BOREDOM AND LAZINESS, SLOTH AND ACEDIA

Based on Finkielsztein, M. (2018). Nuda a lenistwo, gnuśność i acedia [Boredom and laziness, sloth, and acedia]Maska, 37, 36-50.

Of the title concepts, ‘boredom’ is by far the youngest. The toposes of sloth and laziness are as old as civilization itself, acedia is of ancient origin – while boredom, understood in a way similar to that of today, appeared only at the end of the 18th century. What is the relationship between boredom and its older cousins?

Laziness and sloth vs. boredom

One can often encounter the view, not always explicitly expressed, of the identity of boredom and idleness or rest. Many people I interviewed during my research on the issue of boredom (Finkielsztein, 2021) stated that they would like to have time to be ‘bored.’ In the same breath, others added that they would like to get a little ‘lazy’ – whereas laziness was understood as rest and idleness. The identification of these notions can also be seen in some thinkers, such as Erich Fromm (2001), who in his The Sane Society used the terms’ laziness’ and ‘boredom’ interchangeably when he wrote: “Laziness, far from being normal, is a symptom of mental pathology. In fact, one of the worst forms of mental suffering is boredom, not knowing what to do with oneself and one’s life (p. 282).

Several arguments can be gathered to reflect the similarity of meaning of these concepts:

  • Apart from the fact that both are commonly associated with inaction, both are also treated as a kind of misdemeanour. In the past, their interpretation was dominated by a moral interpretation: being idle and unproductive and wasting time was considered a sin, today they are rather described in terms of a secular violation of the work ethic, the imperative of productivity or consumption, a waste of personal potential and a simple way to achieve failure in life.
  • Both laziness and boredom are sometimes ascribed to critical potential. Both are sometimes interpreted as the expression of not giving in to the constant pursuit of our (own or imagined) desires, the ability to stop in one’s tracks in order to enjoy the happiness of the moment. They are described as an expression of opposition to the capitalist work ethics, exemplified by the nineteenth-century flâneur, strolling the streets of Paris with a tortoise on a leash, who, considered lazy by the bourgeois capitalists, deliberately disavowed the value of work, exposing the excess of free time spent on matters of clothing, the palate, romance, but also the spirit.
  • This last characteristic is linked to the interpretation of laziness and boredom in terms of reflexivity, (self)knowledge and creativity. It is in these two states, according to some, that true reflection is possible – when we are not preoccupied with the multitude of stimuli surrounding us and chasing after them, we have time, the necessary peace and cognitive resources to be creative and reflect on things we don’t think about every day.
  • The last thing that brings laziness/sloth close to boredom is the way they are sometimes graphically represented. This can be seen by juxtaposing figure from Pieter Breughel the Elder’s painting Desidia (Sloth) with one of the many stereotypical depictions of boredom available on the Internet (Figure 1) – their body language is extremely similar, both figures support their heads with their hands, they look sleepy, their eyes are closed. If one were to look for distinctions, one could say that boredom is rather represented in a sitting position, although tending towards a horizontal, while laziness/depression is rather represented lying down or half-lying.
Pieter Breughel the Elder, Desidia (Sloth) & Boredom

So far, I have used the terms ‘laziness’ and ‘sloth’ interchangeably. However, it is important to consider whether they are, in fact, identical. At the level of dictionary and colloquial definitions, laziness and sloth are in principle indistinguishable, with laziness described as “unwillingness to work; sluggishness, slothfulness; idleness,” and sloth as idleness and unwillingness to work. Both states would thus be characterized by a general reluctance to engage in activity, in particular, to not do what one ought to do. Both are associated with inactivity longer than it is required for the needs of rest and physical or mental regeneration. However, as Marcin Zdrenka (2012) shows, these concepts are not synonymous, and it is possible to draw a line between them, which presents the below table:

 LazinessSloth
ScaleIt happensA steady disposition, “reference horizon”
Who can experience itAn individualAn individual or a group
CapacityThe tendency to narrowing meaning – concrete: indolenceThe tendency to widening meaning, the vagueness of the concept
Primary causeto be confronted with a hardship that has to be overcome, getting tired of it, or projecting it into future actions – giving uppenetrating action through thought, the deconstruction of the value of the goal and its invalidation; lack of meaning, absurdity, aimlessness
Laziness & Sloth, based on Zdrenka (2012).

This distinction can, in my view, be contrasted with the division into situational and existential boredom. The first of them would have common features with laziness, the second with sloth. Both laziness and situational boredom are rather short-lived states associated with inactivity and lack of involvement. However, laziness stops at this level and is usually attributed mainly to internal reasons (it is a character defect), while for boredom, inactivity is only one of the circumstances in which an individual may feel it. Its causes are generally rather external (although a personality component is also present). It is not only a dislike of work or effort but rather a dislike of the current situation, which gives rise to a desire to change and take up an unspecified other activity. The two concepts are also strongly differentiated by the perception of time – in laziness, it is something unimportant, its passage is unnoticeable, boredom, on the other hand, evokes the feeling of time dragging and increases the awareness of its passage. Sloth and existential boredom are much more similar because both are based on the feeling of meaninglessness, purposelessness, and worthlessness of life or action. In my opinion, the primary state would be existential boredom, and sloth would be only one of its possible consequences.

