the restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating despair that plagues us today is the ancient demon of acedia in modern dress. The boundaries between depression and acedia are notoriously fluid; at the risk of oversimplifying, I would suggest that while depression is an illness treatable by counseling and medication, acedia is a vice that is best countered by spiritual practice and the discipline of prayer.
At its Greek root, the word acedia means the absence of care. The person afflicted by acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn. That it hurts to care is borne out in etymology, for care derives from an Indo-European word meaning “to cry out,” as in a lament. Caring is not passive, but an assertion that no matter how strained and messy our relationships can be, it is worth something to be present, with others, doing our small part. Care is also required for the daily routines that acedia would have us suppress or deny as meaningless repetition or too much bother.
More than twenty years ago I first encountered the word acedia in The Praktikos, a book by the fourth-century Christian monk Evagrius Ponticus. Across a distance of sixteen hundred years he spoke clearly of the inner devastation caused by the demon of acedia when it “[made] it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long.” Boredom tempts him “to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine [the lunch hour].” But Evagrius soon discovers that this seemingly innocuous activity has an alarming and ugly effect, for having stirred up a restlessness that he is unable to shake, the demon taunts him with the thought that his efforts at prayer and contemplation are futile. Life then looms like a prison sentence, day after day of nothingness.
One of the first symptoms of both acedia and depression is the inability to address the body’s basic daily needs. It is also a refusal of repetition. Showering, shampooing, brushing the teeth, taking a multivitamin, going for a daily walk, as unremarkable as they seem, are acts of self-respect. They enhance the ability to take pleasure in oneself, and in the world. But the notion of pleasure is alien to acedia, and one becomes weary thinking about doing anything at all. It is too much to ask, one decides, sinking back on the sofa. This indolence exacts a high price.
It amazes me how quickly acedia can deaden what has long been a pleasure for me, and with what facility despair will replace the joy I once found in the act of reading. But my dilemma is less literary than spiritual. If my torpor is left unchecked, I lose the ability to savor not only reading, but life itself. I develop a loathing for fresh food, letting salad greens and strawberries languish in the refrigerator while I fill up on popcorn.
If only I could so easily free myself from the lion of acedia! Often I can. But if I become too weary, I can care for so little that it becomes hard to care even whether I live or die. I need help to learn to see again, and to reclaim my life through ordinary acts: washing my hair, as well as the dishes in the sink, and walking out of doors to enjoy the breeze on my neck. I may attempt to regain my ability to concentrate by taking on a good book of poetry. And I certainly will answer that ringing phone. Even if it is someone calling over a trivial or annoying matter, our conversation will have the salutary effect of reconnecting me with another. When I stop running from my life, I can return to living it, willing to be present again, in the present moment. But this means embracing those routine and repetitive activities that I tend to scorn.
Acedia may spring from physical weariness, but ultimately it is the spiritual phenomenon of “aversion of the appetite from its own good,” specifically an “aversion against God himself. . . . It is the opposite of the joy in the divine good that [we] should experience.” The person afflicted with acedia, even if she knows what is spiritually good for her, is tempted to deny that her inner beauty and spiritual strength are at her disposal, as gifts from God. [Thomas Aquinas made the following distinction between acedia and despair:] “For despair, participation in the divine nature through grace is perceived as appealing, but impossible; for acedia, the prospect is possible, but unappealing.”
Acedia, Evagrius insisted, is a weariness of soul that “instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, [and] a hatred for manual labor,” which in the early monastic world was always linked with prayer. We may not think of prayer or manual labor as essential for our well-being, but “hatred for the place” is a thoroughly modern condition. In a consumer culture we are advised to keep our options open, so that we are always free to grab the new, improved model when it appears. It is not easy for us to recognize acedia in ourselves, as it prompts us to see obligations to family, friends, and colleagues as impediments to that freedom. There are situations, as in the case of abusive relationships, when seeking a change is the right course of action. But often it is acedia that urges us, for no good reason, to fantasize and brood over circumstances in which we will be affirmed and admired by more stimulating companions. Whatever the place of our commitment—a monastic cell, a faith community, a job, a marriage—well, we are better off just walking away. If we have come along with the demon this far, Evagrius suggests, acedia will make our self-delusion seem divinely inspired, perhaps sanctioned. The demon of acedia, he writes, “goes on to suggest that, after all, it is not the place that is the basis of pleasing the Lord. God is to be adored everywhere.”
How could we ever have imagined that we might find self-fulfillment in this place, among these demanding people? The church choir is incompetent; my colleague talks too much about her children; my wife doesn’t understand me. Slamming the door behind us, we head for greener pastures, confident that we are seekers on a holy quest. Certain now that our mission is divinely inspired, we see clearly that commitment is weakness and independence is strength. To “find ourselves,” all we need is the open road. But soon we discover that no place will satisfy us, and no one person, no group of friends, can meet our needs. The oppressive boredom we had hoped to escape is lodged firmly within us, and we are in danger of becoming the winnowed chaff of Psalm 1, “driven away by the wind.”