Sloth – The Ven. Julian Hubbard

Thank you for your kind invitation to join you for Evensong in the College and for your generous welcome. And thank you also for setting me a rather interesting challenge to preach on such a topic as “Sloth” in your series on the Seven Deadly Sins.

I have to admit that my first reaction on receiving the invitation was to ask myself, “Oh, can I really be bothered to say yes”: my next thought was “And why exactly has Emma asked me preach on this particular sin” (as no doubt some of your other preachers this term may also have asked!). I guess the answer to my question could be provided by my initial reaction: you have probably invited me as an expert on the subject.

But what exactly is the subject of sloth. Even more than the word sin, sloth is not the kind of word one often hears even in an Oxford college, let alone in Cornmarket or (supposing you could hear it being spoken) in one of the clubs along the road to the station. In most places it means a two- or three-toed small mammal from the forests of south America which eats, sleeps and mates upside-down, and all at a sluggish pace, though apparently it is quite a brisk and good swimmer when it can be bothered to get into the water.

So quickly recapping on the Christian moral tradition about sloth, it appears in the list of the seven deadly sins assembled by Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome and former consul or governor of Rome (a well-organised and unslothful man, if ever there was). He names it, interestingly, in Latin tristia, “sadness”, and more of that definition shortly. Moving on through history briskly and with no hint of sloth, Dante places sloth in his hierarchy of sins slap bang in the middle, an appropriate spot for a sin, I suppose, if you don’t really want to make a big effort either way. Sloth for Dante is more vicious than avarice but less vicious than anger: he describes it in this way, as “a failure to love God with all one’s heart, all one’s mind and all one’s strength”.

And what about the current moral view? Putting the word “sloth” into Google, I was led to the Seven Deadly Sins website, and then straight to the Merchandise page which told me “With fascinating full colour depictions of the Seven Deadly Sins, these shirts, mugs and mousepads may be the most important products you buy in the new millennium” a statement which may be an illustration of pride above all…. So I moved on and was then led to contemporary depictions of the seven deadly sins in unlikely literature, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in which Roald Dahl’s characters represented at least four, Augustus Gloop for gluttony, Violet Beauregarde for pride, Veruca Salt for greed and finally Mike Teavee for sloth itself.

Fortunately, as I thought, I then discovered that the University Press has come to the rescue by publishing among its recent series of books on the seven deadly sins, a slim volume on sloth. But this finally crystallised one of the problems about any discourse about sloth in our kind of culture and society. The book turns out to be mostly in defence of sloth as an act of moral agitprop against the prevailing tide of hyperactivity, overcommitment, workaholism, intemperance and “getting the max” which characterises the life most of us observe and to some extent all participate in, not least in Oxford. So is sloth a problem, or is it actually a solution to the work/life balance, a slower pace of living?

At one level there is some wisdom in this. Sloth as an act of countercultural negation of the shallow contemporary worship of speed, especially in the developing of relationships, would have a good deal to commend it. But that would be to diminish the meaning of sloth to something like laziness and it seems to be more interesting and rich as an idea than that.

Let’s try going into the subject from the point of view of the corresponding virtue, which is generally taken to be zeal, promptness, readiness to engage in activity and with people. In terms of attitude rather behaviour this is about something deeper than just activity. Returning to that interesting early understanding of sloth as “sadness”, sloth seems to have something to do with a kind of resignation, and at the deepest level, resignation about oneself: a modern commentator has called sloth “sadness, deliberately self-directed” which leads to not doing, not knowing and not finding out what one must do. Strangely, it is therefore possible to be both busy, even hyperactive, and also slothful, if we have no sense of what is meaningful and purposeful in our busy activity. For example, it could be described as slothful to continue busily and expensively producing goods, services and wealth while neglecting to think about the meaning of the signs of climate change. It could also be said to be slothful to want to make a personal fortune at the expense of knowing why and what effect it will have on me or those whom I love.

There is no time to go into the psychological roots and springs of slothful behaviour, though there is little doubt that Freud and more than a century of the practice of pschoanalysis has something to tell us about what stops many, if not all of us, from the kind of engagement which goes with psychological and spiritual well-being, particularly in late adolescence and in middle age.

However, the problem and the dilemma are age-old, even as far back as St Paul. For he knew that “ I do not understand my own actions: for I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate”. The remedy also seems to be age-old: for discipline and determination can only go a short way to remedy sloth without deepening the despair. It is the bond of peace and of all virtues, love itself which seems to be the remedy for sloth and the source of the good life which is made up, as someone put it to me recently of the maximum of work and the maximum of pleasure. Sloth is conquered by love of self, love of our neighbour and love of God.

The Ven. Julian Hubbard, Archdeacon of Oxford
5th March 2006

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