The War on Joy: Acedia in 20th Century Literature

In many ways, modernity has sought to sterilize the world. But, in addition to more overt movements such as eugenics and birth control, modern society and culture have waged a more subtle, more dangerous, and more pervasive war on joy. The societal prioritization of power and convenience over all else systematically banishes joy from every aspect of life, and especially from the home. It is in the home, in the everyday economy of spousal and family life, where the majority of people find the source and heart of their joy; marriage and the family not only constitute for their members a figure of the Divine economy wherein true joy is found, but they also provide the primary context in which Grace is merited. But the familial economy, like the national economy, developed along with modern industry and technology into a merely utilitarian affair. The home, once the source of endless unseen and intimate wonders, has become instead the breeding ground of acedia, or boredom. This is, of course, deeply harmful to the human person. In the modern world, man harbors a deep desire he cannot quite explain; he has nostalgia for a home and a family he never had, and may never find. Throughout the 20th Century, many authors have offered variations on this theme. Among others, Wendell Berry, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, and G.K. Chesterton identify nostalgia with the domestic boredom brought about by the modern idolization of potency. 

The concept of boredom (acedia) is as ancient as Homer, and has been widely recognized since the beginning of the Christian spiritual tradition. In the Secunda Secundae of his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas defines this vice as an oppressive sorrow when occasioned with a cause for legitimate spiritual joy. This sorrow so weighs upon man that he ceases to desire to act toward the cause for joy in question; for this reason, “acedia” is also translated as “sloth.” Neither is this boredom a purely personal vice; it can infect an entire community, rendering the good which the community strives for lifeless and forgotten. Hence, St, Benedict councils in his Rule that such a vice is “not only unprofitable to [an individual] but a hindrance to others.” In the modern world, this spiritual sorrow is brought about by the prioritization of the lower goods of power and convenience over the simple flourishing of families.

Another way to consider this reversal is by reference to act and potency. The modern world desires above all the ability to do more and have more, without considering why more is better. Technology and the industrial economy seek merely to increase efficiency and multiply profits; farmers like Troy Chatham in Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow exemplify this mentality. They embrace the new technological way of life in order to gain more potency in the form of wealth and technological advancement. What the Troy Chathams of the world neglect, however, is that every potency ought to be for the sake of an actuality; prosperity and convenience ought not to be sought for their own sake, but for the sake of living well. Unfortunately, the modern world has no concept of such goods. Profits must increase, and technology must advance, irrespective of their contributions to human flourishing. Ultimately, like Troy’s leveraging of his farm and sale of his timber, the modern family must sell itself out to such advancement, becoming instead an instrument for the sake of constant material progress, a merely utilitarian institution. 

Many novelists present examples of this utilization of marriage and family for the sake of progress, and the domestic unhappiness which comes from it. The Salina family in Lampedusa’s Leopard seems to have traded any vestige of virtue and nobility it once had for the opportunity to stay in power via empty political posturing and ceremony. Although liberalism is changing the world around them, their concern is not whether liberalism will effect their happiness but whether it will render them powerless or not. All the efforts of Don Fabrizio to maintain power, however, preserve nothing; they instead make him and his family miserable, longing for the stability and grandeur of a bygone era. Cecelia and Roy Overholt in Jayber Crow experience a similar disillusionment. Cecelia, who is mesmerized by the progressive and fashionable culture of Los Angeles, places social advancement over familial good. She consequently sees her husband as, “good raw material, a man she could make something out of.” This, of course leads her to a life of unhappiness with what she has, which comes to an end after she is betrayed by the progressive culture she idolizes, which places her in a nursing home in return for her devotion. Finally Chesterton includes commentary on the subject in his novella Manalive, where Dr. Pym the scientist reduces marriage to a mere stage “in the long advance of mankind,” which has no discernible goal and which has in fact been outlived. In other words, Pym thinks that marriage is but a mere social construct that has outlived its usefulness. This opinion echoes the initial attitudes of the inhabitants of Beacon House towards matrimony, which they all desired, though they did not know it. In all three cases, the characters long for something lacking in their lives, and seek to fill the void with the trifling pleasures and positions of modernity. Little do they know that the remedy to their nostalgia is right in front of them, in their very domestic life. 

Of the three novelists, Chesterton gives the clearest and most direct solution to domestic boredom: to elope. Marriage and the family are so ground down, he observes, that one must take drastic measures to be fully alive. In order to break out of the utilitarian monotony of everyday life, the character Innocent Smith periodically leaves his wife so that he can come and take her away to be married again. It is a shocking thing to do, but that is what modernity warrants; it takes something drastic to affect a radical re-prioritization of the good of matrimonial and domestic love over those of power and convenience. 

Chesterton’s advice still holds true today; with our culture continually becoming more subservient to inhuman forces of progress, the longing for a family and home which we never had and which we scarcely recognize is reaching a fever pitch. Thus, like Chesterton, we must be militant in our romanticism, fighting against a culture of utility by bravely defending what seems pointless and useless, because it is good for its own sake. 

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