Facing the world (3) through Acedia

 “The blues are brewin” (sung by Billie Holiday)

Acedia is a form of depression that was identified by theologians of the early Christian Church with sloth, a spiritual fatigue caused by too much time to brood and day-dream, especially in monasteries and convents, where self-discipline and self-motivation were essential for mental health.

At least one blogger is feeling the same symptoms today.

In the early 5th century, the ascetic and mystic John Cassian described acedia as “weariness or distress of the heart…akin to dejection”. Some of his suggested cures were manual work, sympathizing and caring for other people with loving kindness, taking plenty of exercise.

Later, in secular society, the same feelings of boredom and hopelessness were caused by the dull repetition of tasks at work or at home, whichever you were chained to, and by excessive pleasures and luxury of choice among the leisured classes.

More recently, acedia has been linked to the rise of consumerism in the 20th century. I’d add the Lottery, and the misuse of the word “aspiration” to dress up acquisitiveness in angel’s clothing. Modern shopping for stuff isn’t quite what the socialist arts leaders had in mind when they called for cultural beauty to be accessible and affordable to all of us.

Acedia is a sickly leveller, affecting rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots.

acediaHieronymous Wierix, Acedia, or Sloth, from The Seven Vices, engraving, c. 1570 -1612. (Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image: WGA.) This personification of spiritual sloth is less glamorous, and more ill with exhaustion, than later incarnations of Acedia.

In the late Renaissance, despite the best efforts of the Church, there was no stopping the corrupting allure of Acedia.

It seeped into Hamlet when all the uses of the world in which he used to be interested became “weary, stale and unprofitable”. It became associated with youthful rebellion. Acedia was cool.

People became increasingly self-absorbed, and less afraid of hell after death being worse than life.

In the Age of Reason and Leisure, Sloth was no longer tragic; it was comic. In the last quarter of the 18th century, it exhibited as genteel indolence. Lydia Languish sighed on her sofa, elegantly surfeited on sentimental novels; then the Romantics transformed the most boring of vices into sexy, brooding melancholy.

They posed, sultrily, next to skulls, or, a few years later, as beautiful red-haired boys over-dosing in their attics. Victims of their talent of self-expression, their real anguish and debilitating illnesses looked misleadingly glamourous rather than morbid to the thrill-hungry public.

What cannibals we are.


This could be a slothful teenage boy rather than a suicide by arsenic: The Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis (1856), for which Swinburne was the model, romanticised artistic despair and drug-use. The boy’s passive beauty has the same power to arouse “mystical feelings of perdition” in us as Barthes attributed to Garbo.
(Tate version. Image source: Wikipedia)

World-weariness became sophisticated ennui. It was cultivated as an aesthetic in a literary line of decadent aristocrats from the ancien regime to Oscar Wilde’s fin de siècle dandies firing one-liners.

The perfect English hero, Sir Percy Blakeney, affected acedia as a cover for his activities as the Scarlet Pimpernel. He was the invention of an Hungarian-born aristocratic supremacist in a play of 1903, and in the subsequent, more famous novels. Bad people can make good things; good people can make bad ones.

(My grandmother told me Baroness Orczy was an unpleasant woman. I think they once stayed at the same hotel in Italy, but my grandmother was a spinner of tales herself.)

Only in the blues, starting at the end of the nineteenth century in the deep south, could the pain of waking up to world-weariness every day be heard in an authentic voice.

(listen to Billie Holiday: Good Morning Heartache)

7 comments on “Facing the world (3) through Acedia

  1. […] not obsessed with sex; he spent far more time gambling and hunting, anything to distract him from l’acédie. Unlike a lot of world leaders in the modern era, and the Marquis de Sade in Louis XV’s own […]


  2. erickeyswriter says:

    I hope you finish Grace and Blood soon, as I take this very theme up in more depth in the sequel to G&B.


  3. PJR says:

    In response to Adrienne after a lunchtime glass of wine – other people are hell; but so are we, to ourselves. I wish I was an anthropological or zoological expert and could throw more light on why human beings cannot get the balance right between sharing community and respecting solitude. But look at cats! They are as divided and inconsistent as we are, and, I suspect, much cleverer.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. PJR says:

    Thank you, Sarah and Pete – as ever, I’m relieved that something of what I felt and thought reached its target. I was loathe to draw too many modern parallels to “acedia” because it’s deserving of a separate & properly researched post about psychological/psychosomatic conditions, but I conclude, from the evidence of classical myths and theological writing, that the observations of people who thought in Ancient Greek or Latin, are as valid as any expert’s in the world today….

    Liked by 2 people

  5. One would think it would be easier to be happy living in a monastery without talking to annoying people, but it does seem to go against everything Christ taught. As much as I crave solitude, I do find that despite having to be pushed to it, getting out to do physical work and talking to family members once in a while 🙂 does a lot for my spirit. I wonder why we fight against it.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Exquisitely erudite. Now that I know much more about my illness, I would no longer describe these kind of emotions in me as Acedia but as expected reactions when pain and frustration get the better of me – if that makes sense. Sometimes, all the EBB-ishness – or what I call lethargy – is merely a a warning that my thyroid medication needs adjustment. I’d never heard of the word before so I welcome your introduction. Thank you, dear friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. beetleypete says:

    I was inspired to read some more about Acedia, and found this demonic vision from Brueghel on Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acedia#/media/File:Brueghel_-_Sieben_Laster_-_Disidia.jpg I like it a lot.

    There were times when my first wife felt ‘low’, and would describe it as feeling a ‘Bit EBB-ish’. This was named after Elizabeth Barrett Browning of course, who lived most of her life as an invalid, suffering from head and back pains. Today, she would probably have been diagnosed with M.E.

    My ex-wife’s malaise turned out to have more to do with our unsuccessful marriage.

    Very best wishes as always, Pete.

    Liked by 3 people

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