Acedia: The Darkness Within: (And the Darkness of Climate Change)

Acedia: The Darkness Within: (And the Darkness of Climate Change)

by Dave MacQuarrie MD Phd


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ISBN-13: 9781477286487
Publisher: AuthorHouse
Publication date: 11/27/2012
Pages: 284
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.64(d)

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ACEDIA: The Darkness Within

(and the darkness of Climate Change)
By Dave MacQuarrie


Copyright © 2012 Dave MacQuarrie
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4772-8648-7

Chapter One

Acedia and Meaning

A science that does not incorporate spirituality is dehumanizing; a spirituality that does not incorporate science is delusional.

—primary source unknown

The present document is a study of an ancient concept, acedia, in its relationship to modern issues, especially those that impact climate change. The study is presented as a cogent philosophical argument, based upon my 23 years as a psychotherapist, supplemented by two years' exploration of the topic by a group of individuals committed to the investigation. Throughout this chapter and the next, I will discuss the etymology of acedia in detail; for now, in essence, acedia refers to the emotional-cognitive processes by which humans beings avoid their capabilities for correcting the challenges of living; it thus refers to aspects of both consciousness and behavior. I will be suggesting that acedia is the most important concern of our current civilization, and, unless we find ways to resolve our individual and cultural acedia, we may not survive as a species. It may already be too late, considering the amount of damage we have caused our planet. I will also be suggesting that the pathway out of acedia is also based on an ancient word, phronesis or practical wisdom; the processes of "wisdom" will also be examined later in detail and, for now, will refer to "the power of judging rightly and following the soundest course of action, based on knowledge, experience, understanding, etc." I will be proposing that, with the rise of scientism and technology, wisdom has been somewhat neglected in the past few centuries, thus contributing to the major difficulties of our culture.

In my own study, I have found that most writings on climate change concentrate on the problems, and resolution, of the technological issues. Yet I have come to believe that climate change is a spiritual-emotional problem that we as a species have generated, largely as a result of our hubris and our unwillingness to account truly for the costs of our technology. Our unwillingness, I propose, is the manifestation of acedia in our culture. I am also suggesting that climate change is merely the tip of the iceberg of the issues we face—most of our unresolved cultural problems, such as poverty, hunger, and war, are all related to acedia. I propose, therefore, that management of our cultural acedia could have immense ramifications, far beyond the impact of climate change. For the purposes of this book, however, I will confine my remarks to those of climate change.

To my current knowledge, given the importance I am suggesting, I find that there has been little investigation of acedia as it relates to modern psychology and philosophy. In particular, I have not discovered explorations into the possibility of bringing newer psychological tools to acedia. I believe that modern understanding of the unconscious mind offers the possibility of tremendous resources in this area of investigation. This current chapter will briefly introduce the concepts and ideas to be explored in more detail in later chapters.

The Nature of Acedia

Acedia is an ancient word, going back to at least the 4th century C.E., and, for the most part, its description has been confined to the monastic traditions. It does however have a long and varied history. Many connotations are also attached to the word. For example, from "The Significance of Acedia and Apatheia in Evagrius Ponticus, Part I" (Joest, 2004), we have: "A multitude of words would be needed to render it accurately in English; only collectively are they able to give some idea of what [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [acedia] means: grief, rage, resignation, boredom, weariness, despair, disgust, and self-pity" (p. 135). Furthermore, the concepts on acedia have frequently been subsumed under cognates such as sloth, ennui, boredom, and anomie, for which there are often extensive writings (Steiner, 1971; Kuhn, 1976; Healy, 1984; Klapp, 1986; Spacks, 1995; Irvine, 2000; Crislip, 2005; Svendsen, 2005). Furthermore, acedia frequently overlaps with other concepts such as depression and narcissism. In this book, I have chosen to use acedia as the prime descriptor; when quoting others, I will in general use the primary word suggested by that source.

The most recent reference to acedia that I have found is Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life by Kathleen Norris (2008). Norris develops threads that range over "sin," "depression," "monastic literature and practice," and "marriage and motherhood" (p. i). She notes:

At its Greek roots, the word acedia means the absence of care. The person afflicted by acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can't rouse yourself to give a damn. (p. 3)

She suggests "it likely that much of the restless despair, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating despair that plagues us today is the ancient demon of the city in modern dress" (p. 3). She also reports that:

The word has a peculiar history ... it has gone in and out of favor over the years. References to accyde cluster in the fourteenth century, and then disappear until 1891; accidie appears in 1607, and then not again until 1922, in a citation from William R. Onge's Outspoken Essays. Reflecting on the cultural shock that followed the Great War ... [he] discerns "acedia [sic] ... at the bottom of the diseases from which we are suffering." In the 1933 OED, accidie was confidently declared obsolete. (p. 2)

Norris further suggests "acedia is the lexicon's version of a mole, working on us while hidden from view. It may even be that the word has a significance that stands in inverse proportion to its obscurity" (p. 2). In my own case, I was fortunate to have the word suggested to me by a friend, a retired philosopher of religious studies, who knew of my interest in this project, and referred me to Acedia & me.

