Can It Ever Be Bad to Be Sad?

Monday, 08-21-2017



I want to understand what the sin of acedia is, and what the remedies for it are.  I would also welcome any reading suggestions.



Acedia is one of the seven cardinal sins, which means that it is not only a sin, but a cause of other sins.  The term acedia is usually translated “sloth,” which makes it seem like laziness.  This is a bit misleading, because the disinclination to make any spiritual or moral effort is only a symptom of sloth, not its essence.  Its root is an “oppressive sorrow which so weighs upon man’s mind that he wants to do nothing,” a "sluggishness of the mind which neglects to begin good."  For this reason, sloth is also called tristitia, or sadness.  This is important:  Sadness is not wrong in itself.  However, it is wrong to neglect what is good because of sadness, and we have a moral duty not to wallow in such sadness, but to try to resist it.

The problem does not lie not in sorrow which is fitting due to loss, for it is right to grieve sometimes.  Nor does the problem lie in that good sorrow which prompts us to change our ways when we have been in error.  Nor does it lie in despondency which is beyond our control because there is something wrong with our body chemistry.  Rather it lies in a voluntary and habitual tendency to indulge in excessive sadness in a way which withdraws us from good, especially spiritual good.

Thomas Aquinas explains how sloth gives rise to other vices too:  “Just as we do many things on account of pleasure, both in order to obtain it, and through being moved to do something under the impulse of pleasure, so again we do many things on account of sorrow, either that we may avoid it, or through being exasperated into doing something under pressure thereof.”  For example, I may dissipate myself in all sorts of worthless activity just to avoid doing what I should do.

Even good sorrow becomes bad when we allow it to overpower and master us.  I may be so swallowed up in sorrow for my repented and forgiven sins that I am drawn away from doing good.  I may be so disappointed by my moral weakness that I stop trusting God.  I may be so distraught about the brokenness of the world, or the times, that I abandon myself to despair.  It is even possible to be grieved about good itself -- just because it involves doing work.  For example, I may turn away from the good of charity, because it requires me to take care of my ailing wife or father.

Reading suggestions?  My quotations have been from Thomas Aquinas, who discusses sloth here.  However, a number of Thomists have written on the virtues and vices.  One of the finest writers on the topic is the great Josef Pieper, whom I highly recommend.  If you want to check out my own work, I’ve tried to put sloth in the context of the virtues and vices in my Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Virtue EthicsReading an earlier draft of this post, an acquaintance recommended to me two recent books just about acedia, so you may want to investigate those too:  Jean-Charles Nault, The Noonday Devil, and R.J. Snell, Acedia and its Discontents.

Remedies?  Probably the best remedies for the sin of sloth are work, prayer, and caring for others.  By caring for others, I mean both corporal and spiritual acts of mercy.

Although those are the most important, the remedies for ordinary sadness may also be helpful.  What these are will come as no surprise.  St. Thomas suggests pleasant recreation and playfulness, from which we see that the remedy of work can be overdone:  “Man's mind would break if its tension were never relaxed.”  He also suggests shedding a few tears, accepting the sympathy of friends, contemplating the great truths of faith, and even having a warm bath and sleeping -- so long as one does not use these things as new excuses to do nothing!

By the way, concerning the contemplation of the truths of faith as a remedy for sloth, one is especially helpful.  This is the fact that Christ took the worst of our burdens upon Himself, including loneliness, pain, and death.  The meaning of the Cross is not defeat, but victory over these things – victory through submitting to them.  And thus, whatever our sufferings, by God’s grace they can join us more closely to Him.  By doing the work that He gives us, and not wallowing in sorrows, but accepting them for His sake, we imitate Him.

To this truth of faith, we may add a truth of philosophy – a preamble to faith.  This is the fact that even the occasional feeling of meaninglessness is a sign of meaning.  For consider:  If we were merely evolved mud, we would not suffer such feelings at all.  Quite the opposite, because in that case we would be perfectly adapted to a meaningless world.  The fact that we do long for more is a sign of the loving God who made us for more.  So even our tears are grounds to rejoice.

Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Virtue Ethics


Procreation Does Not Mean Reproduction

Monday, 08-14-2017


The two natural purposes of the sexual powers are the procreation of children and the union of the procreative partners.

People tend to get the first purpose wrong.  They call it reproduction.

No.  Reproduction merely means turning out new humans by one means or another.  If the first purpose of the sexual powers were reproduction, there would be no second purpose, because it wouldn’t matter whether the partners were united.  It wouldn’t even matter if there were any partners:  We could dispense with parents altogether, doing as they do in Huxley’s Brave New World.

Procreation is the loving act by which posterity is generated.  It means conceiving children in the embrace of their father and mother; it means not only having the children together but nurturing them together, so that they can become virtuous adults; and it means forming families, thereby forging new links between dimmest antiquity and remotest futurity.

Any guppy can reproduce.  We have the privilege of procreating.

Book:  On the Meaning of Sex


God or the Enemy?

Monday, 08-07-2017




I am deeply distressed about what I consider a leadership crisis in the Church.  My immediate problem, though, is that I constantly struggle to know whether my feelings of frustration and indignation stem from God, guiding me to keep the Faith, or from the Enemy, using my pride to sow doubt in my heart.


Maybe both!  Everything bad comes from the distortion of something good; there is no other way to get anything bad.  Theologically, we can express this fact by saying that everything God created was good.  Philosophically, we can express it by saying that goodness and being are coextensive, so there is no such thing as an evil “substance” or fundamental reality.  For example, disease is the disordering of what would otherwise be health, but it would be absurd to say that health is the disordering of what would otherwise be disease.

The same principle applies to your frustration.  There really is something wrong in some sections of the leadership of the Church, and we ought to feel dismay about it.  These are good responses, because they are in accord with how things really are, and we should hold onto them.  But the Enemy can use our disappointment to fan pride and sow doubt.  These are bad responses, and we should resist them.  Christ did not promise that the smoke of Satan could never through any fissure enter the temple of God.  What he promised was that the gates of hell would not prevail against her.  Although the present trouble has novel elements, she has won through greater storms in the past.  Yes, really.

What can you do?  Pray without ceasing.  Rejoice in Providence.  Life the faith and teach your children diligently.  Avoid scandal and schism, but practice supernatural hope and bear witness to what the Church really teaches.  If the trouble comes to you personally, trust God not less, but even more.


Maxim and Momentum

Monday, 07-31-2017


A certain little man of my acquaintance found ants in the house.  He began to squish them.  Squish, squish, squish.  You must understand that he is very small.

His grandmother said, “Don’t squish those ants.  You’ll make a mess.  I’ll take care of them.”

Somehow, grandmother’s words triggered the memory of one of mother’s wise maxims in the little man’s mind.  However, it took a few seconds for the momentum of his action to dissipate.  In the meantime, this is what we heard from his little mouth and feet.

“Don’t hurt God’s creatures!  They're precious!”  Squish.  “Don’t hurt God’s creatures!  They're precious!”  Squish.  “Don’t hurt God’s creatures!  They're precious!”  Squish.

I leave it to the reader to draw the moral of the tale.


Let Every Soul Be Subject – to What?

Tuesday, 07-25-2017



As I read Romans 13:1-7, God’s institution of human government is clear, but the apparent autonomy given to the authorities to judge what is right and what is wrong seems oddly detached from any kind of divine guidance.  So I am wondering if the Apostle Paul’s statements presuppose that the authorities will be limited by natural law.  If so, would it have been Cicero's natural law or Stoic natural law that he would have in mind -- or some form of Jewish natural law?


