The Anatomy of Sloth

Among the capital sins, sloth easily captures the pride of place as being the least offensive. Great, notorious heroes of lust, anger, greed, pride, and the other capital sins will easily come to mind—Don Juan, Achilles, Midas, Satan, etc. But who would we characterize as a hero of sloth? Nero, for fiddling while Rome burned? Pontius Pilate, for washing his hands instead of adjudicating the trial of Jesus? It would be hard to find great examples, and perhaps impossible to find great heroic examples.

Sloth is often depicted as consisting in doing nothing—just sleeping, or sitting, completely inactive.  Dante’s description in Canto 7 of the Inferno of the slothful in hell proceeds along this line—those whose lives were characterized by such lethargy that even in hell they cannot bring themselves to declare their misery clearly:

Underneath the water there are souls
who sigh and make this plain of water bubble,
as your eye, looking anywhere, can tell.
Wedged in the slime, they say: We had been sullen
in the sweet air that’s gladdened by the sun;
we bore the mist of sluggishness in us:
now we are bitter in the blackened mud.’
This hymn they have to gurgle in their gullets,
because they cannot speak it in full words.

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But this is such an extreme that one hardly meets it. Most sloth falls short of such a hellish extreme of inaction. A more suitable description would be in analogy with inertia.  In physics, inertia is the tendency to continue in the same direction at the same speed, unless deflected or hindered in some way—e.g., by gravity or friction. Among humans, by analogy, a slothful person, comfortable in what he or she is doing, will tend to continue doing that same thing over and over.  Incentives to lower their comfort level are met with predictable distress or disdain.

An analogy with entropy is also relevant.  According to the second law of thermodynamics, the energy in a system tends to continually run down, and result in less and less usable manifestations. The energy in a slothful person similarly is continually running down at unusually great speed, rendering the completion of many worthwhile tasks almost impossible.

If one is looking for a specification of symptoms that might cluster together in a slothful individual, the following list might help:

1.  Habitual procrastination, in line with the motto, “what can be left to tomorrow should not be attempted today.” This is the Epimethean approach, named after Epimetheus, the Greek god of afterthought and excuses, whose lack of foresight famously caused problems for Prometheus, the other god in charge of initial creation. For the slothful person, a repertoire of excuses offer the main line of defense for remaining on one’s present comfort-level.

2.  Disdain of details.  Indeed, “the devil is in the details” almost always. Going beyond a few broad strokes requires drawing on reserves of energy that, like the U.S. strategic reserves of gasoline, are sequestered to be used only for absolute emergencies.

3.  Abhorrence of complexity—especially when it comes to ideas.  Stark black and white colorations are welcome. The inevitable complications that come with applications and exceptions instill a great weariness in the slothful individual—even to understand them, let alone to deal with them.

4. Unfinished symphonies.  This is the diametrical opposite of the case of the perfectionist, who becomes distressed when he has not been able to implement his noble intentions or achieve his lofty goals. The slothful person, in contrast, is pleased with himself, just to have conceived some goals, preferably easily achievable goals (e.g., getting up in the morning and having some coffee). With a little imagination, we find intuitive support in slothful/unfinished projects for Gödel’s “Incompleteness theorem,” which holds that highly organized systems are especially prone to have loose ends. If thoughtful organization is at a premium, the slothful person is most aware of the loose ends, and would not think of trying to disprove Gödel’s cautionary theorem.

5.  “Leaving it to Beaver” (or whomever).  Social skills are prized, especially in the workplace, for cultivating connections with proactive persons who can be depended on to “take up the slack” when the slothful person leaves lacunae to be filled up.

6.  Fashionable, or at least tolerable, lateness—especially for less-enjoyable events, thus strategically minimizing the expenditure of energy to be involved.

7.  Opposition in principle to any form of haste or accelerated performance, where the world seems to be moving too fast, and poses a threat to the existence of those on the “slow track.”

8.  Preference for motherly love, which is unconditional, rather than fatherly love, which unjustifiably takes into account performance aspects.

9.  Probably most important, insistence on the inalienable right to do what one likes, and refrain from what one dislikes.  Hopefully, this “right” will line up with what is right; but, if not, some minimal extra expenditure of energy is permitted to bring into alignment what is right, with one’s feelings.

In the spiritual life, sloth follows similar patterns, although sometimes more subtle. The “law of inertia” will lead the slothful person to be contented with a few token contributions to one’s spiritual health, and the recognition of higher powers.  “Entropy” will lead him or her to reserve major spiritual endeavors only for crises; and/or to reinterpret “spiritual” outreach in terms of easy, universally accepted endeavors, such as caring for the environment, reducing one’s “carbon footprint,” refraining from overpopulating the world, etc. There are, of course endless varieties of ways one can procrastinate, oversimplify, revise or reinterpret one’s spiritual goals, hoping for sympathetic understanding from one’s peers and the Almighty himself.

It goes without saying, that the cure for sloth, whether physical or spiritual, is to be found only in the activation of free will, which offers to everyone the possibility of overriding inertial tendencies, and changing directions; and with redirecting one’s reserves of energy, and/or tapping new sources of energy—e.g., friendships, psychological motivations, and, in the spiritual life, prayer or retreats.

(Photo credit: iStock Photo.)


  • Howard Kainz

    Howard Kainz is professor emeritus at Marquette University. He is the author of several books, including Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).

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