On the Cooling of Our Love

Harrison Garlick
June 18, 2024
Reproduced with Permission
Public Discourse

Acedia is the demon of our day. Yet acedia, or what is more commonly known as sloth, is somehow both ubiquitous and unknown. It is often called the "noonday devil," as it quietly slips into our lives in the middle of our daily work. It does not come in the darkness of night, but rather in the peak of day when there are no shadows, and it often works within us long before we know it is there.

When we think of slothfulness, we often think of laziness: binge-watching television shows or mindlessly scrolling social media. Acedia, however, is not reducible to mere laziness. The marathon runner or the successful CEO may suffer from acedia just as much as someone we would consider "lazy." Rather, acedia is a great "cooling" of our love. Thomas Aquinas calls it a "sorrow for spiritual good," and Saint Isidore says the acedious soul is "inclined to undue response."

An illustration of what acedia looks like in practice can be found in Dante's Purgatorio, the second book in his Divine Comedy. On the fourth terrace of Mount Purgatory, the Roman poet Virgil explains to Dante the Pilgrim that within man burns a natural love. Like fire, the soul has a natural tendency to rise. It has an endless desire to seek and be satiated in what is beautiful. Dante the Pilgrim sees a group of souls moving in great haste and calling out examples of zeal and slothfulness. It is here, on the fourth terrace, that acedia is purged.

Dante the Poet couples Virgil's lecture on love with the purging of acedia to show that slothfulness is a cooling of love. More specifically, he presents sloth as a smothering of the soul's natural love and a curbing of its desire to seek what is beautiful.

It is difficult to discuss privations when one does not understand the good they affect, like one who attempts to discuss darkness when he has never seen the light. Thus, to understand acedia, we must first map the parts of the soul and their loves, and then which virtues perfect them - and finally turn to the ugliness that arises when acedia leads each into inactivity.

The Ascent to Beauty-Itself

The soul, in the Platonic Christian tradition, has three parts: the intellect, the spirited, and the appetitive. Each part loves (eros) a particular beauty and desires to satiate in it.

The intellect, for example, loves truth. It desires to conform to reality. The spirited part (thumos) loves nobility. It craves human excellence, a certain beauty of the soul found in virtue. The lowest part of the soul, the appetitive, seeks pleasure. It enjoys good food and drink and laughing with friends, and it finds a certain zenith in the relationship between husband and wife. And, as in all things, the higher always perfects the lower; thus, the soul is first ruled by reason, then the spirited part, and then the appetitive. To disorder the loves of the soul would be to disorder its natural hierarchy.

Virtue is what makes the soul beautiful. As Virgil tells Dante the Pilgrim in Purgatorio, man may control the love burning within him and thus he is accountable for his actions. This love must be disciplined to satiate in the beautiful, in a way that accords with reason.

For example, the intellect is perfected by prudence. The spirited part is perfected by the virtue of fortitude: the spirited soul will undergo great difficulties in order to attain what is beautiful. Such accomplishments produce honor, fame, and glory. Courage is necessary for the virtuous life. On the other hand, the appetitive part is perfected by the virtue of temperance: it moderates our pleasures and orients them toward true beauty. Justice is the virtue of being well-ordered, and in this way, it adorns the whole soul and moves its parts in harmony. The virtuous soul satiates in beauty and becomes beautiful. The virtuous life is the beautiful life, after all.

There appears, however, to be a problem with love. When the soul satiates in beauty, it is happy. Yet, the soul does not want to be happy some of the time. It wants to be happy all of the time. In other words, our appetite for happiness is infinite. Yet, the beauties of this life are finite. Here, many souls fall into an endless pattern of consumption, mindlessly moving from one beauty to another in search of happiness. Yet, what if there is a beauty that could truly satisfy our infinite appetite?

The hierarchy of the soul and its corresponding loves - pleasure, nobility, and truth - create what has been called the "ladder of love." The soul ascends from lesser beauties to greater ones until at the top it discovers beauty itself: God. The human soul's infinite appetite for happiness finds satisfaction in the infinite beauty of the Divine. It finds a beauty that is not simply satisfaction but overabundance.

In fact, our natural love is enkindled in us by God to lead us back to him. "Love is a good circle" that starts with God, our enkindler, and ends with him, beauty itself. There is no problem with our love, but rather, with our misunderstanding of its purpose - it is a call to ascend and become beautiful by resting in God.

Acedia is a path to mediocrity; it leaves glories unrealized.

The Descent of the Acedious Soul

In this light, the danger of acedia becomes more apparent: acedia smothers the fire of the soul and depresses its impulse to rise toward greater beauties. Each part of the soul is slowly robbed of its motivation to move toward its proper love. Let us look at how each part of the soul - intellectual, spirited, and appetitive - cools and falls into ugliness under acedia.

Truth is the conformity of the mind to reality. Under acedia, the intellect's love of truth wanes. It becomes weak. The pursuit of truth tires, and the intellect starts to disbelieve in its own love. We see this cooling of the soul's love for truth in modern man in various ways. Pope Benedict XVI notes that modern man has reduced the radius of reason by limiting truth to the empirical. Another example would be relativism and its belief that truth is subjective. Finally, an intellect that has lost its love of truth falls into nihilism. The intellect has no love - no beauty to desire and no fire to kindle. In a cold despair, it holds that there is no reality to which the mind can conform - no ladder of love to climb. Reason fails to have a purpose. These souls produce a culture that lacks an identity and struggles to communicate outside power dynamics and emotions.

As the higher perfects the lower, so, too, does it disorder the lower if it falls into error. If there is no truth, to what does the noble soul aspire? Neither King David nor Prince Hector stepped into greatness because of an opinion. Men do not die for ambiguity. When the spirited part of the soul cools to its love of nobility, it no longer finds the strength to overcome hardship and achieve glory. The soul becomes soft and pusillanimous. It knows of no beauty worthy of sacrifice. Climbing the ladder of love is too hard. Thus acedia produces soft-souled men who not only hate the idea of greatness in themselves but hate it in others. These souls produce cultures of mediocrity that celebrate the lukewarm.

Many souls live the life of cattle. Without truth and nobility, the soul turns to what is left: pleasure. We live our lives with our heads down, as Socrates notes, never looking up to ascend toward greatness but down toward bestial pleasures. We are the worst animals when it comes to food and sex, as Aristotle notes. Acedia hands the soul over to lust and gluttony by depriving it of its love of higher beauties. Such an attempt to satiate the soul's need for happiness through a glutting of the baser appetites only serves to further cool the soul toward its true pleasures. Eventually, what little warmth resides in the soul cools to all pleasure, and the soul loses its love of life itself. What results is a culture of death that dehumanizes and discards others.

Enkindle the Fire

The antidote to acedia is zeal - a committed diligence of the soul pursuing beauty and becoming beautiful. Understanding the structure of the soul provides a map for self-examination. What do I seek most in life: God, truth, nobility, or pleasure? Have I allowed God to illuminate and arrange the lesser beauties in my life? Do I cultivate an intellectual life or has my pursuit of truth quietly cooled? Am I spirited and do I seek to be magnanimous, or have I grown comfortable in mediocrity? Do I moderate pleasure, or do I make my reason a slave to my lower appetites? Do I turn to the virtues to help perfect the parts of my soul, or has the impulse to beauty waned and tired?

Acedia is a path to mediocrity; it leaves glories unrealized. A man may accomplish much, but if his soul is cooled to the higher beauties of life, he lives an unfulfilled one. The soul must hear the call to ascend the ladder of love and rest in the beauty for which it was made: God. Only in him does the soul find fulfillment and the beauty of an ordered life.