Acedia and its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire
by R. J. Snell.
Angelico Press, 2015.
Paperback, 144 pages, $15.

R. J. Snell has written a substantial and illuminating book, using the ancient concept of the vice of acedia (spiritual or intellectual sloth) as an axis around which he unifies a set of reflections on contemporary culture, drawn primarily from the work of Charles Taylor, John Paul II, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Josef Pieper, George Grant, and Wendell Berry. Snell makes good use of contemporary literature, such as Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing. Snell also brings into the discussion some practical reflections on the vice of sloth from ancient monastic sources, especially John Cassian (360–435). Although his approach is not unique, the book is well constructed for throwing light from the Jewish and Christian tradition on some of the spiritual pathologies of our time.

In the book’s introduction, Snell relies upon Evagrius of Ponticus, a fourth-century Egyptian monk, and the scholastic theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas to define acedia, the “noonday demon.” Acedia is not laziness but a rejection of life itself and a disgust with one’s place in the world. Aquinas describes acedia as the sorrowful rejection of one’s supernatural end, union with God. Snell uses the character of “Judge Holden” from McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as the paradigm of acedia in its contemporary manifestation. This works well, since Holden is far from inactive in the story and typifies the rejection of the norms embedded in creation and the elevation of naked self-will over all other sources of authority. As Snell plausibly argues, it is this self-absorbed will, alienated from nature and nature’s God, that is the ultimate source of the spiritual emptiness and the vague, restless feelings of dissatisfaction that characterize acedia. Another literary source that would have been helpful here is Dante’s Purgatorio, in which the fourth cornice is devoted to sloth as deficiency in love, especially love for God and for union with him.

The main body of the book consists of six chapters, divided into three parts. The first part, “The Weighty Gift of Responsibility,” comprises two chapters on the spiritual meaning of work. Snell deftly deploys the contrast of weight versus lightness throughout the book, echoing the title of Kundera’s novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Ends that are aligned with the world’s deep metaphysical structure have inherent weight, while the autonomous self of late modernity, forced to be its own source for all value and meaning, faces an array of choices of unremitting lightness. This “unbearable lightness” of modern life is the inevitable byproduct of philosophical subjectivism and voluntarism. The modern self is free to choose anything whatsover, without the constraint of prior meanings, but at the cost of having nothing but meaningless options to choose from.

Snell struggles in the first two chapters to recapture a classical Judeo-Christian conception of the value of secular work. The problem is inherently difficult: how to maintain the supreme significance of the transcendent dimension without destroying the significance of the immediate, immanent world of work. Snell appeals to the contingency of creation to argue that created being itself must be conceived of as a “gift.” This is a somewhat paradoxical suggestion, since a gift would seem to presuppose both a giver and a receiver, but in this case the gift is supposed to be the very existence of the receiver.

Snell then turns to Pope St. John Paul II’s provocative interpretation of Adam and Eve. John Paul saw the original solitude of Adam and his task of naming the animals as a test, designed to enable Adam to recognize both his uniqueness as a person in God’s image and his need for another person of the same kind, through whom he could realize his essentially relational being in self-giving. In addition, John Paul contended that work, including physical work (tending the garden), is not a curse or a punishment for sin, but part of God’s original design. By working we become co-redeemers of our selves (subjectively) and of the world (objectively). The subjective fulfillment would seem to presuppose an objective point to our work, but the difficulty in finding the latter lies in reconciling the inherent goodness of the world as created by God (Genesis 1) with the implied incompleteness of that world as something in need of human tending and even transformation (Genesis 2).

Snell offers a threefold test for good work: Does it respect the integrity of nature (including the nature of the worker)? Does it increase the world’s capacity for further development and creativity? And, does it fit with the revealed eschatology of God’s Kingdom? It would have been helpful here had Snell considered some concrete issues involving the coordination of our respect for creation’s inherent goodness and our recognition of the appropriateness of human transformation of it. For example, is strip mining the actualization of the earth’s potentiality for providing us with needed minerals or a violation of the earth’s natural surface? Are artificial pesticides a fitting kind of tending of the earth’s inherent dynamism or an impoverishing of its biological diversity? More importantly, how might the three theological benchmarks that Snell identifies help us in answering these sorts of questions?

In the second part, “The Unbearable Weightiness of Being,” Snell offers an incisive critique of the unencumbered, autonomous self, which corresponds with Webers’s “disenchanted world” and brings boredom, nihilism, and self-alienation in its wake. Snell points out that the word “boredom” did not exist until the eighteenth century. Boredom attends acedia, which often involves feverish activity, a vain attempt to distract oneself from the meaninglessness of a life lived without reference to the limits and norms inherent in creation. The antidote to acedia is true leisure, as described by Josef Pieper: the active but disinterested contemplation and celebration of reality. We must recapture a sense of the intrinsic goodness and meaningfulness of “things.” As Snell points out, the Germanic root of the word “thing” points to an assembly or deliberative session (as in the Icelandic Allthing), an image that fits well with the Trinitarian conception of all existence as relational, as self-communicative.

In the final part, “A Lovely Resistance,” Snell offers two practical remedies to the problem of acedia: respect for the Sabbath, and an awareness of the greatness of the small. Snell takes advantage of recent work by Jewish thinkers (Abraham Heschel and Leon Kass) on the significance of the Sabbath. Heschel makes the arresting point that God did create something on the seventh day, namely: rest. Heschel also points out the significance of the fact that the Sabbath creates a sacred time rather than a sacred place, bringing the sacred into equal proximity to all people. In addition, the Sabbath picks out a period of time (one day in seven) that is unrelated to the natural cycles of sun, moon, and stars, again marking human life as bearing a unique meaning.

In Chapter 6, “Small Is Beautiful,” a title that echoes the classic work by E. F. Schumacher (who is oddly missing from the bibliography), Snell begins by considering Aristotle’s discussion of the virtue of magnanimity or great-souledness. Aristotle defines magnanimity as the virtue that concerns great honors (as magnificence is the virtue related to great wealth). Snell argues that in the biblical worldview ordinary work is a matter of great honor (since work is given to us by God himself), and so ordinary work is (paradoxically) extraordinary. As John Paul II put it (Evangelium Vitae, section 2), the earth “is a sacred reality entrusted to us.”

Snell returns to the monastic setting with which he began. As Evagrius describes it, acedia involves a restlessness about one’s assigned place in the world. For the monk, this expresses itself as ungrounded desire to leave one’s cell (and the ordered work and prayer associated with it). Grace perfects nature, including the small details of ordinary work. This is a theme that long has been standard in Reformed and Lutheran conceptions of secular work as a divine “calling,” but it has also been embraced in recent Roman Catholic theology, including that of Josemaría Escrivá (the founder of Opus Dei) and John Paul II.

Snell’s book would make an excellent choice for a book club or discussion series. Its organization would make a three or six-week series a very natural structure, and the book would elicit good conversation about topics of both theoretical and practical importance.  

Robert Koons is professor of philosophy at the University of Texas. His most recent book (with co-author Timothy Pickavance) is Fundamentals of Metaphysics (Blackwell-Wiley, 2015).