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of a Well-Ordered Life
A Feature Review of
Acedia and its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire
Paperback: Angelico Press, 2015
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Reviewed by Tyler Campbell
No shortage of ink has been spilled surrounding the spiritual ramifications of our culture’s need for constant entertainment. Often times these didactic moments begin by addressing the material things that we spend considerable amounts of time with, and conclude with a call to disregard this type of lifestyle and return to a more disciplined religious life. But what of our metaphysical makeup implies the tension between discipline and lethargy? In his latest book, Acedia and its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire, R.J. Snell uses a variety of sources to create a modern definition of the Latin word acedia, which is generally translated as the noun sloth. Through his investigation Snell establishes that defining acedia as mere laziness misses out on the true character of the term, as seen within historical theology and scripture. By looking at acedia through a metaphysical lens and applying examples of contemporary distraction, Snell shows that the antithesis of acedia is found in a deeper understanding of the ways in which the Divine’s self-communicative love permeates into the mundane work of our life, making all that we do beautiful and important.
Snell begins his book with a strong introduction, which uses the antagonist of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian allegorically as a way of showing the dangers of unencumbered human freedom. The point of this introduction is to overcome the misconception that acedia is simply indolence. Instead, sloth causes a certain kind of madness within humanity, which leaves freedom alone without any sort of governing from a Divine authority. Snell roots this deeper defining of acedia in the work of the fourth-century Egyptian monk Evagrius Ponticus and Thomas Aquinas, each of whom consider laziness as a minor part of acedia. For Aquinas, sloth is a rejection of a loving union with the Divine, causing the human to miss out on their potential for ultimate happiness (10). Evagrius refers to those afflicted with acedia as being in a “frenzy of pointless action” further clarifying that just because a person is busy does not mean they are free from the temptation of sloth.
It is from the groundwork established in this thorough introduction that Snell goes on to build the rest of his argument, which is broken up into three parts of two chapters each. Part one, titled “The Weighty Gift of Responsibility” revolves around the human relationship with work. After first establishing that a Christian ontology is at its core, relational, Snell uses Genesis 1 and 2 to show that human beings have always existed as subjects of responsibility (23). The example for this type of existence is seen within creation, and the responsibilities entrusted to Adam immediately after he came into being. Snell encourages the reader to see that within the creation narrative, we not only see Adam being tasked with physical labor, we also see him being lead to think existentially about what this type of work means. He writes, “In having Adam examine the animals, God is simultaneously having Adam examine himself in order to come to terms with his nature as an acting person” (25).
The second chapter of part one focuses on the qualifications of “good” work. As a way of delineating his definition, Snell posits “three tests”, which are all drawn from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Although set up strong in the beginning of the chapter, the overarching argument is watered down by the vastly different sources that Snell pulls from. This is not to say that the attempt to root qualifications of meaningful work within the catechistic theology of creation was not creative. But the rapid movement of citations ranging from Joseph Ratzinger, Rowan Williams, Augustine, Richard Mouw, to Michael Pollan, and Wendell Berry becomes difficult to follow.
Snell’s project becomes energized once again in part two “The Unbearable Weightiness of Being” which shifts its attention to the difficulty found within human existence. Beginning with a summary of Charles Taylor’s theory of the enchanted and disenchanted world from A Secular Age, Snell goes on to contend that the overarching stance of contemporary Western culture is a disposition of sloth. Because we do not know why it is that we exist, “freedom is for us, now, an idol, and our conception of freedom is so absolute that we increasingly perceive limits as illicit and impermissible” (61). Through this lens, acedia is seen as a subconscious hatred of being, revealing what Snell refers to as a “certain internal instability” (63). The first chapter of part two concludes succinctly with a section on nihilism, reiterating that acedia manipulates our understanding of freedom. Snell writes that for the slothful, freedom is possible only on the condition that will is limited by nothing other than the will itself (70). Thus reiterating the portrayal of acedia as a type of ontological boredom.