[Paleopsych] Acedia, Tristitia and Sloth: Early Christian Forerunners to Chronic Ennui. Ian Irvine.
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Acedia, Tristitia and Sloth: Early Christian Forerunners to Chronic Ennui. Ian
Humanitas, Spring 1999 v12 i1 p89
This article focuses on the relevance of early Christian writings on acedia and
tristitia to the primary modern and postmodern maladies of the subject, i.e.,
chronic ennui, alienation, estrangement, disenchantment, angst, neurosis, etc.
The focus will be on the 'chronic ennui cycle' which has been extensively
discussed by Steiner (1971), Bouchez (1973), Kuhn (1976), Healy (1984), Klapp
(1986) and Spacks (1995).  It can be described as a cycle of boredom and
addiction which robs individuals of meaning and a sense of the elan vitale.
This cycle has undergone various mutations of form over the centuries. Many of
the writers mentioned above have plotted its course of development from
classical times to the present. Such discussions begin with the descriptions of
taedium vitae, luxuria and the horror loci supplied by Roman philosophers and
writers such as Lucretius, Petronius and Seneca. They also encompass analyses
of the spiritual illnesses of acedia and tristitia written by the Desert
Fathers and of the vari ous emotional and medical conditions described by
Medieval and Early Modern poets and medical professionals, e.g., saturnine
melancholy, spleen, fits of the mothers, and 'The English Malady.'
Chronic ennui an obsession of romantic and realist writers.
Due largely to the immense sociocultural changes that struck Europe in the
nineteenth century the problem of chronic ennui (sometimes termed 'the spleen,'
hypp, languer, nerves and disenchantment) inevitably became a major theme (if
not obsession) for romantic and realist poets and thinkers. By the late
nineteenth century it became tangled up with the concept of 'degeneration' and
also with the fin de siecle phenomenon. By that stage it signified a particular
kind of subjective suffering brought about by prolonged exposure to certain
types of social institutions and sociocultural stresses. In short chronic ennui
was associated with the costs to the subject of urbanisation, bureaucratisation
and the industrial revolution. In a sense, then, the concept was used to
illustrate the dark side of modernity. The decadents and later modernist poets,
writers, artists, culture critics and philosophers made use of it in discussing
alienation, reification, absurdity, aboulie, anomie, desacralisation, angst,
bad faith, ne urosis, character armouring and so on. As said, this essay will
consider the contributions of the Early Christian Fathers to modern conceptions
of 'chronic boredom,' with particular attention to the problem of the 'ennui
Some Modern Descriptions of the Ennui Cycle
> From the beginning of the eighteenth century the French idea of 'chronic
ennui' signified a particular kind of subjective suffering. At the deepest
level the idea signified a cycle of subjective discontent, a cycle that--at
least at the level of symptoms--progressed invariably through three distinct
phases. The first stage was one of anxious boredom , of nameless objectless
anxiety, which was accompanied by fantasies of release from that anxiety This
mood, in due course, gave way to a second stage characterised by bursts of
frantic activity designed to defeat or flee from the inner feelings of
discontent characteristic of the previous stage. This activity had as its goal
the denial of the previous feelings by immersion in various more or less
repetitive (sometimes absurd) habits. This flurry of activity gave way to a
third stage of psychospiritual numbness which allowed a person to feel
temporarily free from the anxieties and impulsive acting out typical of the
previous periods. We may see this third stage as a state of non-being similar
to that experienced by the heroin or smack addict, the sex addict, the gambler,
the food addict, or the drugged patient in a psychiatric ward. 
This cycle need not be particularly spectacular. The ritualistic activities of
the second stage, for example, may revolve around hundreds of routine actions,
activities, sayings (rationalisations), and thoughts which in combination act
to keep the subject fundamentally disconnected from more wholesome experiences
We may list the various specific symptoms attached to the ennui cycle. Although
such symptoms are experienced differently by different people--i.e., according
to gender, race, class, age, and so forth--the core description of the malaise
nevertheless seems to reveal a certain degree of consistency across social
positionings and, as we shall see with the writings of the Desert Fathers,
across time. The core symptoms are:
1. States/feelings of subjective worthlessness and meaninglessness.
2. Feelings/intimations that the subject is missing out on life. The feeling
also that time is a burden and that one is old before one's time.
