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The demon of acedia holds an important place in early monastic demonology and psychology. Evagrius of Pontus (ca. 345-399), for example, characterizes it as "the most troublesome of all" of the eight genera of demonic thoughts ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). (1) He goes so far as to characterize it as the commander of the demonic host arrayed against the monastic, which distracts the monastic with persistent thoughts. (2) From the monastic demonology of Evagrius, especially as transmitted through his Latin-speaking protege John Cassian, acedia--equated by Evagrius with the "noonday demon" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) of Ps 90:6 (3)--has enjoyed a long tradition in Christian moral theology. (4) In the medieval Latin tradition of the seven deadly sins, acedia has generally been understood as the sin of sloth. (5) Moral theologians, intellectual historians, and cultural critics have variously construed acedia--or "accidie," among other English spellings--as the ancient depiction of a variety of psychological states, behaviors, or existential conditions: primarily laziness, ennui, or boredom. (6) Still others have attempted to place acedia within the context of Evagrius's highly idiosyncratic anthropology, or they have tried to situate it in the controversies over monastic itinerancy. (7) More recently, acedia has been considered analogous to the modern clinical condition of depression. Andrew Solomon, notably, draws explicitly on the Evagrian monastic tradition for the title of his recent study, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. (8)
With such interest in acedia, a re-examination of the early history of this demon is called for. The very persistence of the term "acedia" betrays the fact that none of the modern or medieval glosses adequately conveys the semantic range of the monastic term. In fact, Placide Deseille describes acedia as "a word so pregnant with meaning that it frustrates every attempt to translate it." (9) Modern discussions of acedia regularly rely on Evagrius's famous description in the Praktikos and on Cassian's adaptation of Evagrian demonology; this is understandable given the relatively extended treatment provided in both the Praktikos and Cassian's Institutes, as well as the availability of critical editions, modern language translations, and commentaries--until recently a rarity and a luxury in Evagrian studies. (10) More recent studies have turned to the discussion of acedia in the Antirrhetikos, an important Evagrian text extant in Syriac. (11) Yet even in the writings of Evagrius, who among monastic writers shows perhaps the greatest interest in the demon, one is hard pressed to find an intelligible definition of acedia that corresponds to a recognizable psychological or existential condition. Evagrius is neither consistent nor precise in his descriptions of acedia. (12) He leaves its semantics rather broad and finds it sufficient to contrast acedia with its opposite, which according to Evagrius is perseverance. (13)
In this essay I offer a more synthetic and synchronic approach to interpreting the demon of acedia in the context of early Christian monasticism. This is important for understanding the ancient phenomenon of acedia because descriptions of it are by no means limited to the numerous works within the Evagrian and Cassianic corpora. Early monastic discussion of the demon, in fact, is attested in a wide range of authors and texts, including theoretical and practical treatises in Greek, Latin, Coptic, and Syriac, works written by men and women monastics, and representing the full range of early monastic social organizations. (14) The following discussion re-evaluates the early monastic phenomenon known as acedia. It begins with the following fundamental questions:
1) What signs (or symptoms) does the demon of acedia exhibit in a monastic?
2) What treatments may counter the demon? (15)
With these questions in mind, a synthetic examination of early monastic texts demonstrates that the demon of acedia manifests itself in a range of psychological and somatic symptoms that is far broader and more complex than the familiar tradition that John Cassian bequeathed to the West. After laying out the diverse symptoms of acedia in early monastic literature, I will conclude with a sociological explanation for the widely varying descriptions of acedia. Specifically, the diverse--even contradictory--psychological and somatic signs attributed to acedia may be explained by reference to anomie, a type of disjunction in social structure that is especially likely in monastic communities of the lavra or semi-eremitic type.
* The Signs of Acedia
Acedia is indicated by a range of signs. In the following discussion I divide these signs (or symptoms) into two basic categories: somatic and psychological. This distinction does not presuppose a dichotomous relationship between body and soul in a dualistic or Cartesian sense, contrasting material soma with immaterial psyche. Rather, in agreement with commonplace ancient conceptions of the body/ soul relationship, I take psyche and soma to be mutually contingent and dialectically impinging upon each other. (16) Thus, in employing the terminology "somatic" and "psychological" I do not imply a contrast between "real" and "imaginary" or "psychosomatic" and "mental." Rather, "somatic" refers to those signs the sufferer perceives as occurring in the soma (flesh, joints, humors, organs), while "psychological" refers to those signs the sufferer perceives as occurring in the psyche that substance that is the seat of emotion, cognition, and intellection. (17) Since ancient commentators present all of these signs as "real" social facts, I do likewise.
Acedia frequently presents signs somatically. Such bodily symptoms range from mere sleepiness (18) to general sickness or debility, (19) along with a host of more specific symptoms: weakness in the knees, pain in the limbs, and fever. (20) John Climacus says that acedia produces recurrent "feverish chill, headache, and, furthermore, colic." (21) These symptoms tend to peak from the third hour to the ninth hour (roughly 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Evagrius specifies the fourth to the eighth hour). In the late afternoon, at the time for supper, symptoms subside, only to be replaced with sleepiness before the evening prayer. (22)
An anecdote attributed to Amma Theodora (probably a fourth-century monastic of Lower Egypt) also connects somatic pain and illness with the onset of acedia. It produces feelings of ill health in the monastic, with the specific result that the monastic is unable to pray the synaxis: "Be aware that when one has set out to achieve silence ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) the evil one comes and weighs down the soul in acedia ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), discouragements, and thoughts." Through acedia, associated here--as usual--with dejection and demonic influence, the force of evil also "weighs down the body through illnesses ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), debility ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), and slackening of the knees and all the body's members. It dissipates the strength of soul and body, so that [one might say]: 'I am ill and not strong enough to perform the synaxis.'" (23)
Joseph Hazzaya (writing around the turn of the seventh century in Mesopotamia) also describes the somatic symptoms of acedia as illness, general discomfort, and a heaviness throughout the body: "Once, this demon of acedia (qut'a) took hold of my tongue and prevented me from performing the office because he had placed a heavy weight on my head, and a burdensome disease (kurhana) on all my limbs." (24)
The writers above speak from the monastic lifestyle of the solitaries, or monastics in semi-eremitic lavras. (25) As will be discussed in more detail subsequently, it is semi-eremitic monastics that are at greatest risk of affliction by the demon. Yet similar descriptions of demonically induced illness, especially illness that results in an inability to pray, may be found in contemporaneous literature from coenobitic monasteries in Egypt. In these cases the technical term "acedia" is not normally used, but the somatic symptoms bear such a similarity that it warrants their inclusion here at least for comparative purposes.
