If you are like me, you probably have never heard of the concept of acedia. I had not until I started my PhD, this despite more than 50 years of extensive reading. In this post, we look at the nature of acedia, and how it is the cultural norm; next post, I will tie it into how we maintain the Climate Lie.
What is acedia?
Why has no one heard of it? For one thing, the word has been in and out of the English language since its inception in ancient Greek, frequently labeled as archaic; its history is documented in my book Acedia. Originally it was a monastic term, and it did not survive the philosophic shift from religiosity to scientific materialism. Acedia described the condition of objecting to the effort of living, of being loving or charitable.
It was replaced by terms ranging from ennui to depression — less depth and breadth though; acedia is a better choice for me. I came to regard acedia as any combination of laziness, fearfulness and self-righteousness, all terms that block the individual from authenticity or spiritual maturity. And even these terms are easily misunderstood, usually with scorn — as noted, acedia objects to the effort of being authentic.
When people encounter a painful situation, they inherently want to resolve the pain; they want to authentically feel good and be satisfied with life. They ponder the issues, and if they have enough wisdom (as depth of understanding of universal truths, what the Greeks called sophia), they move to resolution (so-called practical wisdom, or phronesis) — and feel good. If not, they are usually in some kind of internal conflict — they want resolution, but they also want the pain to go away. If they have enough discipline, they work through the issues, again to resolution. If not, they shift to avoidance — still, if they have enough hope, they again find a way to move to resolution. In all of this, the skills of awareness (recognition) and of playfulness further aid in movement to resolution.
If none of this occurs, they move into some means of numbing the pain, some form of acedia manifest as laziness, fearfulness, or self-righteousness so as to overwhelm or transmute the pain into something familiar, some way to avoid. Then they cycle back into the patterns, with a different kind of pain, but one that they can mask.
It works! If it didn’t, we wouldn’t do it.
The problem is that acedia does not lead to long-term resolution, just avoidance. And in our culture, it is not easily challenged; it is judged inappropriate, but not shifted. Nor do we as a culture give much value to any of the needed skills: wisdom (sophia or phronesis), discipline (except for engaging in sports), hope (wishful thinking, yes; authentic hope, no), or playfulness (when do you really authentically play?).
Acedia as cultural norm.
So how has this become the cultural norm? I suggest that since the beginning of civilization, we have traumatized ourselves and each other. In The Parable Of The Tribes, Schmookler links the inherent difficulties of domination with the very nature of civilization. Since the very beginning (about 12,000 years ago), civilization has been a two-edged sword, with empire as the foundation. To have an empire means winners (dominators) and losers (subjects). The Greeks developed democracy, but were a slave culture. Fast forward to the Renaissance with the development of science and the Industrial Revolution, and industrial slavery and the rise of alcoholism. The 20th century brought technology and the valuing of women, and consumerism. The 21st century has given us the valuing of diversity, and global warming.
Look around. How many people do you know who are truly happy? How many alcoholics do you know? What about domestic violations? Or world hunger? Or the numerous political-economic betrayals of the past 50 years? We have a strange culture, certainly not a mature one.
We live the Climate Lie, the Cultural Lie.
Coming next: Acedia and the Climate Lie.