3. States of being periodically possessed by certain malign impulses/forces
over which one has little or no effective control.
4. Feelings that the subject is estranged from/divided within/ dispossessed of
his/her 'healthy self'--that is, a feeling that the way one acts or experiences
oneself in the world seems to be merely an act, or worse, an act that is
destructive in that it leads to a narrowing of life possibilities.
5. Feelings of revulsion toward, or obsessive fascination with, one's own body
and bodily functions or with the bodies and bodily functions of others.
(Various social and cultural commentators on modernism, e.g., Ihab Hassan, have
described a particular state of ambivalence toward the realm of the feminine,
the female body and the specifically female biological functions.)
6. Impulses to act violently or maliciously towards others, towards one's self
or towards the world in general. These may be extreme or petty--indeed,
pettiness as manifested in moods of jealousy, envy, backbiting, greed, etc.,
are features of the ennui cycle and are connected to the nineteenth-century
critique of bourgeois culture in general.
7. A sense that 'objects' out there in the world resonate in the consciousness
of subjects as though they are malign and have special powers over human moods,
desires, and impulses, and over a subject's fate or destiny.
8. The loss of an animated, enchanted state of identification with the
world/cosmos/nature, with others in society, and with one's own needs and
desires. Many nineteenth-century poets and thinkers described this stage as the
loss of 'vision' or as the loss of the communal religious experience.
9. Physical feelings--long-lasting in nature--of being burdened, weighed down,
exhausted, by the normal activities/interactions of everyday existence.
Where persons blame others for this state of being or give themselves wholly
over to flight from self, writers as diverse as Kierkegaard, Sartre,
Schopenhauer, Camus, and George Steiner have spoken of 'normative,' 'active,'
or sometimes 'bourgeois' ennui. Those who are to some extent aware of their
malaise are often deemed to be afflicted with 'creative boredom/ennui' or
'spiritual ennui.' Since the nineteenth century this form of l'ennui morbide
has been characterised by an additional symptom:
10. The feeling or intuition that society and its institutions are in some way
connected to, or nurturant of, the particular experience of ennui suffering
felt by a given subject--that perhaps the norms of society are in some way
'generative' of the malady. The artists and theorists who have expressed this
intuition link the phenomenon of subjective ennui to the great economic,
technological, social, political and religious changes that shook Europe in the
early modern period, e.g., secularisation, urbanisation, industrialisation, the
rise of the bourgeoisie, bureaucratisation, the political revolutions of the
period, the scientific revolution, etc. From George Cheyne (The English Malady,
1733) onwards, symptoms associated with 'subjective ennui' have been linked to
various kinds of sociocultural phenomena. 
"Great Ennui" characteristic of post-traditional society.
The connections of ennui with many other post-Enlightenment (usually secular)
concepts describing subjective disintegration, melancholia and psychic torment
are many. It is no understatement to suggest that variations on this relatively
simple subjective cycle of consciousness were at the core of many of the great
nineteenth-and early twentieth-century critiques of modernity. In this sense
'ennui' in conjunction with other words has long had the potential to launch a
full-scale critique of Western civilisation. The perils facing the subject
raised on modernity may equally be the perils of the collective. George
Steiner, for example, speaks of 'The Great Ennui' as a defining characteristic
of post-traditional Western society in general. He sees it as a central
motivating force behind the many calamities of the twentieth century, notably
two world wars, the ecological crisis, the technocratic tendencies of modern
social structures, anti-Semitism and other forms of minority scapegoating, and,
finally, the adven t of the atomic age.
Acedia: Forerunner to Chronic Ennui
Judging by the dearth of primary sources the problem of chronic ennui (then
termed taedium vitae) was not a major issue for classical writers and poets;
other themes far and away predominated. Among the Ancient Greeks the problem
was virtually unheard of and it is only in the early decades and centuries of
the first millennium that the problem is mentioned with any degree of alarm
among Roman intellectuals. Likewise, what is reported is nothing like the mood
of chronic ennui as described by those who would follow.  It was only in the
late Roman period that the malaise of chronic ennui began to assert a major and
continuous pull on the imaginations of the literate--thanks mainly to the
writings of the Desert Fathers of Christendom. 
