noonday demon by christopher brand

Acedia [uh-see-dee-uh] (Greek: ‘negligence’) describes a state of listlessness or torpor, of not caring or not being concerned with one’s position or condition in the world. It can lead to a state of being unable to perform one’s duties in life. Its spiritual overtones make it related to but distinct from depression. Acedia was originally noted as a problem among monks and other ascetics who maintained a solitary life. In the medieval Latin tradition of the seven deadly sins, acedia has generally been folded into the sin of sloth.

Moral theologians, intellectual historians and cultural critics have variously construed acedia as the ancient depiction of a variety of psychological states, behaviors or existential conditions: primarily laziness, ennui or boredom. The demon of acedia manifests itself in a range of psychological and somatic symptoms that is far broader and more complex than the familiar tradition in the West.

Acedia is indicated by a range of signs. These signs (or symptoms) are typically divided into two basic categories: somatic and psychological. Acedia frequently presents signs somatically. Such bodily symptoms range from mere sleepiness to general sickness or debility, along with a host of more specific symptoms: weakness in the knees, pain in the limbs, and fever. A host of psychological symptoms can also signify the presence of acedia, which affects the mental state and behavior of the afflicted. Some commonly reported psychological signs revolve around a lack of attention to daily tasks and an overall dissatisfaction with life. The best-known of the psychological signs of acedia is tedium, boredom or general laziness.

It is defined as ‘a state of restlessness and inability either to work or to pray.’ Some see it as the precursor to sloth – one of the seven deadly sins. Theologian Thomas Aquinas identifies acedia with ‘the sorrow of the world’ (called ‘weltschmerz’ in German). It becomes a mortal sin when reason consents to man’s ‘flight’ (fugam) from the Divine good, ‘on account of the flesh utterly prevailing over the spirit. Acedia is essentially a flight from the world that leads to not caring even that one does not care. The ultimate expression of this is a despair that ends in suicide.

Aquinas’s teaching on acedia contrasts with his prior teaching on charity’s gifted ‘spiritual joy,’ to which acedia is directly opposed, as he says, ‘One opposite is known through the other, as darkness through light. Hence also what evil is must be known from the nature of good.’ The demon of acedia holds an important place in early monastic demonology and psychology. Evagrius of Pontus, for example, characterizes it as ‘the most troublesome of all’ of the eight genera of evil thoughts (a precursor to the seven deadly sins). As with those who followed him, Evagrius sees acedia as a temptation, and the great danger lies in giving in to it.

Acedia plays an important role in the literary criticism of Walter Benjamin. In his study of baroque literature, Benjamin describes acedia as a moral failing, an ‘indolence of the heart’ that ruins great men. Benjamin considers acedia to be a key feature of many baroque tragic heroes, from the minor dramatic figures of German tragedy to Shakespeare’s Hamlet: ‘The indecisiveness of the prince, in particular, is nothing other than saturnine acedia.’ It is this slothful inability to make decisions that leads baroque tragic heroes to passively accept their fate, rather than resisting it in the heroic manner of classical tragedy.

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