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Jean-Charles Nault, The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of Our Times (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015).

R.J. Snell, Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2015).

For a brief moment in the spring of 2015, even the most eagle-eyed literary consumers were liable to think they had double vision. Two books, published within weeks of each other, both argued that acedia—defined by St. Thomas Aquinas as encompassing sorrow about spiritual good and weariness with activity[1]—was a defining vice of our disenchanted and hyper-technologized age. However, a closer examination of the similarly-themed volumes—The Noonday Devil by French theologian Jean-Charles Nault, O.S.B., and Acedia and Its Discontents by American philosophy professor R.J. Snell (then of Eastern University, now of the Witherspoon Institute)—reveals significant differences between them.

Of the two studies, The Noonday Devil is by far the most comprehensive—which is unsurprising given that acedia was the topic of Nault’s doctoral dissertation at the Pontifical Lateran University (published in 2004 as La saveur de Dieu). The book also has the distinction of being one of the more accessible high-level theological works of recent memory. Nault based its style not on his dissertation itself but rather upon the distillation of his research that he gave via conferences to his brother monks at the Abbey of Saint-Wandrille, where he is abbot.

The text of The Noonday Devil is neatly divided between two initial chapters outlining the development of theological thought on acedia and two subsequent chapters providing practical advice for combating it. Nault’s historical analysis follows a ressourcement approach that will be familiar to readers of Servais Pinckaers. He begins with an extensive treatment of acedia in Evagrius and other Desert Fathers, passing briefly through other Church Fathers and Hugh of St. Victor before commencing a chapter-length account of Thomas Aquinas’s teachings on the vice.

Acedia, Nault explains, is a concern in the Desert Fathers’ writings because it “drives the monk to leave his cell and to flee intimacy with God, so as to seek here and there some compensation for the austere way of life to which he felt called by God” (11). Nault’s analysis of Evagrius provides a core insight, one which he will revisit as the book’s focus turns from theory to praxis: acedia for Evagrius comprises two complementary dimensions, the temporal and the spatial. Temporally, the acedia sufferer feels as though “the passage of time is never ending.” This sense of ennui can affect the body, bringing about “a certain physical weakness …, accompanied by the potential for a psychological disturbance.” Spatially, the acedia sufferer has “the impression of being hemmed in, of being stifled” (30).

Before developing the implications of Evagrius’s account, Nault switches gears for his Thomistic analysis. Thomas follows Gregory the Great in identifying acedia as “sorrow for spiritual good.” “And yet,” Nault adds, “in an altogether new insight, he describes it as the first sin against the joy that springs from charity. He makes it the sin against the gaudium de caritate” (62).

The remedy for acedia is, therefore, that which will restore charity in the sufferer’s soul. Nault, by means of a remarkably concise (and unmistakably Pinckaersian) account of the outlines of Aquinas’s moral theology—the exitus-reditus structure of the Summa, the nature of virtue as a habitus, true vs. false freedom, and the ultimate goal of beatitude—identifies that remedy as nothing less than the Incarnation: “Christ restores to us the hope of being able to participate fully in the divine life” (86).

Given that acedia held such interest for theologians of the Church’s first millennium and beyond, how is it that the very word faded into obscurity? Nault writes that acedia disappeared from manuals of theology at a time when, under the commentarial tradition set forth by Cajetan, Aquinas’s incarnational synthesis gave way to fragmentation:

If you take the two definitions of acedia that we mentioned in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, the “sadness about spiritual good” and “disgust with action,” and you abandon the unified concept of Christian action in which the Holy Spirit and Christ are at the very heart of this action, you will see that sadness becomes [characterized as] “melancholy” and the paralysis of action becomes “sloth.” (105)

At the start of the second half of The Noonday Devil, Nault notes that he is not so interested in “[analyzing] the causes of the rather disillusioned outlook of our modern world” as in proposing “the current relevance of acedia in the life of a Christian” (107‒08, emphasis in original). By understanding the nature of acedia, the Christian may guard against temptations toward nihilism and despair.

As Nault returns to discussing the spatial and temporal dimensions of acedia, he explores various means of combating the vice through an incarnational perspective. Of these, the most effective — and deserving of a lengthier treatment than that which Nault provides—is that of the liturgical anamnesis. “The Eucharist,” Nault observes, “is what gives temporality its ultimate meaning, since it takes up the past, the present, and the future: love never passes away (1 Cor 13:8)” (142).

Although R.J. Snell includes the word “acedia” in his book’s title, within his text he uses the terms “acedia” and “sloth” interchangeably; generally, he prefers “sloth.” The definition he gives of sloth in Acedia and Its Discontents will be familiar to Nault’s readers, being drawn from Evagrius, Aquinas, and even an article penned by Nault.[2] Of particular interest for his argument is Nault’s insight that acedia, in fueling “the desire to save one’s ‘freedom’ at any price,” leads ironically to “a deeper enslavement to the ‘self.”

Acedia and Its Discontents lacks the cohesiveness of The Noonday Devil; it reads more like a compilation of articles than an integrated study. For example, nearly midway through the study, Snell—critiquing contemporary culture’s “disenchanted, unencumbered world of freedom”—pauses to introduce his book’s theme, as though he were mentioning it for the first time: “Christian tradition provides a fascinating account of a particular vice, acedia, usually translated as sloth, which seems to capture with particular aptness the spiritual conditions of our own age” (61).

Snell also frequently drops in quotations from other authors without introducing the speaker, to such a degree that, at times, his prose reads like mosaic writing. This practice, which has become increasingly common in academic literature, creates inconveniences for the reader, who must continually turn to the footnotes to learn whose words are being employed. It also makes it difficult for the reader to discern whether the author is drawing upon an outside source or is simply using scare quotes.

Technical quibbles aside, as a work that falls under the category of Christian philosophy rather than theology, Acedia and Its Discontents is in many ways a useful complement to Nault’s magisterial volume. Snell draws out in more detail than Nault the effects of acedia evident in the radical individualism that characterizes much of contemporary Western culture. The ultimate answer, he writes, is living “a genuinely spiritual or supernatural life [that] is materialized in our work of culture making”; this “makes both us and the world more human, more perfected in our subjectivity” (119).

[1] Summa theologiae, II-II, q. 35, a. 1

[2] “Acedia: Enemy of Spiritual Joy,” Communio 31 [Summer 2004]: 236‒59.

Dawn Eden Goldstein, S.T.D., independent scholar and author of several books, most recently Sunday Will Never Be the Same: A Rock and Roll Journalist Opens Her Ears to God (Catholic Answers Press, 2019).

Keep reading! Click here to read our next article, Adulthood vs. Modern "Adulting"

Dawn Eden Goldstein, S.T.D., independent scholar and author of several books, most recently Sunday Will Never Be the Same: A Rock and Roll Journalist Opens Her Ears to God (Catholic Answers Press, 2019).

Posted on July 2, 2019

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