Academic journal article Humanitas

Acedia, Tristitia and Sloth: Early Christian Forerunners to Chronic Ennui

Academic journal article Humanitas

Acedia, Tristitia and Sloth: Early Christian Forerunners to Chronic Ennui

Article excerpt

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). [1] 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 cycle.'

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. [2]

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 of selfhood. …

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