Whilst the Desert Fathers were developing specifically Christian perspectives
on humanity's psychospiritual relationship to God, self, society and the
cosmos, they were also writing about a new way of looking at psychospiritual
suffering. Their writings formed the foundations of Christianity's
understanding of chronic ennui, foundations which stayed firm for almost one
thousand years.  Whether Christianity itself was the cause of the malady or
whether it merely provided the most thorough diagnosis of chronic ennui for the
age is open to debate,  but what is certain is that during the fourth
century A.D. the classical conceptions of taedium vitae underwent certain
crucial developments. The horror loci and the various vices of diversion that
the Romans had associated with these two states of being were incorporated into
a fundamentally Christian view of the soul-affirming and soul-destroying
passions. The developments led many people to invent new terms to describe what
they and others were feeling. In t his sense, various modern commentators have
noted that modern discussions of chronic ennui owe much to earlier religious
discussions of the temptation of acedia. 
Of the many terms used at that time to describe states of consciousness similar
to chronic ennui--some of the most well known being tristitia, siccitas,
desidia and pigritia (sloth)--the word acedia came to predominate.  It now
seems likely that some of the Desert Fathers associated acedia with the dreaded
'noonday demon' of Psalm 90:6.  Indeed the hour of noon seems to have been
a particularly dangerous time for the solitary monks since, when the noontide
demon arrived, he often brought with him a whole host of additional temptations
(viewed as combinations of demons and evil thoughts, [LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCEBLE
IN ASCII] which could assuage the monk's feelings of chronic boredom and make
him abandon the coenobitic life forever. 
Acedia, or sloth, among the worst temptations.
The concept of acedia thus denoted both a 'movement of the soul' and a specific
'evil spirit.' In this sense it must be understood in relation to dualistic
conceptions of humanity's place in the cosmos current in the late Roman period.
It is now known that the Desert Fathers drew on dualistic tendencies inherent
in Iranian, Hellenistic, Stoic, Gnostic and Judaic worldviews to formulate the
so-called 'demonological' view of the capital sins or temptations. The
demonological system held that human actions in the world were influenced by
both good and bad angels or spirits. The bad spirits were believed to be under
the control of Satan and the good were said to be under God's control. The bad
spirits skewed the innate passions (the [LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCEBLE IN ASCII]in
non-life-affirming directions. They did this by inciting evil thoughts or
passions ([lambda]o[gamma][iota][sigma][micro]o[iota]). Evil thoughts,
according to Evagrius,  could become attached in consciousness to
remembered or desired objects which thus became invested with destructive
emotional energy, e.g., gold could become attached to a greedy state of mind.
Such evil thoughts may eventually gain control of the rational mind at which
point non-life-affirming deeds might result. Every capital sin, temptation, or
evil thought was attached to a specific demon or evil spirit. The Desert
Fathers sought peace ([eta][sigma][upsilon][chi][iota][alpha]) from the
incessant war between sin and virtue by trying to make the passions subservient
to the rational intellect. This state was known technically as
[alpha][pi][alpha][upsilon][epsilon][iota][alpha] which meant 'to be at one
with God.' To many of the Desert Fathers acedia was one of the worst
temptations (demons) because it tried to make the monk give up the religious
life completely. It was thus one of the major hurdles to controlling the
passions and thus to the monk's salvation and desired union with God.
Of the many descriptions of coenobitic acedia  perhaps the best summary of
its early medieval characteristics is to be found in Cassian's De Institutis
Coenobiorum (Foundations of Coenobitic Life) where acedia figures as the sixth
of the eight major temptations.  In this work the older classical
descriptions of taedium vitae, melancholy and black gall are clearly reworked
to fit into a specifically Christian framework. Various symptoms are discussed,
many of which replicate classical symptoms of chronic ennui, e.g., horror loci,
inexplicable sadness, addiction to objects (luxuria) and a certain desire to do
anything rather than confront the negative emotional forces (temptations) that
were trying to possess one's being:
Our sixth contending is with that which the Greeks call 'a-kedia' (from a-,
'not'; kedos, 'care') and which we may describe as tedium or perturbation of
heart. It is akin to dejection [tristitia], and especially felt by wandering
monks and solitaries, a persistent and obnoxious enemy to such as dwell in the
desert, disturbing monks especially about midday, like a fever mounting at a
regular time, and bringing its highest tide of inflammation at definite
accustomed hours to the sick soul....