Since, according to the above analysis, laziness and boredom are not the same, it is necessary to ask a question about their mutual relations. In the course of my research on boredom, I have encountered statements that only lazy people have time for boredom/can be bored, and therefore the belief that laziness is the cause of boredom. Such optics is probably the result of complete identification of boredom and idleness – we can observe it already in the works of the authors of the Enlightenment era, who also pointed to laziness as the cause of boredom, which was understood as the opposite of work and activity. In my opinion, however, the relationship between boredom and laziness is rather the other way round. It is boredom with what we do or what we have to do that manifests itself as laziness – and only through reflection in a state of boredom does it become laziness. An example of this can be seen in the work boredom syndrome [boreout], which consists of three complementary elements: work underload, lack of commitment, and boredom. The creators of the concept, Philippe Rothlin and Peter Werder (2008), explicitly indicate that employees suffering from boreout are forced to be lazy. The main reason for laziness at work, according to the authors, is a small number of interesting and challenging duties and the boredom this causes. Another example or symptom of laziness in which boredom plays an important role is procrastination. Research by psychologists shows that there is a strong positive correlation between boredom and procrastination a strong positive correlation (Wan et al., 2014) and that its direction runs from boredom to procrastination. This is because it has been found that people tend to postpone those tasks that are unstimulating, boring, unpleasant, difficult or imposed (Blunt and Pychyl, 1998).

A similar relationship exists between boredom and sloth, which can be seen in the example of Ilya Ilyich Oblomov, the title character of Ivan Goncharov’s novel. The dull, impoverished Russian nobleman is deathly bored, and he lies down in bed, basically doing nothing but talking, for almost half of the novel. All available activities appropriate to his social group induce deep boredom in him. Social gatherings are boring, no matter how many people gathered or the number of topics discussed (Oblomov is bored by talking only on one topic, as well as about everything). Gainful employment seemed to him to be equally boring – in his opinion, it was a synonym for boredom – which he quickly abandoned, never to undertake it again. In a word, Oblomov became slothful because he was bored, he saw no point in undertaking activities because they all seemed to him pointless and completely meaningless.

ACEDIA AND BOREDOM

Acedia, although as a concept in Christian theology it appeared already in late antiquity and experienced its heyday in the Middle Ages, still seems to be a lively and exploratory concept. Pope Francis speaks about it, painting it as a serious problem of the digital and consumerist era. Acedia is a “lack of care,” indifference, a kind of spiritual depression, demotivating sadness, paralysis of the soul, religious burnout syndrome, a state of spiritual discouragement and weariness. First mentioned by St. Ambrose, thoroughly analyzed by Evagrius of Pontus and John Cassian, was initially described and associated primarily as a disease of monks. It was one of the Eight Evil Thoughts, the predecessor of the catalogue of cardinal sins, in which it still hides itself today under the name of sloth.

Already in this brief characterization, it is possible to find some elements that can acedia and existential boredom have in common, and it is probably not surprising that there are authors who recognize acedia as a form of boredom. It is probably not surprising that there are authors who regard acedia as a form of boredom. Wojciech Bałus (1992) points out that “acedia is usually described as taedium vitae, a sense of insurmountable dullness, boredom, and aversion to life, at least to that life one leads” (p. 101). By philosophers with a strong Christian orientation, such as Blaise Pascal or Søren Kierkegaard, boredom is regarded as a modern continuation of acedia or even de-Christianised acedia. There are at least several bases for such a claim. From the writings of Evagrius emerges an image of a monk, who, suffering from acedia, shows symptoms that today we would in all probability ascribe to, with a high degree of probability, to boredom. These are idleness, sleepiness, lack of involvement, problems with concentration of attention, sense of time -dragging, and a strong desire to change activity or way of life. The acedic monk hates what is, desires what is not. Acedia “makes the sun seem to move too slowly or not at all, and the day drags on as if it were fifty hours long” (Evagrius Ponticus, 2007).

His “gaze […] is fixed constantly on the window, and his mind imagines visitors. The door creaked – he jumped out, heard a voice – he leaned out of the window and will not leave until he sits there and becomes numb. Possessed by acedia while reading, he keeps yawning and easily falls into a drowsy state. He rubs his eyes and stretches, then again, turning his eyes away from the book, he looks at the wall, again turns and reads a little, and, leafing through the pages, examines the ends of the speeches carefully. He counts the pages and determines the number of chapters, reproves the writing and the decoration. Finally, he closes the book, puts it under his head, and falls into a not very deep sleep.

(Evagrius Ponticus, 2007)

The history of acedia has been dominated by two complementary understandings of it: an external one, in which the emphasis was placed on neglecting one’s duties towards God and neighbour, and an internal one, emphasizing the strictly spiritual side of the experience, the barrenness of the spirit, the spiritual crisis. The former understanding would be associated to a greater extent with situational boredom and laziness, the latter with existential boredom, sloth, and melancholy (with which acedia was often juxtaposed or, much less frequently, even identified). Thus, like boredom, acedia is a complex, multi-faceted concept, combining very different elements: from simple boredom and laziness to spiritual sadness, melancholy, depression, existential boredom, and sloth (Figure 2). And although acedia and boredom are not the same in my opinion, yet if one were to look for a historical concept closest to what we understand by the notion of boredom today, it would be acedia – but bereft of the religious odium of sinfulness and melancholic sadness.

The relationship between boredom, acedia, sloth/laziness, melancholy.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bałus, W. (1992). Acedia i jej następstwa [Acedie and its outcomes]. Znak, 9.

Evagrius Ponticus (2007). Pisma ascetyczne, t. 1. [Ascetic writings] Kraków: Wydawnictwo Tyniec.

Fromm, E. (2001). The Sane Society. London and New York: Routledge.

Zdrenka, M. (2012). O gnuśności. Studium lenistwa i jego kontekstów. [On slothfulness. A study of laziness and its contexts] Toruń: Wydawnictwo UMK.

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