Acedia was/is one of the "eight bad thoughts" originally systematized by the Desert Father Evagrius Ponticus in the 4th century C.E. These "bad thoughts" referred to the patterns (vices) that prevented the cenobites (community monks) and anchorites (solitary monks) from achieving their desired relationship with God. Joest (2004, p. 139) credits Evagrius with structuring the vices into a fixed sequence of eight principle vices, and for assigning acedia (the noon-day demon) a distinctive place in the culture of the time. These eight bad thoughts were later changed to the Seven Cardinal Sins, with acedia and tristitia (an ancient name for the sin of sadness) combined as Sloth (Bloomfield, 1952, p. 72). Further details, with discussion of the Seven Cardinal Sins and their interrelatedness, will be developed later.

The original description by Evagrius, as translated into English, is given in The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer (1972):

The demon of acedia—also called the noonday demon—is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all [emphasis added]. He presses his attack upon the monk about the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun, to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour, to look now this way and now that, to see if perhaps one of the brethren appears from his cell. Then too he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labor. He leads him to reflect that charity has departed from among the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. Should there be someone at this period who happens to offend him in some way or other, this, too, the demon uses to contribute further to his hatred. This demon drives him along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life's necessities, more readily find work and make a real success of himself. He goes on to suggest that, after all, it is not the place that is the basis of pleasing the Lord. God is to be adored everywhere. He joins to these reflections the memory of his dear ones and of his former way of life. He depicts life stretching out for a long period of time, and brings before the mind's eye the toil of the ascetic struggle and, as the saying has it, leaves no leaf unturned to induce the monk to forsake his cell and drop out of the fight. No other demon follows close upon the heels of this one (when he is defeated) [emphasis added] but only a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy arise out of this struggle. (pp. 18-19)

My Choice to Use Acedia as Principle Descriptor

I personally first encountered the word acedia in my attempts to understand laziness and fearfulness. My own professional work for 23 years had centered on the management of emotional life issues, especially anger and rage, many details of which are presented in my book Blowing Out the Darkness: The Management of Emotional Life Issues, Especially Anger and Rage (2008). Until starting my Ph.D. in 2009, I had been a participant-therapist in the management of emotional life issues (with an additional four years exposure to therapy as a client). My major focus had been my own personal growth, gradually integrating a wide variety of systems into my own approaches. My major trainings had been in Gestalt Therapy (two diplomas, predominantly with Jorge Rosner, an internationally known Gestaltist), Family Systems Therapy (predominantly Bowenian in approach), with a M.A. in Applied Behavioral Sciences (plus additional mentoring with Edwin Friedman, an internationally known Bowenian Family Therapist), and NeuroLinguistic Programming (four NLP diplomas, including work with one of the founders of NLP, Dr. John Grinder). My background, therefore, was eclectic, and I also was willing to risk new avenues of approach. Philosophically, I was and am a Gestaltist, emphasizing awareness, contact, and personal responsibility. I have been deeply influenced by Ed Friedman in his thinking about systems. Many of the tools I have used represent advanced NLP skills, some of which I had developed myself. I was also aware of (and used) various power therapies such as Emotional Freedom Technique (Craig, 2011).

As therapist, the major limitations I had encountered, either with myself or my clients, had been laziness and fearfulness. In retrospect, I also include self-righteousness. In using words such as laziness and self-righteousness, I caution the reader to note possible distortions associated with the pejorative connotations these words often carry; in part, these connotations are intended by me—these words are used as criticism, a subject I will expand upon later. For now, I wish to note that these patterns of response (laziness, fearfulness, and self-righteousness) impede the individual from doing the deeper emotional work necessary for growth, obstructing the processes necessary to come to terms with life's pain. Instead, the individual complained or offered excuses as to why the work was not done; essentially what he or she was saying was that the work requested was not of high enough priority in the management of the issues that had brought him or her to the therapist in the first place.

