Aquinas in Suma Theologica (II-II, Q.20, A.4) argues that sloth leads to despair. I will briefly explore how sloth might lead to despair. To such end, I will be using Rebecca DeYoung’s exposition on the nature of sloth in her book Glittering Vices (Brazos Press, 2009).
Young briefly challenges the popular notion of understanding sloth as mere laziness. She argues that the modern concept of ‘sloth’ has departed significantly from the spiritual roots which with it had connections (p. 82). Young’s aim is to retrieve the Christian notion of sloth and clarify the misunderstandings around this concept. Young clings to Aquinas who is in the middle between the old notion of sloth and the modern one. For Aquinas, Young affirms, sloth is an “aversion to the divine good in us” (qtd. in p. 85).
By using an analogy with marriage between two persons, Young argues that sloth happens when someone “resists the effort of doing day after day after day whatever it takes to keep the bonds of love strong and living and healthy, whether he or she feels particularly inspired about doing it or not.” (p. 86) This has to do with the transformation process (becoming) of Christians into whole persons. It is in this respect, sloth is connected with the process of sanctification, as Young suggests. She writes, “Becoming Christlike is not about us working like crazy to improve ourselves and merit place in God’s favor. Sanctification is about effort — but not earning.” (p. 87)
Being a Christian requires us to accept “a new identity that needs to be lived out, day by day” (88). Such an identity requires committing to a continuous process of transformation to the measure of Christ, and it is exactly such a lack of commitment that a slothful person lacks. For this reason, Young clarifies the apparent similarity between mild depression and sloth: Unlike the former, the latter one is more than a physical issue, but a matter of the heart (88). As Young correctly states, “the need to persevere in one’s commitment over time is what yields an opportunity for sloth” (p. 88).
In Young’s view, Aquinas considered sloth a major vice since because of it, one resists God and his transformational process in our own self. Sloth has to do with one’s opposition to what God wants to do in us in the process of becoming Christlike. Young writes: “we resist our identity in Christ and his presence in our hearts. We balk at God’s invitation to “be imitators of God (Eph. 5:1) and to be transformed by him over the rest of our lives.” (p. 88-89)
Therefore, for Aquinas, sloth results from the continuous fight of the spiritual self versus the flesh. Sloth then is not merely physical inactivity but the spiritual manifestation of the natural self. In this respect Young makes a clear distinction here: sloth is not about the spiritual dimension of the self vs. its physicality, but a spiritual condition in the heart.
With this vice, the battle is first and foremost waged within our hearts. In sloth, we are literally divided against ourselves. We were made for relationship with God. If we are slothful, we have chosen to reject that relationship as the way to find fulfillment and chosen to try to make something else do its work instead. We are trying to make ourselves content with being less than we really are. (p. 89)
Using as an example the movie Groundhog Day, Young highlights the understanding of sloth as a ‘resistance’ to the process of transformation or becoming. The history of Phil who struggles with ‘acedeia’ such vice is even reflected in how he sees his life and relationships, falls into despair, according to Young. For her, the fact that Phil spends all his day sitting, eating, and drinking in total apathy is a clear example of this vice. She writes, “he refuses to change.” Phil is not committed to the process of change and transformation but rejects it. It was after falling into despair that Phil rocks bottom and starts a change in his life. At the moment, he commits to the change, the restlessness disappears.
What Phil’s example shows is that the slothful person can be either a couch potato or a person who is very busy and active — very busy, that is, trying to get what he wants without having to change or give of himself. Love transforms us. The real work Phil resists, then, is not the physical effort itself (of seducing Rita or of helping the townspeople), but the commitment to love that effort represents, Young states (p. 91).
As appreciated here, sloth is a spiritual vice that opposes the realization of God’s will into a person’s life. It is a rejection of what God offers: his kindness and goodness. By rejecting what God offers, the person becomes slothful and thus; she is an open target to experience despair. Yong writes, “The slothful (…) are stuck between a self they cannot bear and a self they can’t bear to become. Their outward behavior, sluggishness, and inertia reflects the state of their heart” (p. 95). Such a slothful state of mind allows certain conformity with a false belief that is detrimental to the divine good. (Cf. Aquinas, II-II, Q.20, A.1). It is because of this reason that sloth might lead to despair as well.