Will Bynoe reflects on the sin of sloth
Few things seem so obviously good as a lie-in. Idling is a typical fantasy, yet it’s difficult to lounge without guilt. There’s so much you might be doing. With health and an average salary, the possibilities for your leisure time are intimidating. You couldn’t get through all the art, literature and music there is on offer, even if you started now and did nothing else until death. There’s usually an imminent solar eclipse somewhere, easily accessed through the glory of flight. But isn’t all this idling a waste of time? The stakes are high, so careful analysis is vital. What is laziness and is there anything wrong with it?
You might expect Bertrand Russell to calm your nerves. The title of In Praise Of Idleness (1932) seems to promise a soothing defence of languor. But it’s nothing of the kind. According to Russell, the appeal of a lazy Sunday is probably the result of excessive work. After a long week we only have the energy for passive pastimes such as watching TV. How would you spend Sunday if you’d only done a 20-hour week? Russell guesses you’d rediscover a capacity for play and dancing. However he’d rather you were creatively engaged with higher pursuits such as art, philosophy and poetry. Since such creative endeavours require leisure time, and since they are so much more rewarding than work or passivity, it’s a political imperative to shrink the average working week. Education will be crucial too, of course; otherwise we won’t be able to use the extra time to contribute to civilisation. (So our politicians are wrong about the aims of schooling: it should be a preparation for leisure, not work.)
What Russell condemns is laziness understood as exhausted passivity. But maybe this first sense hasn’t captured your flaws. Your work isn’t exhausting, so it’s not to blame for your idleness. Nor is your inaction an indulgence of base, uneducated pleasures. In fact, you are well educated. You have sampled fine and great things and aspire to add to them. Tonight would be an ideal opportunity to work on that novel. Somehow, though, you end up on the sofa watching a bad film. You feel listless and unsatisfied. This isn’t the fatigue Russell describes. It might be the vice of sloth, or at least something like it.
Siegfried Wenzel tells us that sloth, the deadly sin, originated in the fourth century, in the desert just outside Alexandria. Deserts are full of demons. That’s why the monks were there, sitting in their isolated cells, heroically fighting them off. Evagrius Ponticus (AD345–399) warns his brethren about the “noonday demon”, who in fact is most potent between about four and 8pm. Once possessed, a monk grows tired of prayer and restlessly wanders out of his cell looking for someone to talk to. “Chattering” was later listed as one of the tell-tale signs. As demons go, this one might seem fairly benign. But for the desert monks it was one of the great perils. They called the demon acedia, and Wenzel points out that this is the biblical word for a slothful state that produces sleep. For the monks, sleep was a symbol that “implies the loss of knowing what man’s nature and his goals in this life are”. If you’re not careful, those dragging hours between four and 8pm will rob you of your appetite for spiritual perfection.
This might have nothing at all to do with your unfinished novel. Or perhaps these demonic struggles have secular echoes. Wenzel tells us that later medieval writers defined acedia as taedium boni, that is “weariness with or aversion against any good”. The context was always religious duty, but we recognise the more general affliction. This novel is one of your valued goals, yet you lose your appetite and start checking your phone. You might start chattering. There is no demon to blame, of course, since there aren’t any. Nonetheless those frustrated afternoons spent idly fidgeting and getting nothing done are perhaps a fight to retain an appetite for what we value.
So laziness is quite complex it seems. There’s the inactivity caused by overwork, and the afternoon loss of appetite for things worthwhile. Are there other kinds? Are they all to be avoided?
From The Mobile Philosopher: Matters Of Lunch And Death by Will Bynoe (Short Books). Buy it here.
Will Bynoe is Head of Academics at the School of Classical Russian Ballet. He got his PhD in Philosophy from King’s College, London.