Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Ἀκηδία - Acedia: The Sin of Sloth is not Really Laziness

I was just challenged to identify the cardinal sin of my personality.  Personally, mine may be immoderation...but there is another I am seriously entertaining as a possibility.  It is, at least, a danger.

In attempting to figure out my cardinal sin, I looked at the Delphic maxims (relatively full compiled list is here: and I looked at the seven deadly sins of the Christians and that is when something else really caught my attention.  What we are taught is sloth and we think of it as laziness is not really that at all.  The original Greek is acedia, which is much closer to despair and dejection than it is to just laziness.  It is more like ennui.

Basically, the cardinal sin of acedia is when you just can't maintain motivation to keep on keeping on.  It is when you give in to the feeling that whatever it is you are facing is so big that you just kind of can't care any more.  It is when life feels pointless and meaningless and you stop caring about your duty and the condition of the world and you stop trying to make it better.

There are signs of acedia that are very similar to signs of depression, but are not exactly the same.  There is a general restlessness and boredom where you try to fill up your life with distractions because you've lost a sense of meaning.  There is a tendency to sleep more than is advisable and to either neglect your daily work or to do it without engagement.  There is a tendency to fixate on the overwhelming nature of the future rather than live in the present and do one's duty here and now.

All of this is a sin because it keeps you from being able to operate and fulfill your purpose...whatever that happens to be.  It keeps you from working to make the world a better place, which is an important duty that each of us has.

Why did this realization jump out at me?  Because when I think about our culture in general, and I think about our collective cardinal sin, I've always thought about greed...but now that I understand what acedia is, I think it is that.  I think that what I have understood as greed (amongst the 99% - the 1% it may be something else) is overindulgence in consumption as a form of distraction from the pain of acedia.  It is also what keeps us from standing up and doing what needs to be done to fix the world.  You can see it in the persistent "sophisticated cynicism" of the intellectual left when they say things like "it's all oligarchy, there's no difference between the parties" instead of getting out there and trying to make a difference.  And if you live in a place where there is no candidate running that you can morally support, then you bloody well run or find someone you can support and convince them to run!  Acedia is passivity that passes into careless apathy.  We've got to stop it.

So how do you overcome acedia?  It is through will....a capacity that we do not train and exercise in this culture and need to start doing so.  You overcome acedia by getting up, focusing in the moment, and doing what you can do today that is in alignment with your duty.  You don't focus on the distant do what is your duty and right to do today BECAUSE it is your duty and is right to do it.  And you just keep going. As an example, I pick up plastic trash when I'm walking and throw it away.  Every time I go out, there is a lot more plastic trash in my path...and I pick it up and I throw it away.  It would be easy to give into despair about it and be overwhelmed and think that what I'm doing doesn't make a difference, but in the end, I don't want to be the kind of person who walks by plastic trash and doesn't pick it I keep picking it up. That's a small example, but it is the principle in action.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Recovering and Retraining Revulsion

Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, makes a compelling case that both liberals and conservatives experience moral outrage and believe themselves to be making moral decisions, but that the character of their morality is very different. What struck me is that conservatives, in addition to being far more authoritarian, use the emotion of disgust a lot.

So, what is disgust or revulsion? It is deeply primal and clearly is tied in with our animal natures and evolution. Revulsion is that virtually non-cognitive feeling when we encounter something that could make us sick and kill us. It is the emotion that keeps us from eating meat that has maggots in it. It is the emotion that keeps us from getting shit on our hands and then putting our hands anyplace close to our mouth before washing first. It is really, really powerful. Haidt has examples that just literally make my skin crawl and make me nauseous and it is very hard to argue against that visceral feeling and say that something is morally okay when it evokes that reaction.

The question, then, is how is it used and why. At its most basic, that intense feeling is about the survival and care of our animal selves...and is an important warning system. But over time, what has happened is that it has been used, very skillfully, to evoke that reaction to things that are not harmful. The main arena in which this has been used is sexuality. This is probably because there may be real animal-nature revulsion to having sex with close kin, that would result in genetic problems. But this feeling has been expanded to all sorts of things that, frankly, aren't relevant.  There is nothing dangerous to the survival of the animal nature about same-sex relations, nor about menstruating women, or about sex in general.  But somehow over the course of many, many, many generations, people have been trained to experience revulsion at many of these things. Not only that, but the revulsion gets generalized and laid straight on the people themselves.

 I think we are kidding ourselves if we do not realize that many people on the right experience disgust about not just same-sex relations, but gay people and lesbians, and women, and anyone who makes them feel sexual. And disgust is so strong, that it is a very effective tool of authoritarian power because it can be used to redirect hostility against those who would limit personal freedom by giving people a substitute target with such a visceral power behind it. I do think retraining these aspects comes from making it clear that those people who are experiencing this kind of revulsion are NOT moral. It is inappropriate revulsion that has nothing to do with morality.

 That then, is a meditation about how disgust is used towards things that are inappropriate.

 That's only half the problem, though. We, collectively and individually, are doing a TON of things that ARE actually harmful to our animal other words, our very bodily survival. And do we experience revulsion? Usually not! We feel morally outraged by fracking and water pollution, but do we really feel the kind of visceral disgust like we do if we think about touching rotting, maggoty meat with our bare hands? I know I don't. But I should because this is poisoning our water and that is exactly the reason why this emotion exists.

 The moral outrage on the left about all of these devastating environmental problems doesn't tend to have the power of visceral revulsion behind it. If it did, we would be making more progress. If we could retrain our animal natures to experience this kind of revulsion for environmental degradation, we would fix it...and clearly the animal nature can be trained to experience revulsion because it has been done in regards to harmless sexuality that was once not experienced that way (witness ancient Hellenic sexuality where bisexuality was the norm).

 An example of how this is working now is that when I go out and walk through the neighborhood, I pick up and throw away all plastic trash that I see....which is an alarming amount. Now, I have literally been told, "don't touch that, it's dirty." This is revulsion and disgust speaking. And the answer is, "you are damn right it's dirty...and it's going to go into the water if I don't pick it up!"

 The disgust at the possibility of this going into the water supply, where it can do real damage, has to start trumping the more immediate...which is a retraining.

 As an occultist, I believe that for all that we tend to experience ourselves as individuals, on another level of reality, we are cells in a greater mind - that there IS an oversoul of humanity, if you will. That those decisions that we make, those experiences that we have, those things that we learn all have a power to influence more than just one individual without necessarily "teaching" others. And, furthermore, I believe that as occultists, because we work intentionally and consciously with this aspect of the Greater Self of humanity, we can have disproportionate impact.

 So, I invite you to consider this challenge. Let's retrain our sense of revulsion to really call up that visceral disgust in regards to environmental degradation so that it is not only cognitively based moral outrage but has the same feeling as getting shit all over your hands (to be gross, but accurate). What we are dealing with is far more dangerous than that.