When this besieges the unhappy mind, it begets aversion from the place, boredom
with one's cell, and scorn and contempt for one's brethren, whether they be
dwelling with one or some way off, as careless and unspiritually minded
persons. Also, towards any work that may be done within the enclosure of our
own lair, we become listless and inert. It will not suffer us to stay in our
cell, or to attend to our reading: we lament that in all this while, living in
the same spot, we have made no progress, we sigh and complain that bereft of
sympathetic fellowship we have no spiritual fruit; and bewail ourselves as
empty of all spiritual profit...and we that could guide others...have edified
no man, enriched no man with our precept and example. We praise other and far
distant monasteries, describing them as more helpful to one's progress, more
congenial to one's soul's health....Finally we conclude that there is no health
for us so long as we stay in this place, short of abandoning the cell wherein
to tarry further wi ll be only to perish with it, and betaking ourselves
elsewhere as quickly as possible.
Towards eleven o'clock or midday, it induces such lassitude of body and craving
for food as one might feel after...hard toil. Finally one gazes anxiously here
and there, and sighs that no brother of any description is to be seen
approaching: one is for ever in and out of one's cell, gazing at the sun as
though it were tarrying to its setting: one's mind is in an irrational
confusion ...one is slothful and vacant in every spiritual activity, and no
remedy, it seems, can be found for this state of siege than a visit from some
brother, or the solace of sleep. Finally our malady suggests that in common
courtesy one should salute the brethren, and visit the sick, near and far. It
dictates such offices of duty and piety as to seek out this relative or
that...far better to bestow one's pious labour upon these than sit without
benefit, or profit in one's cell. 
This demon is said to work "hand in hand with the fifth demon 'Dejection,"'
which also has much in common, at the symptom level, with various forms of
malevolent boredom. We also note similarities between the state described and
modem forms of depression.
Need to confront one's demons.
The modern secular mind might hastily jump to the conclusion that the monks
were bored for good reason and that the desire to flee their cells was merely a
natural response to the absurdities of an ascetic lifestyle. Such a conclusion
does not account for the fact that these states of consciousness were, in a
sense, courted by the monks. The demons had to be brought out of hiding, so as
to speak, before one could truly experience [LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN
ASCII] (spiritual oneness with God by control of the passions by the rational
mind). The monks very probably chose such inhospitable surroundings and arduous
lifestyle as means to bring on a state of spiritual catharsis. They perhaps
sought to improve themselves by a series of confrontations with aspects of
their lives which normal living kept submerged. In this sense the goals of
their practices could be seen (with certain reservations) as creative and thus
in opposition to normative forms of ennui. The very fact that the fathers spent
so much time and energy trying to sort out the destructive passions from the
'angelic' ones might suggest that acute forms of normative ennui existed
outside religious circles and that perhaps some people opted for the ascetic
life as a means of overcoming such addictive and ultimately destructive states
Cassian's other work, Collationes, or Conversations (425 A.D.), also deals with
acedia as experienced by the Desert Fathers. Particularly relevant is the
interview with Father Daniel, one of the Desert Fathers. What emerges from the
conversation is the idea that chronic boredom is something through which one
passes in order to experience new heights of spiritual oneness with God.
Something like the 'creative,' solitary ennui of later artists, poets and
writers, and the spiritual ennui of shamans, priests/priestesses, and mystics
of many traditions seems to be the goal. Cassian has one of the monks relate
the following experience:
We feel overwhelmed, crushed by dejection [tristitia] for which we can find no
motif. The very source of mystic experiences is dried up ... the train of
thought becomes lost, inconstant and bewildered .... We complain, we try to
remind our spirit of its original goals. But in vain. Sterility of the soul!
And neither the longing for Heaven nor the fear of Hell are capable of shaking
our lethargy. 
