On Lethargy


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. (1928-2019)

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019)

James V. Schall, S.J. 1928-2019, who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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