For example, in the memory of his biographers, Pachomius, putative founder of coenobitic monasticism, had developed a special interest in illness and health. Through spiritual discernment ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and a process of "testing" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), he learned to distinguish between different states of health, described in accordance with the standard ancient medical terminology of "mixtures" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), that is, of bodily humors. (26) Pachomius turned to the difficult field of demonic illnesses, as described by John Climacus, Amma Theodora, and Joseph Hazzaya. Pachomius learned to distinguish between symptoms produced by "natural" causes (humoral imbalance or injury) and symptoms produced by "unnatural" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) causes (demons). As his Life relates, Pachomius himself fell prey to an illness of demonic origin and suffered a fever for two days. (27) But through his "testing" of the etiology of different types of illness, Pachomius was able to recognize it for what it was, an illness caused by a demon, and thus curable by nonmedical means. (28) The Pachomian description of demonic illness shares much with that of John Climacus, Theodora, and Joseph Hazzaya: fever, general inability to move, and an inability to perform the synaxis. (29) The hagiographer's identification of Pachomius's symptoms as "unnatural" and therefore demonic is further reminiscent of Evagrius, who describes acedia as a "debility ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) of the soul not in accordance with nature ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])," and describes demonic thoughts in general as "unnatural" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). (30)
Shenoute (writing slightly later in the Pachomian tradition, ca. 385-465) also distinguishes between two types of illness, natural and demonic, that can be cured in different ways. Shenoute calls them "illness" pure and simple ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and "the illness of the demons" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), (31) and his account of the latter resembles the account found in the Life of Pachomius. The sufferer feels ill and abandons ascetic practice, yet does not go to the infirmary, choosing instead to rest himself or herself secretly, which is one of the principle forbidden activities in Shenoute's system. (32) In Shenoute's thought, the demonic illness is connected to sloth ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), which tempts the sufferers to be absent from synaxis. In such cases, the bodily illness and pain caused by demonic illness--and all other monastic writers who describe the somatic symptomatology of acedia agree on this point--may be perceived by those without discernment as being caused by humoral imbalance or injury. Demonically induced illness is also distinguished from malingering: the sufferer is not faking illness, but suffers "real" pain. (33) But unlike illness of natural causes, the sufferer of the illness of the demons is held morally responsible for his or her condition (see discussion below). (34) The demonic illness leads the sufferer to break from the standard behavioral expectations of the monastery but does not drive the monastic to abandon the monastic life as a whole.
A host of psychological symptoms also signifies the presence of the demon acedia, which affects the monastic's mental state, behaviors, and interactions with and attitudes toward other monastics. (35) Some commonly reported psychological signs revolve around a lack of attention to prayer and an overall dissatisfaction with the monastic life. The best-known of the psychological signs of the demon of acedia--as seen throughout Evagrius's and Cassian's writings--is tedium or boredom. (36) Evagrius famously writes, "[Acedia] makes it appear that the sun moves slowly or not at all, and that the day seems to be fifty hours long." (37)
Closely related to tedium is a general laziness or refusal to work, (38) a temptation that commonly befalls the monastic at rest. (39) Also characteristic of acedia is the lack of desire to read or to pray, which Evagrius describes in rich detail:
When he reads, the one afflicted with acedia yawns a lot and readily drifts off into sleep; he rubs his eyes and stretches his arms; turning his eyes away from the book, he stares at the wall and again goes back to reading for awhile; leafing through the pages, he looks curiously for the end of texts, he counts the folios and calculates the number of gatherings. Later, he closes the book and puts it under his head and falls asleep, but not a very deep sleep, for hunger then rouses his soul and has him show concern for its needs. (40)
Acedia can also distract the monastic during the performance of the divine office, whether privately in the cell or collectively in the weekend assembly. Acedia assaults the monastic with inappropriate thoughts, (41) which may also manifest in nocturnal visions. (42)
Acedia also manifests in an overwhelming desire in the afflicted to leave the cell. (43) The afflicted may desire to find companionship nearby, or acedia may drive the afflicted farther afield to seek monastic companionship beyond his or her usual neighbors. (44) Monastics frustrated with their lives may be impelled to find a new cell, in the hope that they might reach their ascetic potential with a simple change of scenery. (45) Or, they may be driven by memories of home and relatives left behind to leave the monastic life altogether. (46) Regardless of the individual monastic's self-justification for leaving the cell, the demon's intention remains the same: to convince the monastic to abandon the cloister and leave behind the monastic life. (47) These symptoms are commonly linked to acedia and indeed all play into the common equation of the ancient condition with boredom, weariness, or ennui; the monastic has tired of the ascetic lifestyle and seeks opportunities to escape from his or her ascetic practices, either temporarily or permanently.
Acedia furthermore manifests in the monastic's feeling of alienation from the social order of the …