Pope Gregory I (The Great) wrote his Morals on the Book of Job some 150 years
after Cassian's Foundations and Collationes. In the process, he added the final
touches to the medieval idea of acedia. He reduced the number of capital sins
from eight to seven, merging tristitia and acedia into one sin. He also helped
universalise the ideas of the Desert Fathers since he wrote for a larger
audience. As a result, all Christendom came to believe that the Capital Sins
were central to the Christian moral system. One of those sins was the
temptation of acedia which would later take the title of sloth.  In the
process of its universalisation the solitary, sometimes excruciating and
cathartic, confrontation between the self and the Demon of Noontide gradually
lost its emphasis as a mode of attaining salvation. Despite centuries of
pronounced theological debate there were few alterations to the concept of
acedia from this period on. 
The Efficacy of Demonological Approaches to Acedia
In surveying the numerous early medieval texts concerned with acedia it seems
clear that it was an early form of morbid ennui. On this I agree with Kuhn's
conclusions.  Many of the symptoms described as indicative of acedia (e.g.,
horror loci; tedium vitae; chronic depression; unwarranted sadness; crippling
lethargy; lack of joy; lack of at-peaceness with the universe; addiction to
activities, objects, or states of mind which give no true fulfilment; the
constant desire to flee from ascending states of deep anxiety by resort to such
addictions; and, lack of mystic vision or imagination ) certainly carried
over into later descriptions of the various forms of chronic boredom.
The spiritual techniques (fasting, prayer and solitude) by which the demon of
acedia was made manifest, and the internal conflicts which the Church Fathers
experienced and described in their works, seem to have much in common with
shamanic and religious practices endemic to many other world traditions.
(Traditional shamans, for instance, routinely confronted various demons,
devils, and spirits of discord and decay. ) In more recent times many
artists and poets have described their sufferings from chronic ennui in terms
of exorcistic, cathartic and mystical imagery similar to that used by the
Desert Fathers. One usually confronts such destructive psychospiritual forces
for the purpose of purifying the self and thus of protecting the community from
the harms that could result from the passions turned noxious. One faces the
abyss, pursues the via negativa, in order to become spiritually and emotionally
whole.  The states of chronic ennui associated with such a confrontation
are far removed from the form s of the malaise that currently afflict Western
civilisation--what I have labeled 'normative ennui.' So prevalent is the malady
of 'normative ennui' in the West today that people who see value in
contemplation, in spiritual disciplines designed to improve themselves
emotionally, are derided and even stigmatised as lazy and non-productive.
It is quite possible that the early Church Fathers were confronting a malaise
nurtured by the great urban centres of the age. They were, perhaps, taking on a
disease nurtured by empire--by urbanisation and bureaucratisation. Such a
reading would suggest that they were taking on powers that would one day
station themselves at the very centre of Western civilisation. If so, the
showdown between the Demon of Noontide and the monks of the new religion in the
arid wastelands of the African deserts is one of the most neglected
psychospiritual events of Western history.
We are led to perhaps the most important question: did medieval Christianity
nurture or counteract acedia? The question is important for any modern
assessment of chronic ennui, especially since George Steiner has recently
suggested that this secular version of acedia is still, essentially, a
religious problem. 
My own position on these early Christian commentaries concerning the causes and
cures for the problem is ambivalent. It could be argued that in the shift from
the often solitary confrontation with acedia in the inhospitable deserts of
Northern Africa to the universalised confrontation with it characteristic of
the later medieval period (diagnosed for all Christians under the title of
sloth) there was lost that element of catharsis which has been encouraged by
many traditional peoples to treat states of psychospiritual disintegration. In
my opinion, the switch represented the end of serious attempts by mainstream,
institutional Christianity to tackle the ennui/acedia malaise. From about 1200
on the mystics, poets, and artists of the West took up the struggle instead.
> From an ethical perspective the confrontations with ennui experienced by
the early Church Fathers were conditioned by a specific kind of religious
belief system, a system that often confused noxious passions with perfectly
healthy ones and which privileged masculine forms of the rational intellect
over the body (particularly the functions of the female body). In this sense
some of the acedia experienced by the monks must be attributed to their
attempts to live basically 'passionless lives,' i.e., to reify their experience
of the lifeworld and live instead in the world of reason and the spirit.
