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On Acedia: How to Save the West by Fighting Off the Demons of Weariness by David Boos

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On Acedia: How to Save the West by Fighting Off the Demons of Weariness

"Melencolia I" (1514), a 24.1 x 19.1 cm engraving by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

For the weary hates what is present and desires what is not.

—Evagrius Ponticus, Epistulae

Climate activists from “Fridays for Future” and “Extinction Rebellion” have claimed for years that our level of prosperity is not only unsustainable, but is also to blame for the supposed destruction of our planet. With rapidly rising inflation and the explosion of energy prices, prosperity critique has also found its way into the mainstream. A regression away from previous levels of prosperity seems to have not only become an ideological option, but an unavoidable reality.

Such rhetoric is also being ideologically processed by the Right. Whereas in the past many on the Right sang the praises of the free market, a fundamental skepticism about growth now appears to have taken hold. The idea that we must ‘return’ to a state of greater balance with nature by foregoing prosperity is gaining supporters by the day.

It is one thing to criticize the modern realities of alienated wage slavery, and another to glorify a centuries-old way of life without ever having experienced its privations oneself. Even if one no longer believes in the superiority of one’s own progressiveness, there is no denying that modern medicine, agriculture and technology in general have enabled large parts of the world to achieve a level of prosperity that earlier generations would not have dreamt of. As a result of this progress, the number of victims of natural disasters, hunger and epidemics is lower than ever before in human history. A reversal of this level of prosperity could undo many of these gains, costing countless lives.

The criticism that prosperity has made us fat is voiced regularly nowadays, and we cannot deny a certain decadence has accompanied the affluence of the West. But although large parts of the world are now catching up with the West in terms of prosperity and may soon surpass it, the idea of a limit to growth seems to be barely present, if at all, in these societies. Whether it is China, India or many of the Gulf states, there is more of a sense of optimism in these countries than a feeling of living beyond one’s means.

This raises the question of whether the dominant feeling in the West of having exhausted our level of growth is based on an absolute value, or if it should instead be understood relatively, in relation to the creative power remaining within our high culture.

“Sloth (Acedia)” from “The Seven Vices” (before 1612), an engraving by Hieronymus (Jerome) Wierix (ca. 1553–1619), located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Anyone who loves Western culture can hardly avoid noticing that it has grown old. Where defeatism, cynicism, skepticism, and above all weariness appear to reign within our hearts, other cultures seem to be bursting with vitality and creative power. The same will to self-assertion that distinguished our forefathers has moved on to other parts of the world. There, the conviction that the next generation will be better off than their parents is still alive and well, and technical and economic boundaries do not act as deterrents, but as obstacles to be overcome.

It is hardly surprising that the West has reached this point. Over a century ago, Oswald Spengler had already stated that the Occidental high culture had lost its creative power and that it would only be able to imitate past greatness. He sketched an Occident that was on the verge of transitioning to the late phase of its cultural life cycle, to Caesarism; a reading that, especially in light of the work of historian David Engels, has recently returned to prominence.

Regardless of whether one considers these processes a historical inevitability or, on the contrary, a self-fulfilling prophecy, the weariness present in our society is tangible.

It may be coincidence, or rather a poetic wink of history, that the Club of Rome published its report, “The Limits to Growth” in the same year (1972) as the last visit of man to the moon, as part of the Apollo 17 mission. While manned space flight to the moon may not be a decisive factor on the road to the next technological leap of mankind, and although there have been great achievements in the fields of miniaturization and genetic research over the past 50 years, it seems almost symbolic that the retreat of the West coincided with the retreat from the moon, whose ‘conquest’ had served as the latest symbol of humanity succeeding in overcoming its limits only a few years prior.

Similarly, it is sobering to note that the Internet, with its revolutionary potential, has lost within the span of a few decades much of its once-utopian promise of democratizing knowledge. Instead, it is largely used today for the consumption of pornography, social networking applications, and streaming services. The Internet as the ‘great equalizer’ with regards to the availability of intellectual resources may still exist in theory, but such tools are primarily used by a small group of active users who are willing to search for and utilize this content. In this respect, very little has changed compared to the time before the Internet existed.

So, while China and Russia are currently working on sending manned missions to the moon, such plans in the West are now primarily in the hands of ambitious billionaires like Elon Musk. Although NASA is planning a manned flight to the moon in 2023, their declared goal is, primarily, to put “the first woman” on the moon. One may therefore harbor doubts as to whether this is anything more than just a woke publicity stunt, or if this will mark the beginning of new ambitions of the West in space.

