You can imagine my surprise this Christmas weekend when I discovered an essay on ancient and medieval spiritual theology in the Sunday Book Review section of the New York Times. In “The Noonday Demons, and Ours,” Brandeis English professor John Plotz reminds us that temptations toward distraction, dissipated attention, and unproductive work are not unique to our age. It’s true that monks in the Egyptian desert during ancient times weren’t tempted to check facebook or shop on the internet, but like us they identified the “noonday demon,” the vice of acedia or sloth, as it is known in the spiritual literature of Christianity.
As Plotz points out, its a complex and seemingly contradictory vice. Imagine yourself unable to get out of bed to go to work. That could be acedia. Or imagine running around doing errands when you should be sticking to an important task. That’s acedia as well. What unifies lassitude and busyness is a common consequence: both prevent us from doing what we should do, and often from what we actually want but can’t discipline ourselves to do.
Acedia—which means literally without care—may be the cardinal vice of our postmodern era. So I argue in my own essay, “Fighting the Noonday Devil.” And in Fighting the Noonday Devil, a recently published collection of my essays, I offer meditations on love and loyalty, the motivating cares that help us fight the carefree vice.