Nov 18, 2011

Acedia: the Noonday Demon


A few weeks ago Mel LeBlanc, a religious-type who lives and “councils” in Arlington, sent me a book he thought we might have a mutual interest in and discussion about. The book was Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life by Kathleen Norris. She has also written The New York Times bestsellers The Cloister Walk, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, and The Virgin of Bennington. She is a lovely writer and I recommend anything she has written—very thoughtful and very honest.

Norris begins Acedia & Me with an except from Evagrius Ponticus’ treatise called The Praktikos (written near the end of the fourth century—roughly in the time of Augustine). Evagrius Ponticus writes about “The demon of acedia—also called the noonday demon.” Funny thing is that the 2011 Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary informs us that acedia’s first known use was in 1607. Webster is wrong about this. Acedia is an ancient word that perhaps resurfaced in 1607—ironically the year that Jamestown, VA was established.

Recently, I was writing about acedia and of the dangers of success. I noted that the chief danger of success is that success places us in the province of little resistance and no struggle. The Greeks had a term for this concept and later the Romans called it acedia. Acedia is sometimes defined as sloth or uncaring. It actually comes from Latin root words that mean “absence of care” or “indifference.”

The time of day that acedia was most likely to overwhelm someone was at noontime—when no shadow was cast. It strikes in bright noonday sun of clarity, rather than in the darkness of despair. Acedia does not strike the struggling person, those who strive for daily bread and survival. Rather acedia always strikes the person who sits at the top of the success heap. It strikes the person at the apex of his or her achievement.

Norris explores this concept of acedia throughout a whole book and not just an article or essay. She writes that the:

standard dictionary definitions of acedia as 'apathy,' 'boredom,' or 'torpor' do not begin to cover it, and while we may find it convenient to regard it as a more primitive word for what we now term depression, the truth is much more complex. Having experienced both conditions, I think it likely that much of the restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating despair that plagues us today is the ancient demon of acedia in modern dress.

One of the reasons that acedia is so applicable to us today, is that we all know the malaise of too much food, too much money, too much success, and the like. We work like crazy for free time and when it comes we do not know what to do with it. As the writer Walker Percy notes in his book Lost in the Cosmos, “Boredom is the self being stuffed with itself.” This is as good a definition of acedia as I can think of. We are each too much of everything.

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