October 2011 - Vol. 53

Sloth Ė the deadly vice of our present age
by Peter Kreeft

Of all the seven deadly sins, sloth is the most distinctively modern. Nothing so clearly distinguishes modern Western society from all previous societies as its sloth.

Sloth is not just laziness. There are two kinds of laziness, the first of which is only mildly, or venially sinful, the second not a sin at all. Not working, or not working hard, at good and necessary earthly tasks is a venial sin. Preferring the pleasures of resting to the sweat of needed labor is irresponsible and self-indulgent; but it is not the mortal sin of sloth. Sloth refuses to work at our heavenly task.

The second kind of laziness belongs to a phlegmatic or slow temperament, such as is associated with the lifestyle of hot climates. ďItís a lazy afternoon in summerĒ is a kind of delight, and sloth has no delight. Relaxing is not sloth. The person who never relaxes is not a saint but a fidget.

Ironically, it is often just such a fidget who is guilty of sloth. And here at last we are ready to clear up the paradoxical claim made at the beginning, that activistic modernity is slothful, by asking the obvious but seldom-asked question: Why are we so busy? Why, in this great age of time-saving devices, does no one have any free time? Why, now that we have technology to do our labor, is life emptier of leisure than it ever was in pretechnological societies? What are we hiding from ourselves with all this pointless and unhappifying activism?

We are hiding ourselves; we are hiding the God-sized hole in our hearts, the hole in the foundation of our existence. We try to paper the hole over with a thousand things, but they are all thin, and we know we will fall through the hole if we get too close. So we donít. We avoid Godís absence as much as Godís presence. We are slothful.

There is a deep spiritual sorrow at the heart of modern civilization because it is the first civilization in all of history that does not know who it is or why it is, that cannot answer the three great questions: Where did I come from? Why am I here? and Where am I going?

This is the most terrifying thing of all to us, because our primary need is denied, our need for meaning. This tenor is so great that it must be pushed down far into the unconscious by sloth, or we would go insane. So we cover it up with a thousand busynesses. Thus, paradoxically, it is our very sloth that produces our frantic activism.

Our lust is also a cover-up for sloth. Thomas Aquinas explains in the Summa how ďsomething arises from sorrow in two ways: first, that man shuns whatever causes sorrow, secondly, that he turns to other things that give him pleasure: thus those who find no joy in spiritual pleasures [that is sloth] turn to pleasures of the body [lust].Ē As Walker Percy puts it, since modern man fears he is a ghost, he has to assure himself of his reality by lust. Ghosts donít get erections.

The familiar face of sloth in our world can be identified from Saint Thomasí further description of it as ďan oppressive sorrow which so weighs upon a manís mind that he wants to do nothing.Ē Sound familiar? Itís a pretty exact, clinical description of what we call depression. It is a symptom or effect of boredom.

Now why are we bored? Why this distinctively modern phenomenon? The very word for it did not exist in premodern languages! Above all, how do we explain the irony that the very society which for the first time in history has conquered nature by technology and turned the world into a giant fun-and-games factory, a rich kidís playroom, the very society which has the least reason to be bored, is the most bored? Why is an American child playing with ten thousand dollars worth of video equipment more bored than an Indian child playing with two sticks and a stone?

The answer is inescapable. There is only one thing that never gets boring: God. The God-shaped vacuum in us is infinite and cannot be filled with any finite objects or actions. Therefore if we are bored with God, we will be bored with everything. For as Saint Augustine says, he who has God has everything; he who has everything but God has nothing; and he who has God plus everything else does not have any more than he who has God alone.

Modern man has sloth, that is, sorrow about God, because God is dead to him. He is the cosmic orphan. Nothing can take the place of his dead Father; all idols fail, and bore. When God is dead, it is the time of the twilight of the gods as well.

[This article is excerpted from the book, Back to Virtue, Chapter 11, (c) 1992 Peter Kreeft, and published by Ignatius Press, San Francisco. Used with permission.] 

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