Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Christianity

Sin of Sadness: Acedia Vel Tristitia between Sociocultural Conditionings and Psychological Dynamics of Negative Emotions

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Christianity

Sin of Sadness: Acedia Vel Tristitia between Sociocultural Conditionings and Psychological Dynamics of Negative Emotions

Article excerpt

While Jesus' message was characterized by a wide openness to human moral sufferance, sadness came to be conceptualized as a sin in Christian tradition from late antiquity to the end of middle ages. The present paper tries to understand this contradictory phenomenon following the history of the sin of acedia vel tristitia from the introduction of the concept by Evagrius Ponticus till the progressive transformation of tristitia in the only partially overlapping sin of sloth. These historical developments are interpreted in the light of the psychoanalytical concept of mental pain, with a particular reference to the works of W.R. Bion. The current rediscovery of the therapeutic potential of the moral approach to human personality makes particularly critical a deeper understanding of these historical changes in the conceptualization of the sin of acedia. Clinicians should be alert to the risk that an undeliberate reliance on the discussion of the sin of acedia in psychotherapeutic settings may be perceived as casting blame on the patient as a suffering human being.

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Throughout much of western civilization, emotions have been the focus of attention of philosophers, religious moralists and psychologists. The social consensus won by each of these perspectives has varied over time. In the twentieth century the youngest among the three mentioned disciplines gained undisputed social prevalence over the other two.

Psychologists from different backgrounds have often displayed a supercilious attitude toward philosophers' and moralists' treatment of emotions. Secular psychologists have been inclined to dismiss religion-based strategies for the management and development of personality as a devalued residue of a pre-scientific approach to human reality.

More recently, religiously committed psychotherapists have warned against the risks implied in such a reductionistic approach. Among them, Solomon Schimmel has written, "Amoral psychology is uncomfortable with Oughts' - it prefers to think that it can deal with facts about human nature, shunning values" (1997, p. 5). In Schimmers view, the rejection of the religiously informed moral tradition would amount to the wasting of a highly valuable lore. "The theologians and moralists... were profound psychologists. Not only did they excel in analyzing human personality, but because they wanted to guide us to selfimprovement they were very action oriented" (1997, p. 4). According to Schimmel, a wide understanding of moralistic literature on sin could be clinically useful to most psychotherapists, even if personally uninterested in religious experience.

Within the framework of a religiously informed and highly relational theory of emotions, G. Simon Harak (1993) has called attention to each man's responsibility to control, transform and correctly develop his own emotions. In fact, in the second half of the last century the awareness of the moral dimension our emotions entail has gathered increasing consensus also among philosophically oriented ethicists (Salomon, 2003).

Among human emotions, sadness can be a particularly valuable subject for discussing the potential benefits which a deeper understanding of moral literature on passions could offer to contemporary clinicians. In fact, sadness - intense and persistent - is the core symptom of a highly prevalent, disabling, and not rarely lethal psychiatric condition: major depression. As such it is the target of many psychiatric and psychological therapeutic strategies. At the same time, sadness has been for over two thousand years the focus of enhanced attention by philosophers and ascetics.

In fact, the early society felt a certain uneasiness when confronted with the experience of sadness. On the one hand, since Hippocratic times medicine has conceptualized prolonged sadness as a sign of a derangement of the healthy functioning of the human mind (Jackson, 1986). …

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