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.


Intersections of Athletics and Virtue

Summer always inspires me to think deeply about ultimate.  This year, that’s resulted in reading a lot of military strategy (about which I’ll hopefully have something to say soon) and re-reading Timothy Gallwey’s classic, The Inner Game of Tennis.  Inner Game is probably my favorite book on coaching and teaching, and I’ve long attempted (and often failed) to implement lessons from it in my own work in the classroom and on the field.  On this re-read, I was struck by the affinity of the central pillars of Gallwey’s method with Josef Pieper’s writings on the virtues.

At the heart of the process outlined in Inner Game is the idea that true learning requires, first and fundamentally, that we see reality as it really is and allow ourselves to act accordingly.  The word “allow” is significant here.  Gallwey suggests that there’s a sense in which your body already knows the techniques, strategy, etc., which you’re attempting to master and that the goal of the teacher is to shepherd you towards a realization of this, guiding you towards something already present, as opposed to pouring new, alien knowledge into a previously empty vessel.  We might think of this as akin to the idea that a block of marble already contains within it a statue, and that the artist’s chisel merely strips away at the excess, making manifest an inner form which has always been.  Learning considered this way is essentially a form of remembrance or re-cognition, an understanding which has a long lineage in classical philosophy and towards which I’m deeply sympathetic.

This all maps very closely on to what Pieper has to say about the virtues.  For, to Pieper and to the classical tradition which he inherits, to be virtuous simply is to live in accordance with reality.  Therefore, to recognize, to see, things as they really are is the root of all virtue, the first and most important step which lies at the heart of the good life.

All duty is based upon being.  Reality is the basis of ethics.  Goodness is the standard of reality.  Whoever wants to know and do the good must direct his gaze toward the objective world of being, not toward his own “sentiment” or toward arbitrarily established “ideals” and “models”. He must look away from his own deed and look upon reality.

A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart, 11

The apprehension of reality and making of decisions in accordance with it is, more properly speaking, the virtue of prudence:

Prudence, the formal basis and “birth mother” of all human virtue, is the cautious and decisive faculty of our spirit for shaping things, which transforms the knowledge of reality into the accomplishment of the good.  It encompasses the humility of silent, i.e., unbiased, understanding, memory’s faithfulness to being, the art of letting things speak for themselves, the alert composure before the unexpected.  Prudence means the hesitant seriousness and, so to speak, the filter of reflection and yet also the daring courage for definitive resolution.

Brief Reader, 15

It is, I believe, the hesitant seriousness accompanied by daring courage for definitive resolutions of which Pieper speaks that athletes experience when they’re “in the zone.”

Gallwey’s directive to the student to see things as they truly are, and to the teacher to guide the student towards this recognition (primarily through images, another affinity between Gallwey and the classical tradition), is thus ultimately a directive to cultivate prudence within the domain of sport.  To achieve mastery, we must become virtuous, at least with respect to the area in which we seek mastery (think also of courage, justice, and temperance in Ultimate).

We quickly realize a problem with this: at any given time, we only have access to a narrow sliver, the barest hint of a larger reality.  Yet we must act and, more often than not, act rapidly.

The man who does good follows the lines of an architectural plan that has not been devised by himself or even totally understood by himself in all its components.  This plan is revealed to him moment by moment only though a narrow cleft and a tiny gap; in his transient condition, he never perceives the specific plan for himself in its global and definitive form.

Brief Reader, 17

There cannot be a system or rulebook which governs our reactions in all situations.  Any such attempt a comprehensive guidelines will flounder against the shoals of reality.  The athlete rigidly cycling through a preset list of reactions will fail.  A morality which is predicated solely on the following of some abstract set of rules will collapse.  Instead, we must shape ourselves through the application of broad principles to the immediate apprehension of reality through a constant, self-reflexive process of re-orienting ourselves to that reality.

Thus, we must determine those principles.  And in the meantime, open our eyes.