Consequently, they may have treated one form of chronic ennui (normative ennui)
with a religious form of the same malaise. This may be part of the reason that
Christianity has been essentially unable to defeat the joylessness associated
with the various forms of the ailment. It is a tendency, I believe, peculiar to
the moral systems developed by the monotheistic religions.
Yet the monks were fine psychologists, and it is clear that on many occasions
they saw acedia and the other capital temptations as distortions of otherwise
life-affirming passions. If there is one essential lesson to be learnt from
their writings it is that we should respect the power and subtlety of the
malaise they confronted in their own beings. The Demon of Noontide was no
pushover: it could erode the will, afflict the body and darken a person's
emotional terrain with depression, madness and thoughts of suicide. It could
also offer escape from cathartic confrontation with self by insinuating into
consciousness all manner of inauthentic desires, pseudo-needs, and fantasies of
relief which, though serving to ward off the worst excesses of acedia, could
ultimately lead only to spiritual ruin. In this sense the courage of the Desert
Fathers as they attempted to name and confront this subtle and destructive
psychospiritual entity surely deserves our admiration if not our awe. For this
reason alone the writing s of the Desert Fathers must surely contribute
something to our attempts to understand modern forms of chronic ennui. If Rome
can be seen as the origin of the concept of 'normative ennui,' then the deserts
of northern Africa may be seen as the site of the first major creative and
spiritual response to that malaise.
Postscript: Postmodernist Ennui
Early Christian descriptions of acedia and related vices did not view 'society'
as the cause of the subjective suffering described. This is in sharp contrast
to most modern descriptions of acedia's progeny terms, e.g., chronic ennui,
anomie, and alienation. Romantic, modernist, and postmodern uses of these words
invariably encompass the idea that something is wrong with the link between the
self and the 'other' of society. In this sense such concepts often represent an
implicit critique of modernity. The depression, languer, and melancholy that
characterised nineteenth-century ennui contradicted the great Enlightenment
bourgeois ideals of progress, competition, scientific and technological
advancement, and social evolution in general: ennui played gollum to the sturdy
hobbit of liberalism.
Understanding the enormous implications of our current distrust of the social
apparatus may allow us to better define and illustrate the immensity of the new
crisis of the subject currently afflicting Western societies. In this new phase
chronic ennui has become associated with schizophrenic, depressive,
narcissistic and psychopathic symptoms and with what Bouchez (1973) terms the
'derealisation' of subjective life characteristic of the late twentieth
How relevant then are terms like taedium, vitae, acedia, tristitia, siccitas,
saturnine melancholy, 'The English Malady,' l'ennui morbide, etc., to
discussions of the postmodern maladies of the subject? I would argue that
'chronic ennui' is more virulent than ever in the postmodernist phase of our
society (though different in character from earlier outbreaks). It can be
argued that postmodernist ennui represents a specific disintegrative response
to the particular social formations characteristic of advanced capitalism and
advanced statism in general.
It is my argument that the fragmentation of the subject occasioned by the new
phase of modernity (sometimes called 'high modernity' or 'postindustrialism')
lies on a continuum with, but is qualitatively different from, earlier states
of subjective suffering. The web of society and culture that is supposed to
help sustain people's material and psychospiritual needs is perhaps more toxic
than ever to the real needs of subjects. In this new phase the norms of the
social web bespeak an advanced state of normative schizophrenia and
psychopathology. If we wish to find a way out of the soul-destroying routines
of the postmodern ennui cycle with its consumeristic addictions (see Perec's
Things), its narcissism and love of empty spectacle, its insane hunger for more
and more objects to fill up the void of a life without meaning, I would suggest
that we reassess the long tradition of writings on the maladies of the subject.
We might ask ourselves where exactly the Desert Fathers went wrong, and just as
importantly, wh ere they were on the right track. Like George Steiner in his
work on the 'Great Ennui' in In Bluebeard's Castle (1971), we might admit that
our current maladies of the self (and their social manifestations) are deeply
related to the more general problems of the history of human spirituality. If
this is the case, and I believe it is, then the battle between the Desert
Fathers and the Demon of Noontide is of the utmost significance for modern
discussions of the history of subjectivity.