Was he assuming natural law?  In a word:  Yes!  The passage to which you allude is states “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”  The tradition does not take this statement to require unquestioning obedience, for with equal authority, on an occasion when the local authorities unjustly commanded the Apostles to stop preaching about the risen Christ, St. Peter responded, “We must obey God rather than men.”  If God really is the source of human authority, then human magistrates have no authority to exceed what God has committed to them, and they are charged to act justly.  So we should read the statement “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities” as meaning that every soul should be subject to them in matters that lie within their authority for the common good.

There is only one natural law, so I take your second question, about Cicero, the Stoics, and the Jews, to be whether St. Paul’s statement commits us to a particular theory of natural law.  He doesn’t say so, but it is clear from various other statements he makes that natural law is both truly natural, that is, based on the human creational design and knowable by the human mind, and truly law, that is, capable of laying genuine duties on our conscience.  That obviously places limits on what kind of natural law theory we could adopt.

The great rabbinical commentators did teach something that we would call natural law, although they did not use that term for it.  Its first great expression in rabbinical commentary is the tradition of the seven laws given to the sons of Noah.  Considering that “sons” means “descendents,” that means that it was given not just to the Jews, but to all human beings.  Its second great expression is the rabbinical project of explaining the “reasons of the law.”  For example, Rabbi Hanina states concerning the commandment to administer justice that “were it not for the fear of it, a man would swallow his neighbor alive.”  Plainly, then, God’s basic moral will for us is not arbitrary and incomprehensible, but something the human mind can recognize as right.

More about the relation between natural and revealed law


Reading Well

Monday, 07-10-2017



I am a college sophomore who is curious to find good books to read.  I have not had an introduction in philosophy, but I do wish to begin to study the subject in the future.  I have had thoughts on becoming a Dominican Friar one day (perhaps if I can get Masters or Ph.D. in Mathematics).  I wish to study philosophy, in particular, Metaphysics and Ethics, so that I may be a mature, humble, and wise Catholic (or at least be a Catholic more mature, humble, and wise than I am now).  Are there any good pieces of literature that you could recommend to me?  Thank you for your time.



I commend your intention!  Considering your hopes, my first suggestion is to get a good liberal arts education.  This doesn’t mean that you have to pursue a liberal arts major, such as philosophy, but whether or not you do, you need to read widely in the classics of Western civilization.  Be careful, because in our strange era, even many teachers who do assign the classics poison the well.  The best remedy is to read so well that you can tell when the water is fresh.

My second suggestion would have been not to neglect mathematics, which is a good discipline for the mind.  But I see that you are already interested in mathematics – excellent!  Your studies in logic will probably focus on the rules of inference.  These will help you to avoid formal fallacies, but you should also be familiar with the informal fallacies, which are sometimes called fallacies of distraction.  An example of an informal fallacy is argumentum ad misericordiam, or argument from pity:  “What he says must be right, because can’t you see that he’s suffering?”

Third, I am providing below a very short list of classics, just to get you started.  You’ll notice that on a great many points, the outlooks of the authors differ widely.  Calling a work “classic” doesn’t mean that it’s right about everything; it means is that it set a kind of standard that other works have to reach in order for their challenges to its ideas to be taken seriously.

Not counting the Bible, my short list includes only eight authors.  Even so, these works will keep you going for a long time; a wise man said that it is better to read a few books well than a lot of books poorly.  You’ll notice that I’ve included only ancient and medieval writers.  Of course you should read the moderns too, but first learn the classical tradition, then read their challengers – not the other way around!

There will be no great surprises here:

The Bible, both Old and New Testament

Homer, Iliad

Homer, Odyssey

Plato, Republic

Plato, Apology of Socrates

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

Vergil, Aeneid

St. Augustine, Confessions

St. Augustine, The City of God against the Pagans

Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae

Dante Alighieri, Comedy

Not every one of these works should be read straight through in order, from the first page to the last.  For example, on your first pass through the Old Testament I would suggest focusing on Genesis and Exodus, then the key passages of the historical books, then just excerpts from the Wisdom books, the Psalms, and the Prophets.  You can skip the genealogies (although it’s true that they are there for a reason).  In Isaiah, focus on the Songs of the Servant of Yahweh.

