Dante's Purgatory: Sloth – Prof. Paul Ewart

When the chaplain gave me the topic of sloth in this series on the 7 deadly sins I wondered for a moment if this was a bit of sub-conscious type-casting. I ought therefore to confess at the start that I am not immune to the temptation and I have not always resisted it. I am not claiming to be an expert but I will give you three thoughts: the character of sloth, the causes of sloth and the cure for sloth. In the culture of today sloth may seem a relatively minor character defect but hardly a “deadly” sin. After all, given the modern definition of sin, it doesn’t hurt other people; it may not help them very much but it doesn’t harm them. It is simply a “life-style” choice, different rather than evil.
So why is sloth a sin? First we should identify it and distinguish it from tiredness, or even a symptom of depression. Such physical or mental states that affect our functioning are not moral defects. They are best dealt with by rest or counselling aided when necessary by medication. But sloth is that attitude of mind that tells us life is not worth the effort. It is when looking at the blank piece of paper as we start that essay for Tuesday’s tutorial that we feel, “We just can’t be bothered”.
It is not however simply mental or physical laziness – it goes deeper than that, and it is deeply corrosive. Its foundation is the premise that life is pointless. It is also the endpoint of a circular argument – if you choose to believe life has no meaning or purpose, then life will become pointless. But let’s not deceive ourselves that modern science has shown us that life is nothing but a freak, meaningless accident in a random universe. Science tells us no such thing – it is not equipped to make such value judgments or reach such metaphysical conclusions. It is intellectual laziness that accepts uncritically an atheist interpretation of science. This may simply suit our inclination to believe that we will not be held to account for how we have used the precious gift of life.
Sloth corrupts all that is good and true and beautiful. It breeds a cynicism that sees only the worst in people. It leads to self-deception and unwillingness to face the truth about ourselves. It develops a spiritual crustiness so that we fail to be inspired or ennobled by beauty in art or music or persons. It robs life of joy. It denies life itself. It is the ultimate insult to God the Creator. It says to God “Maybe, maybe not, you created a universe of awful majesty and immensity and peopled one small corner with creatures that could be conscious and aware of your power and glory. You shared this human experience, suffered and died as one of us in what they say is a saving act of love … but so what, I don’t give a damn.” Yes, sloth is a sin. It wilfully misses the point of life. The slothful can’t be bothered to find out if life has a point. So sloth enslaves us and robs us of freedom and joy in life.
Sloth may be most obvious in those who are physically inactive but mere activity is not the anti-dote. If sloth is a sin because it misses the point of life it is possible to miss the point also by misdirected activity; by busyness, by driving ambition, by pursuit of material wealth and security. A headless chicken can look convincingly busy, for a while! Perhaps that is why Luke places Jesus’ parable of the watchful servants in the context of his master’s teaching about materialism. The true servant of Christ has his loins girded and his lamp burning, actively serving his master. The wise and faithful steward is the one who understands that this life is not all there is. It is part of a longer story, a larger picture, a work in progress. Therefore he or she is active in doing God’s work. That is the real meaning of zeal. It is enthusiastic, hope-full working for a purpose – showing God’s love in the world. It energizes men and women to give up riches and security and to serve others as Christ’s hands and Christ’s feet.
But what are we to do about it? What is the cure for, and the prophylactic against, sloth? Dante offers a purgatorial vision of endless running as the penance for a life of sloth. But this is not “headless chicken” running. It is an urgent desire not to waste time –
“Quick, quick! Let not the precious time be lost for lack of love!” “In good work strive till grace revive from dust”.
The moral is clearly directed to us to be active before death and we are turned to dust. It is not however much help to be told that the antidote to inactivity is to get active. Getting active is the problem – if I could do that then there wouldn’t be a problem. What can I do, if I lack the willpower?
The immediate context of Dante and Virgil’s encounter with the penitent slothful is a discourse on love and free will. Firstly Virgil points out that we are created with a capacity to love and love leads to action to obtain the beloved. Dante asks if there is then any virtue in what we do if it is simply the result of what God has put within us. To this Virgil replies that however we are made, we have the capacity to choose – we have free will. This is where it begins – with a choice.
So the remedy for sloth is built in and available to each of us. We are made to respond to grace. When we choose to accept God’s help then things can begin to change. When life seems empty and pointless and not worth the bother – it is because there is an empty space inside us, – a God-shaped hole – that only God can fill. The opposite of sloth is enthusiasm for life, eagerly reaching for all the joy it can give as from God. Enthusiasm comes from two Greek words: en theos, a god within. That is what the Christian has. He or she is one who has chosen to receive God’s Holy Spirit into their very being. It is not willpower we need to overcome sloth, it is just the will, God will give us the power.
My job then, as a Christian, is to do God’s business and as C S Lewis says, “Joy is the serious business of heaven”. It was Jesus’ reason for coming for he said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
So our life becomes an exciting adventure. A life enthused, empowered and enabled by God himself to fulfil his purpose for us. His Spirit within energises our self-discipline and encourages us with love and joy and peace. So with God’s strength we can be set free from the slavery of sloth and become masters of ourselves that we may be servants of others. We look forward then, not to purgatory, but to meeting our Master and to hear his greeting, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Prof. Paul Ewart
13th February 2011

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