By laziness, I mean that the client is somehow not willing to be disciplined in doing the in-depth assessment of their issues (as requested by the therapist) or to use tools available to do the necessary change-work. I consider this to be an active avoidance of what life offers, usually manifest by anger and/or purposelessness. I denote it as "active" in that the client generally has some awareness of the choice being made, even though the choice may be hidden in the excuses. Laziness is the modern expression of a deeper issue that, in the past, has been called Sloth, one of the seven cardinal sins.

By fearfulness, I mean a passive avoidance of life's issues, usually manifest as anxiety and lack of trust of what life offers. Fearfulness is different from fear. Fear is the authentic emotional response to danger; I consider fearfulness to be the catastrophizing clients indulge in, that inhibits them from engaging in the necessary growth work. Fearfulness is, again, an old topic and, in the past, one designation likely has been "fearful doubt."

By self-righteousness, I mean the "active avoidance of what life offers—by being 'right' while insisting that others are 'wrong'." In my own studies, I have come to include these three states—laziness, fearfulness and self-righteousness—as part of acedia, and I will develop these connections in greater detail later in the book.

In my experience, acedia is an attitudinal choice made by the client towards life. As a psychotherapist, I initially approached the manifestations of acedia as psychological issues, but over the years I began to frame the difficulties as spiritual and/or existentialist in nature. By spiritual, I refer to the possibility that life, nature, and consciousness have much broader meaning than that associated with the materialistic ontology developed with the rise of science since the 17th century—for me, spiritual includes the possibility of life having meaning beyond that of simply being a biological creature; by existential, I refer to "the philosophical theory which holds that a further set of categories, governed by the norm of authenticity, is necessary to grasp human existence" (Sanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2010). In my therapy practice, I did not find acedia to be amenable to psychotherapeutic tools. I had come to believe that psychotherapy, per se, only became possible when the client had made the choice to accept that life is difficult, and thus was willing to do the disciplined work to overcome the suffering, the acedia.

I also recognize that many factors underlie the occurrences of acedia. Some of these factors are almost certainly intrinsic to being human (biological creatures are responsive to the environment, and therefore avoid pain), whereas others are environmental (for example, trauma, especially that of growing up in an environment where society, parents, or others are abusive). Depending on the actual make-up of the universe, there may actually also be sentient energies (spirits, gods, etc.) extrinsic to the human condition that contribute to acedia—such ideas were common in past eras and, to my knowledge, have never really been disproven (and, in fact, cannot be, given the nature of the scientific method). Furthermore, I had also come to place laziness and fearfulness on a spectrum of good and evil, with laziness (active avoidance) and fearfulness (passive avoidance) on the side moving towards evil. At that time (and still), I considered evil as the active antagonism of what life offers. These many factors will be expanded upon later in this critique, especially in Chapters Five and Six.

One reason I regard laziness and fearfulness as spiritual issues came from a statement in A Lesson of Love: The Revelations of Julian of Norwich (OJN Father John-Julian, 2003) by the 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich:

God showed two kinds of sickness of soul that we have: the one is impatience or sloth (for we bear our labor and our pains gloomily); the other is despair or doubtful fear (as I shall say later). In general, He showed sin with which everyone is involved, but in particular He showed none but these two sins.

And these two are those which most trouble and tempt us (according to what our Lord showed me), from which He wills that we be put right. (p. 246)

This comment by Julian also connects directly with my shift to the terminology of acedia. I interpret Julian's "sloth" as laziness, and her "fearful doubt" as fearfulness. In addition, Father John-Julian (personal communication), translator of A Lesson of Love from which this quote is taken, indicated to me, "if Julian had been familiar with the word [acedia] she probably would have used it rather than 'sloth'," and:

I tend to doubt her familiarity with the very monastic acedie as a word. Moreover, she gives a number of hints of having personally experienced the dryness and barrenness that characterize acedie. So my inclination would be to doubt her familiarity with the word (even though she knew the experience).

As my study of acedia evolved, I also added the concept of self-righteousness to laziness and fearfulness.


Excerpted from ACEDIA: The Darkness Within by Dave MacQuarrie Copyright © 2012 by Dave MacQuarrie. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Figures....................xiii
1. Acedia and Meaning....................1
2. The History of Acedia....................31
3. The Nature of Choice....................65
4. Searching for Acedia....................109
5. Acedia and its Transformation....................141
6. The Cultural Implications of Acedia....................171
7. Concluding Remarks....................211
Appendix A Characteristics of Selected Words in this Book....................221
Appendix B Job–Related Adaptive Skills: Toward Personal Growth....................231
Appendix C Characteristics of the Participants of the Study Group....................239

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