Ian Irvine, Coeditor of The Animist: Electronic Journal of the Arts, lectures
in Medieval Studies at La Trobe University, Bendigo, Australia.
(1.) George Steiner, In Bluebeard's Castle (1971); Madeleine Bouchez, L'Ennui
(1973); Reinhard Kuhn, The Demon of Noontide: Ennui in Western Literature
(1976); Sean Desmond Healy, Boredom, Self and Culture (1984); Orrin Klapp,
Overload and Boredom (1986); and Patricia Spacks, Boredom (1995).
(2.) Such comparisons are more than coincidental. The discovery of the
endogenous opiates in the mid 1970s highlighted the fact that many people in
having recourse to various substances and activities do so in order to
'self-inject' themselves with various internally manufactured opiates. It is
now known that a large proportion of the human psychobiological system is
geared to pain management--physical and psychological. In due course this third
stage returned the person to the suffering of the first stage.
(3.) Reinhard Kuhn (1976) in following this line suggests that ennui must be
seen as the major subjective psychospiritual malady that affected individuals
in the early phases of modernity.
(4.) See Kuhn (1976, 36 and 39) and Healy (1984, 16).
(5.) In particular the following figures and texts are seminal: Evagrius of
Pontus's (b. 345) Of the Eight Capital Sins, St. John Chrysosthomos's
Exhortations to Stagirius, Nilus's Treatise on the Eight Evil Spirits, and
Johanis Cassian's The Foundations of Coenobitic Life and the Eight Capital Sins
and Collationes (or Conversations).
(6.) Bloomfield's The Seven Deadly Sins (1952) is still one of the best
discussions of the moral system behind medieval Christianity. The best overview
of chronic ennui's kindred term acedia as it figured in theological and
religious texts during the medieval period can be found in Wenzel's The Sin of
Sloth: Acedia in Medieval Thought and Literature (1967). For in-depth
discussion of the actual relationship between acedia and modern forms of ennui
see Kuhn (1976, Ch. 3). Kuhn, like many commentators, sees the concept of
acedia as a medieval subspecies of chronic ennui. In the same context see
Healy's comments on acedia: 'With the development of Christianity into a
religion of the people at large, the vice (of acedia) went through immense
complexities of definition and attribution as it changed from being an
exclusively eremitic affliction, an occupational hazard as it were, into a
weakness capable of besetting any Christian' (1984, 17).
(7.) Of those who have dealt with the historical questions raised by chronic
ennui in general, and normative ennui in particular, most have tended to ignore
the earliest outbreaks of the malady and have instead concentrated on the
historical and social forces that contributed to the great epidemic of chronic
ennui that struck Europe during the onset of modernity. Only a few writers, in
particular Kuhn (1976, 41-42), have approached the important question of just
why chronic ennui's ancestor malady 'acedia' took such a grip on the early
Christian imagination. Kuhn cites as reasons the rigorous spiritual lives
experienced by the Desert Fathers, the fact that states of normality seemed
rather boring in comparison to the mystical heights to which the monks
attempted to soar, and the actual arid surroundings in which the monks lived.
Such reasoning does not account for the fact that acedia became a base for--in
Kuhn's words--the 'secularisation' and 'universalisation' of the ennui malaise
in the later medieval pe riod. Nor does it solve for us the question of whether
Christianity as a cultural phenomenon could be blamed for the later explosion
of the malady or whether we should look elsewhere for the causes, e.g., to
economic and social factors or to other cultural factors.
(8.) Flaubert, Kierkegaard, Baudelaire, Racine, Balzac, Sainte-Beuve, Maurice
Barres, Marcelle Tinayre and Paul Bourget have all written on or dramatised the
connection between acedia and forms of chronic ennui. Kuhn (1976, 42 and 55)
discusses the many post-Enlightenment writers who had pointed to the
connection. Healy (1984, 16-18) also speaks of the historical dimensions to
this connection. See also Clive's comments (1965, 359). He says chronic ennui
is "the acedia of the twentieth century--the experience of being 'condemned to
freedom' in a world seemingly devoid of objective values."
