- Sloth: The Besetting Sin of the Age?
In a review of J. F. Powers’s Prince of Darkness and Other Stories (1947), Evelyn Waugh observed:
“Prince of Darkness” is a magnificent study of sloth—a sin which has not attracted much attention of late and which, perhaps, is the besetting sin of the age. Catholic novelists have dealt at length with lust, blasphemy, cruelty and greed—these provide obvious dramatic possibilities. We have been inclined to wink at sloth; even, in a world of go-getters, almost to praise it. An imaginative writer has advantages over the preacher and Mr. Powers exposes this almost forgotten, widely practiced, capital sin, in a way which brought an alarming whiff of brimstone to the nostrils of at least one reader.1
The deadly sin, or capital vice, of sloth—what the medievals called acedia—remains as obscure for us today as it did sixty years ago when Waugh penned this review. We usually don’t go further than the common association of sloth with laziness and procrastination, with the result that sloth does not seem to have much place in our hyperactive “world of go-getters.” Nonetheless, Waugh conjectures [End Page 38] that sloth is, not merely a deadly sin, or a pervasive sin, but the besetting sin of the age. This leads us to wonder about the true nature of this most elusive of capital vices, as well as the character of the present age, which, perhaps more now than sixty years ago, makes it so vulnerable to sloth.
Waugh did not pursue these questions in his review of Powers’s book. He did return to the subject of sloth, however, some years later. In 1962, Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels and member of the editorial board of the London Sunday Times, invited Waugh to contribute an essay to a Sunday Times series on the seven deadly sins.2 Joining the likes of Edith Sitwell, writing on pride, and W. H. Auden, writing on anger, Waugh contributed a marvelous essay on sloth. Still, it is not so much in this essay, which is very brief, but in Waugh’s novels that we find the argument for his claim that sloth is the besetting sin of the modern world. For one way to read the dramatic arc of his oeuvre is to see it as an extended reflection on the nature of sloth and the way in which the moral, political, and spiritual conditions of modernity make us particularly prone to it.
To say this is to assume that we can find in Waugh’s novels a moral argument at all, as opposed to mere dramatic illustration. Do works of narrative fiction make arguments? Does not an inquiry into the nature of sloth and its relation to modernity better belong to revealed theology, philosophy, sociology, or some combination of the three?3
Works of narrative fiction do make arguments, not of course demonstratively, but in what we might call a dialectical mode. For the images that such works place before us are images that combine “poetical” form with philosophical or theological content. A successful plot places such complex images in conflict, setting up a dialectical debate that proceeds toward the story’s ultimate crisis, climax, and resolution.
In constructing this debate the writer of fiction attempts to show the incoherence of one or more of the contending images, which is to say the incoherence of a given philosophical or theological outlook, espoused more or less reflectively by one or more of [End Page 39] the characters. At times, as in Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, writers end their stories with this incoherence, leaving the reader to infer how what is defective in the thoughts and desires embodied by the characters and their situations might be made whole. At other times, as in Jane Austen’s Emma or in Waugh’s own Brideshead Revisited, writers present an image that emerges as a clear victor in the dialectic of the plot, thus showing how what is incoherent in the defective images is made coherent. In either case, the debate proceeds in and through images...