At Comment Magazine, an essay by Hannah LeGrand on “thoughtlessness, sloth, and the call to think.”
It is well worth reading and reflecting on. LeGrand begins with Hannah Arendt’s famous account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann. This is best remembered for Arendt’s observation on the “banality of evil”, and LeGrand takes this for a starting point:
The story that the world anticipated hearing from the trial, and indeed, the story Arendt herself expected to find, was the story of a villain, the final act in a grand and horrifying life of evil. However, presented with Eichmann in the flesh, Arendt found no trace of such a narrative. Eichmann was not Iago. His testimony had none of the drama or torment of Macbeth. He had no grand evil motives. Indeed, he seemed to have no real motives at all. He insisted that he had just followed orders. He was striking exactly because of his thoughtlessness.
Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” is the most famous text to emerge from this trial, but LeGrand’s essay then follows another of her works: 1971’s The Life of the Mind:
There is something in the act of thinking itself, she argues, regardless of content and conclusions, that constrains evildoing and plays a key role in our ability to make moral judgments. And she ponders a worrisome possibility: What if, in an age of so much stunning advancement, we have somehow forgotten what thinking really means? In seeking to recover the meaning of thinking, Arendt sounds less like a German philosopher and more like a desert father. Her insight into the habit of thinking and why it must be incorporated into a society so prone to thoughtlessness is as contemporary as ever.
This leads to the core of the essay:
For Kant, reason and intellect are two distinct aspects of our mental life. The intellect, on the one hand, is driven by our need to know and, accordingly, is properly concerned with those things that can be known—sturdy and graspable truth. It is our intellect that drives our science and makes our technology possible.
Arendt worries that in the modern age, while we have been wildly successful in the use of our intellects and our knowledge about the world has grown more rapidly than ever before, the work of reason has been dangerously neglected. For reason, on the other hand, is never fully satisfied in the realm of what can be grasped. While our intellect drives our need to know, reason equips us with an “urgent desire to think,” an inclination to cast our minds far beyond the capacity of our intellect, to push farther and deeper.
While it is tempting to think that such a grand gesture should produce even grander results, we shouldn’t mistake this activity of thinking for an elevated science. Nothing can be built on what cannot be grasped, and when I have finished thinking I have nothing tangible to show for all my mind’s wanderings. For Arendt, the activity of thinking is more like a conversation with a friend than mapping the human genome. If our intellect is building a house, then thinking is cleaning the kitchen. It is daily work. As Arendt writes, “The need to think can never be stilled by allegedly definite insights of ‘wise men’; it can be satisfied only through thinking and the thoughts I had yesterday will satisfy this need today only to the extent that I want and am able to think them anew.”
Once we begin to understand this distinction between the intellect’s knowing and reason’s thinking, then we can also begin to see that the thoughtlessness which concerns Arendt is not mere ignorance. For Arendt, it was not that Eichmann did not know what he was doing. It was that he did not think about what he was doing. The thoughtlessness that allows evil to flourish cannot be dispelled with new facts or better information, and the society that has forgotten how to think needs to do more than inform its citizens. Instead, like stretching unused muscles, it must relearn the daily habits of thinking. Like rekindling old friendships, it must nurture thoughtfulness as a disposition toward the world.
This distinction between the knowing that is acquiring new facts and new information, and the use of reason, is worth reflecting on. One can sometimes marvel that any first year physics undergraduate “knows more” than Newton (and is unlikely to be into alchemy) or indeed a Psychology 101 student “knows more” than Freud (and is unlikely to be into the dodgier bits of Freudianism). Of course, they have more information, and this information is verified more extensively.
This discussion of Arendt leads into one of Aquinas, via a consideration of sloth, which is far more than mere laziness:
However, as Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung points out in her book Glittering Vices, the vice of sloth is really more than mere resistance to work or exertion. First articulated in the monastic tradition, sloth originally refers to the weariness solitary desert monks would feel with their commitment to the spiritual life. Sloth, as fourth-century monk Evagrius of Pontus writes, the spiritual life. Sloth, as fourth-century monk Evagrius of Pontus writes, is the “noonday demon,” which seizes the monks, making them despair in their calling and long for their old lives in the city. One aspect of this despair was often an apathy toward monastic duties, and so it is not hard to see the fruits of this vice reflected in our modern understanding of sloth as rather harmless opposition to a strong work ethic. However, the roots of this noonday demon were much more serious.
Aquinas opposes sloth not to work but to charity, which, as Aquinas writes in his Summa theologiae, is “a kind of friendship of man for God,” which aims for “the fellowship of everlasting happiness.” Sloth, for Aquinas, is not primarily a sorrowing in our work, but a sorrowing over our friendship with God.
The vice of sloth when understood in this way is at once something serious and baffling, for it picks out a human aversion to the spiritual good in us. It names, as DeYoung writes in her essay “Acedia’s Resistance to the Demands of Love,” “the overwhelming urge to stay with the comfortable and the known rather than risk change, even if it promises improvement.” Sloth is not simply becoming weary of doing good works. Rather, sloth is remaining complacent in the present and the status quo. It is preferring to accept a lackluster life rather than responding to the demands of a relationship with God.
It is interesting, as a sort of accompaniment to this essay, to consider Dante’s treatment of Sloth in Canto 18 of the Purgatorio. The Columbia University “Digital Dante” commentary linked to above focuses on the poetics of this canto which discussion of Love, and particularly distinctions between Dante’s previous stance that Love is a force that cannot be opposed – and can become attached to unworthy or actively harmful objects of affection – to a more mature one with a subtle role for Free Will.
The slothful purge their sin by the opposite of what they indulged in in life – unrelenting speed. The commentary suggests that the compressed treatment of Sloth – the whole terrace within Purgatory being disposed of in half a canto – is a structural reflection of the purgation of sloth. In the commentary, one gets the sense that the depiction of slothful is very much secondary to the opening discussion of Love. However, reading LeGrand, especially her sections on Aquinas, I wonder if the slothful are more central to the discussion of Love than the commentary might suggest.