(9.) See Appendix One 'Etymology of Acedia, Ennui, Spleen and Boredom,' for a
discussion of the point where acedia took on cultural meanings similar to that
of the modern day term chronic ennui.
(10.) See for example Cassian's comments (ed. Waddell, 1974, 229) in De
Institutis Coenobiorum (Foundations of Coenobitic Life), 425 A.D.:
Our sixth contending is with that which the Greeks call, and which we may
describe as tedium or perturbation of heart.... [S]ome of the Fathers declare
it to be the Demon of Noontide which is spoken of in the xcth Psalm.
(11.) Caillois (1937, 54-83 and 143-86) relates the Demon of Noontide to les
demons de midi, i.e. various classical spirits (mainly female) of mischief and
temptation who made their presence felt around midday--e.g., sirens, nymphs,
harpies, nereids, etc.
(12.) Evagrius, 'Texts on Discrimination in Respect of Passions and Thoughts'
(13.) See the Checklist of Authors for comments on the theme of acedia/ennui as
it relates to the works of Nilus, St. John Chrysosthomos, St. Jerome and
Evagrius of Pontius.
(14.) For comments on the role of acedia as the 'Demon of Noontide' in The
Foundations of Coenobitic Life and The Eight Capital Sins see Wenzel (1967,
Chapters 1 and 2). See also Rivers (1955, 293) and Revers (1949), esp. Chapter
1 'Die Acedia bei Johannes Cassianus.'
(15.) Cassian (ed. Waddell, 1946, 229-231).
(16.) Johanis Cassian, Collationes [or Conversations] (425A.D.) [IV, 2].
(17.) See Kuhn (1976, 54-55) for comments regarding the contribution of Gregory
The Great and his work Morals On the Book of Job to medieval and modern
conceptions of acedia and chronic ennui.
(18.) Readers who wish to take up all aspects of the theological debate over
acedia as manifested in Scholasticism and later medieval monasticism are
directed to Wenzel (1967, esp. Chapter 3).
(19.) Kuhn (1976, 53-64) makes a strong case for the similarities between
acedia and modern forms of chronic ennui.
(20.) Though chronic ennui is rarely these days associated with specifically
Christian perceptions of the absence of joy or inspiration, the idea that human
beings have lost touch with 'spiritual powers,' however vaguely imagined,
(21.) Roccatagliata (1986, 4) argues that the exorcism of demons by resort to
solitude, fasting, drugs, intense prayer chanting/singing, and dance has long
been central to 'demonological' approaches to mental illness. He says that at
the time the church fathers were writing, mythological, animistic, biological
and humoral approaches to 'disturbances of the soul' were more or less in
decline in favour of the Christian demonological system. According to
Roccatagliata (p. 14), the Church Fathers and the church Apologists 'unified
animistic and sacred outlooks, as well as the mystical ideologies led by
Orpheus, Pythagorus, and the philosophies of Plato and the Stoics' in order to
create their new approach. It is thus likely that some of the Church Fathers
saw themselves as what we would term 'therapists' in relation to both the major
psychological disturbances of the age and the more existential disturbances of
the soul experienced by 'normal' people. Both types of unease merge in the
concept of acedia, both had a spiritual solution: exorcism of the evil spirits
in the name of the Christian deity. Such a reading of the struggles of the
Desert Fathers would suggest that their ennui was more similar to what I have
called 'creative ennui' than to the other major ennui categories, i.e.,
'dysfunctional' or 'normative' ennui.
(22.) Kuhn (1976, 45) also points to the cathartic element in the practices of
the early Church Fathers. In particular, he speaks of the relationship between
acedia and the via negativa: "...acedia is almost a precondition for a life of
eternal bliss...it is the 'noche oscura del alma' that lay between Saint John
of the Cross and divine grace.... The via negativa that passes through acedia
is a road fraught with hazards and with promises. It represents 'a dangerous
proving ground through which the soul can purify itself and sometimes it serves
as a prelude to the joys and beatitude of ecstasy."'
(23.) See my analysis of In Bluebeard's Castle in my Ph.D. thesis entitled
Uncomfortably Numb: The Emergence of the Normative Ennui Cycle (1998, chapter
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