The Catholic Thing
On Lethargy Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 05 August 2014

Why is it that we, as a people, are so lethargic about fundamental things, about the rapid undermining of our very reason and constitution with hardly a whimper, indeed with widespread approval? We do become excited about many things, but for the most part we studiously avoid any implication that we have a truth problem.

We do not want to know the truth about ourselves. We thus invent descriptions of reality that legitimate what we do. This fabrication of reality does not reflect what is. It incorporates our wishes into our daily fare. We mostly go along with them.

We are, in other words, lethargic. This word is of interest. It has overtones of that “tiredness” often used by historians to describe civilizations in decline. Lethargy means drowsy, dull, or listless. This word has Greek origins. The river Lethe, mentioned by Plato, was a river of the underworld. If we drink its waters, we forget what went before us in our lives.

It’s like being in a dire situation of our own making but not recalling how or why we arrived there. This river flows around Hypnos, the god of sleep. So sleepiness, drowsiness, listlessness, and dullness surround this word. It describes a being not fully alert, not ready to accomplish what man is made to do. The word also has overtones of choosing or even of preferring to be in this mood. 

But this “Lethe,” in Ovid, is also a goddess, of forgetfulness. In truth there are things we want to forget and should forget. Yet, when we look at the etymology of the word, surprising things are brought up. The word for truth in Greek is a-leteia. The “a” before a word in Greek denies its meaning. Thus schole means leisure, while a-scholia means business, the denial of leisure.

A-leteia means the denial of drowsiness or forgetfulness. A-leteia is the Greek word for truth. To know the truth we must not be drowsy or dull or forgetful. If we are lethargic we will never learn the truth of things. To know the truth of things is what ought to excite us, wake us up.

           Sunday Boredom by B.J.O Nordfeldt, c. 1930

It is rather what Chesterton meant when he observed that there are “no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.” What could be worse than a people not interested in what they really are?

Scripture tells us that the children of this world are wiser than the children of light. They are more enterprising in the pursuit of what is wrong or deviant than the children of light are in pursuing the truth. The unjust servant was more energetic than the just one. So there must be another deviation from the truth that is not simply rooted in lethargy.

The Greeks have another word, acedia, which means something like boredom. Lethargy just means not having the energy or alertness to bother about anything. Acedia is more sinister. Josef Pieper paid a good deal of attention to this vice. It did not just mean being bored at the dullness of a slow baseball game or movie. It rather meant the lack of energy or interest in finding out the truth and accepting it.

Psalm 63 reads: “O God, you are my God; for you my soul is thirsting.” This is a soul that is not drowsy or bored. It is a soul that is unsettled because it does not know the truth. It is not a soul that is relieved that no truth can be found.

If we are unwilling to know the truth about ourselves. it is certain that we will ultimately be bored with the world we have pictured for ourselves to live in. It is inevitable that we forbid any questioning of our artificial world. We will be forced in the public order to drink from the river of forgetfulness. We want no reminders of another way that we have rejected as the explanation of our being what we are.

In other words, we must lie to ourselves about what is. Rejected truth does not leave us indifferent. We cannot abort millions and millions of our kind and have it pointed out to us that these are true human children. We cannot deny that marriage is the lifetime bond of one man and one woman with their children and think that all will go well with us. We must lie. We demand that everyone must admit these lies as a condition of citizenship in the polity. We must eliminate what we cannot defend in reason.

Lethargy and acedia, boredom about the ultimate things, lead to the business and energy necessary to coerce those who insist that the truth of things is what we need first to know. Such a description, more or less, describes our culture of lethargy and boredom with the truth that we refuse to acknowledge or live.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is CatholicThe Modern AgePolitical Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Readingand Reasonable Pleasures.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (11)Add Comment
written by Randall, August 05, 2014
“No uninteresting things, only uninterested people.”
Here's another one, though I don't know from where it originated: "Stupid people talk about other people. Intelligent people talk about things / ideas."

This a typical Sunday where I live in 'Catholic' Poland: People yawn or carry on conversations during mass. If the priest says something in his homily that challenges the complacent status quo of people's lives, then you can be sure people will gripe about it over Sunday dinner later. The priest "should stay out of politics," they'll say, if the priest happened to issue a stark warning about Poland's slide into the godless bog that rest of Europe has become. But if the he preaches some lukewarm milquetoast that soothes people in their mediocrity, then they'll cluck their approval. Then the rest of the Sunday afternoon conversation revolves endlessly around the same old banalities of illnesses, work and what all the neighbors are up to.

Lord, grant me the heart of Saint Thérèse de Lisieux!
written by Manfred, August 05, 2014
Thank you for a great column, Father.Before Vat. II, a person might be described as a "lapsed" Catholic, i.e., both he and others knew he was not living all aspects of the Catholic Faith. Then, for various reasons, contraception began to gain acceptance. "Follow your conscience." The Church teachings were going to change. The Church could not decide which road to follow so It taught nothing. Catechetics and moral theology disappeared. "God loves you just the way you are." The result of the last fifty years is the society, Catholic as well as secular, which has lost all semblance of normalcy. This is why Christ described His followers as "sheep" and "lambs" who required strong "shepherds" (pastors in Latin).
Thank you for reminding the sheep that they have responsibilities as well.
written by Other Joe, August 05, 2014
"So, because you are lukewarm--neither hot nor cold--I am about to spit you out of my mouth."

When the salt has lost its flavor it is trampled underfoot.

The timid servant buried his talents and was punished for it.

We have been warned. Have we ears with which to hear?
written by Mack, August 05, 2014
Thank you, Father.
written by Ray, August 05, 2014
Our lethargy has begun turning to antipathy. Great article, Father. The spiritual exercises of your founder if practiced, even minimally, would forgo this downward spiral of our American Catholic brethren.
written by Chris in Maryland, August 05, 2014
A great essay - thank you Fr. Schall!

I love the Greek word "A-leteia" - "Unforgetting." I believe the Latin analog is Anammesis (un-amnesia). Hence the ancient prayer in the Holy Mass, the Anamnesis, where we recall Jesus's life: "His Passion, his Resurrection from The Dead, and his Ascension into Glory."

Since Christ himself instituted The Mass, he has made "The Unforgetting of His Life" the source and summit of the Christian life.

Breaking off from tradition is, among other problems, indulging an impulse of some who want to "forget."
written by joe, August 05, 2014
Dear Father Schall,

Great Essay.

I was reminded of this poem by Philip Larkin when I read your essay:


Strange to know nothing, never to be sure
Of what is true or right or real,
But forced to qualify or so I feel,
Or Well, it does seem so:
Someone must know.

Strange to be ignorant of the way things work:
Their skill at finding what they need,
Their sense of shape, and punctual spread of seed,
And willingness to change;
Yes, it is strange,

Even to wear such knowledge - for our flesh
Surrounds us with its own decisions -
And yet spend all our life on imprecisions,
That when we start to die
Have no idea why.



written by Jack,CT, August 05, 2014
Thanks Fr a fantastic essay!
written by Dave, August 05, 2014
We are lethargic, may I suggest, because we are overwhelmed and hardly know where to begin.
written by Hen, August 06, 2014
Dave, Thanks for the easy target. We should begin with prayer of course. Thanks Father for the inspiration.
written by MJ Anderson, August 06, 2014
Superb! This is a very pointed and powerful reminder.

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