Those who are familiar with Spengler’s theories will recognize the symptoms of an aging advanced civilization, and indeed it is almost inconceivable that the West could once more inspire heroic deeds in the spirit of the transcending Plus ultra of Charles V, or the Non sufficit orbis of his son, Philip II, any time soon. It is not enough simply to claim that one ‘does not believe’ in such theories, since they are currently being confirmed—rather than invalidated—by reality.

Spiritual considerations may perhaps offer us a way to understand the matter and find ways of dealing with it. Whoever searches for the psychological causes of Western defeatism will discover the aforementioned undertone of weariness in many intellectual currents. Among the ‘woke,’ a rejection of the spiritual foundations of the Occident is always en vogue, but even among conservatives, an increasing boredom, a languor, is spreading, which ultimately results in an indifference to the continued existence of our culture. This can be explained by a lack of renewal of the source, because for quite some time now, the West has been culturally treading water at best, if not existing in a state of outright retreat. The destructive restlessness of our time is confronted with the seemingly endless recycling of the great deeds of the past, which we have long since lacked the leisure to comprehend and to be inspired by.

Thus, our love of the past turns into weariness of it. World War I teaches us what such cultural weariness can lead to for society as a whole. But how does one fight this weariness? First and foremost, by calling it by its name: acedia.

Acedia was initially defined by the early Christian Desert Father Evagrius Ponticus. It denotes a state of mind that is difficult to capture in a single word. It encompasses disgust, boredom, sluggishness, despondency, languor, reluctance, melancholy, and even weariness that when put together, encapsulate such a state of mind. Modern interpretations also consider depression, a disease that is rampant in present-day Western civilization, to be a form of acedia.

Evagrius considers acedia not so much a vice, but a demon—perhaps even the most oppressive of all demons. It leads to the “slackening of a soul that does not possess what is befitting of its nature.” Romano Guardini called acedia “perhaps the most painful human phenomenon,” while the Orthodox clergyman and author Gabriel Bunge has posed the question:

And what shall we say of fear, that twin sister of acedia, as we shall see? Has it not become the mark of Cain of our civilization?

Just as a shadow settles over the mind of a depressed individual, so it does over a depressed civilization. Evagrius says acedia “darkens” man’s relationship with God and makes it impossible for him to see the Divine. Acedia is able to manifest itself as a permanent condition, enshrouding the entire soul—who, when afflicted by it, hates everything that is extant and desires what does not exist.

Of course, an infestation by the demon of acedia does not require an active belief in it. On the contrary, the demon uses the same methods of the devil when he performs his greatest trick: making people believe that he does not exist. Thus, acedia affects believers and non-believers alike. Therefore, one should maintain a pinch of Christian compassion for those activists who, out of demonic possession (and that’s what it is!), promote the destruction of all the civilizational achievements of the Occident.

But what is the demon’s goal? It can hardly be about the destruction of Western civilization; that would be too earthly a matter for a demon. It is the disruption of the existential reference of human beings to God upon which his mind is set!

What intention do the demons have in arousing in us gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger and resentment, and the rest of the passions? [They want] the intellect, which has turned these [passions] crude, not to be able to pray as it should. For once the passions of the irrational part [of the soul] have come to rule, they do not allow it to move rationally and to seek GOD’s word.

Once we acknowledge that what besieges our cultural consciousness is a form of acedia, ranging from the individual level to the consciousness of an entire society, we have to conclude that it is this form of demonic possession that makes us weary and incapable of believing in our capability to grow further. Like a clinically depressed patient, wide swaths of the West (certainly in Europe!) have become unable to imagine anything other than impending doom.

We therefore need to treat our cultural consciousness in the same way we would treat our individual acedia. Evagrius teaches us that one of the best ways to deal with the demon is constant prayer and work. It’s as easy and as complicated a piece of advice as there is, and yet, it is the truth—and, it may pierce right at the heart of the crisis of the West, which has given up on prayer and thus appears lost, like a wanderer in the desert. Let us heed the advice of Evagrius, who has given us the best advice on how to combat the demon of acedia in his Tractatus de octo spiritibus malitiae when he wrote:

Weariness is cured by steadfastness
and that you do everything with great care,
fear of God and perseverance.
Prescribe for yourself
a measure in every work
And do not desist from it sooner,
than until you have completed it.
And pray without ceasing and briefly,
and the spirit of weariness
will flee from you.

David Boos is an organist, documentary filmmaker, and writer for The European Conservative and other publications.