Again, if you try to read the entire City of God straight through, you’ll bog down.  In my political philosophy seminars, I usually assign Book 2, Chapters 2 and 18-21; Book 5, Chapters 12-21; Book 12, Chapters 1-8; Book 14, Chapters 1-9 and 28; and Book 19, Chapters 1-7, 12-17, 21, and 24-28.

And on your first pass through the Summa Theologiae, begin with the opening questions on God; these are in the First Part.  Then go to the First Part of the Second Part (sorry, that’s what it’s called), and read the opening questions on happiness and ultimate purpose (I’m writing a book about them now).  Next, read just the most crucial questions on the nature of virtue – I would suggest the selections I included in another of my books, which you can find listed here.  Finally, read the questions on the nature of law -- eternal, divine, natural, and human.

Happy reading!  By the way, check out the link below too.

A Related Post


The New Approach to Reproductive Ethics: Making It Up

Monday, 07-03-2017



I thought you might be able to use the Atlantic article “Making Babies, No Sex Necessary” your blog or classroom.  Henry Greely, director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford Law School, is making this easy for you as he gleefully steps into the natural law box without apparently being well prepared.

Greely argues that in the future, no one will have sex to make babies (except perhaps by accident, in the back seat of a car).  Couples won’t even have to donate eggs and sperm, because physicians will turn cells from their skin or other non-reproductive organs to make gametes to combine into embryos.  Then the embryos will be screened for whatever qualities we want.  Presumably the unwanted ones will be destroyed.


I wonder this gentleman even assumes that babies will be made by couples.  From his point of view, why not just clone ourselves?  One of the greatest things about having children is that we can’t play God and make them exactly like ourselves.  Dr. Greely wants to end all that.

Views such as his are hardly unexpected.  Ever since the development of artificial contraceptives people have been claiming that sex has nothing to do with making babies any more.  It follows that making babies has nothing to do with sex.

You’re right that he is unprepared to discuss natural law.  I wouldn’t quite say that he is making the argument easy for me, though.  The difficulty in arguing with fellows like this one is that you can’t; they are not interested in argument.

At the end of the article he is quoted as follows.  Speaking to imaginary opponents, he says, “If you, coming from a Catholic background, try to convince me, coming from a non-Catholic background ... that wouldn’t work for me …. I need a more intellectual argument than one 'based on my faith' or 'the tablets brought down from the mountain for me say this.' … There’s very little about our modern lives that’s natural or what a God from 3000 years ago would have expected or wanted, including all of modern medicine.”

Notice his implicit assumptions.  Concerning argument in general,

> The most likely source of argument in opposition is precisely the one we don’t have to listen to.

> “That wouldn’t work for me” is sufficient rebuttal to an argument.

Concerning faith,

> We already know that anyone who has faith is unreasonable; he believes because he believes because he believes.  Therefore, there is no need for non-Catholics to listen to the arguments of Catholic thinkers.  Even without listening we know that they will have nothing to say but “It’s based on my faith.”

> Everything anyone says about God is a human construct.  Except for Dr. Greely’s view that Catholics have it wrong about God.  That’s not a human construct.

> Truth falls out of date, like fashions in clothing.  Nothing that anyone thought a long time ago could possibly have any value.

Concerning natural law,

> We don’t need to know anything about natural law reasoning to criticize it.  It’s okay to make it up.

> Natural law means being primitive.  That’s why medicine is unnatural.  The natural law would tell you that if you’re sick, it’s natural to be sick, and you shouldn’t get well.

> If very little about our modern lives conforms to natural law, then there isn’t any natural law.  Presumably, if very little about the way I drive conforms to traffic law, then there isn’t any traffic law either.

What natural law theory really says