Avoiding Acedia in Intellectual Work

I have a small library of notes on things I want to write about, yet feel daunted every time I try.  Sometimes I’m tempted to simply say “read ____,”  and leave it at that.  Resisting that urge today, I’m going to try to write a little about one of the most important of my companion books, the book that more than any other defines my vocation, Antonin Sertillanges’s The Intellectual Life.  

I will not offer a summary of the whole book.  For one thing, you should read it for yourself.  For another, the summary already exists.  Sertillanges is developing the principles found in a short letter of (pseudo-) St. Thomas, De modo studendi.  Thus, for a (wholly inadequate) summary, turn to that.

Instead, a single key insight, namely Sertillanges’s recognition of the fundamental vice that afflicts those engaged in intellectual pursuits: the great enemy of contemplation, the noonday demon, and the characteristic sin of our age, acedia:

The great enemy of knowledge is our indolence; that native sloth which shrinks from effort, which does indeed consent now and then capriciously, to make a big effort but now and then capriciously, to make a big effort but soon relapses into careless automatism, regarding a vigorous and sustained impetus as a regular martyrdom.

The Intellectual Life, 124

Truth is eternal, and thus we shouldn’t be surprised to see this particular truth recognized by others in the same arena.  Indeed, the fact that an insight is shared and recurs over and over again throughout history among those who have given an issue serious thought is good evidence that it’s true.  So we see that the manifestation of acedia in the intellectual is the same pattern diagnosed by Robert Boice in the best book I’ve ever read on overcoming writer’s block (without which, I would have never finished my dissertation). Long periods of desolation, bursts of frenzied activity, torpor, depression, and despair.  Rinse, repeat.

The root of this vice is cowardice.  That may sound strange or self-aggrandizing, casting the work of an academic as courageous, but it is nevertheless true.  To succumb to acedia is to quail in the face of our vocation, to hear the call and shirk at the price:

To get something without paying for it is the universal desire; but it is the desire of cowardly hearts and weak brains.  The universe does not respond to the first murmured request, and the light of God does not shine under your study lamp unless your soul asks for it with persistent effort.

The Intellectual Life, 6

It’s not merely a fear of work, however, not mere laziness.  Rather it’s a fear of the obligations that a vocation entails.  These obligations extend beyond ourselves (and beyond our students, our professors, and the academy as a whole for that matter), and that’s what’s truly terrifying about accepting a call, the knowledge that to get the benefits we must not just do the work, but do it well.

[Acedia] is a lack of magnanimity; it lacks courage for the great things that are proper to the nature of the Christian.  It is a kind of anxious vertigo that befalls the human individual when he becomes aware of the heights to which God has raised him.  One who is trapped in acedia has neither the courage nor the will to be as great as he really is.  He would prefer to be less great in order thus to avoid the obligation of greatness.  Acedia is a perverted humility; it will not accept supernatural goods because they are, by their very nature, linked to a claim on him who receives them.  Something similar exists in the sphere of mental health and illness.  The psychiatrist frequently observes that, while a neurotic individual may have a superficial will to be restored to health, in actuality he fears more than anything else the demands that are mandated, as a matter of course, on one who is well.”
Josef Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love, 119
The final two sentences strike home.  How often does a failure to work accompany an indulgent descent into mental unwellness?  Are you not heeding the call because you are miserable or are you miserable because you are not heeding the call?
Acedia, therefore, is the great enemy and a formidable one.  Luckily, the solution is very simple.  Unfortunately, the fact that it is simple is not the same thing as easy.  The way to expurgate a vice is to practice the opposite virtue, and to practice the virtue opposed to sloth, we must work (hence, why Dante has the slothful sprinting through Purgatory).

Do something, or do nothing at all.  Do ardently whatever you decide to do; do it with your might; and let the whole of your activity be a series of vigorous fresh starts.  Half-work, which is half-rest, is good neither for rest nor for work.

The Intellectual Life, 96

I see in my students and in myself so much indecision, so much fuddling around, when what must be done is to simply decide and begin.  Once begun, we should proceed until the work is done (failing on this last bit was one of the great struggles of my dissertation writing).

An important bit of practical advice is in place here. When you have decided on a work, when you have clearly conceived and carefully prepared it, and are actually beginning: settle immediately by a vigorous effort the quality that it is to have. Do not count on going back over it. When laziness whispers: “Go ahead anyhow now, you will come back to this later,” say to yourself that this idea of going back on what one has done is nearly always an illusion. When you have once gone down the slope, you will hardly climb up again.

The Intellectual Life, 230-1

We shouldn’t look at this need to work as a burden, or at least not as a heavy burden.1  Rather we must know it as beautiful, our participation in the unfolding of creation.

We must always seek, always endeavor.  Nature makes the wilderness flower anew, the star to shine, the water to flow down slopes, round obstacles, into empty places, dreaming of the sea that waits it yonder, and which it may at last reach.  Creation in every one of its stages is continuous aspiration.  The mind which is potentially all things can of itself no more limit its ideal forms than the natural forms of which they are a reflection.  Death will set the limit, and so will our own inadequacy: let us at least have the courage to flee the frontiers marked out by laziness.  Infinity, lying before use, demands infinity in our desire, to correct as far as may be the gradual failure of our powers.

The Intellectual Life, 126-7

Infinity lies before us, in all its intoxicating wonder and stomach-churning danger.  To approach it demands courage, but we would not be called were we not capable.  What remains, therefore, is to trust, to allow the love that nourishes our work to overpower our fear, to step out and explore.

1. The yoke is easy, the burden light, etc.

The Habit of Thought

So acquire the habit of being present at this activity of the material and moral universe. Learn to look; compare what is before you with your familiar or secret ideas. Do not see in a town merely houses, but human life and history. Let a gallery or a museum show you something more than a collection of objects, let it show you schools of art and of life, conceptions of destiny and of nature, successive or varied tendencies of technique, of inspiration, of feeling. Let a workshop speak to you not only of iron and wood, but of man’s estate, of work, of ancient and modern social economy, of class relationships. Let travel tell you of mankind; let scenery remind you of the great laws of the world; let the stars speak to you of measureless duration; let the pebbles on your path be to you the residue of the formation of the earth; let the sigh of a family make you think of past generations; and let the least contact with your fellows throw light on the highest conception of man. If you cannot look thus, you will become, or be, a man of only commonplace mind. A thinker is like a filter, in which truths as they pass through leave their best substance behind.

A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life(74)

I cannot think of a better summation of what my work as a teacher and scholar aims toward, nor can I recommend Sertillanges’s book highly enough.  It is truly excellent and one of the books that most deeply shapes me.