In Belloc’s The Four Men: A Farrago,  on All Hallows’ Eve of 1902, the Sailor (one of the characters) spoke of “the great three-toed Sloth, which is the most amiable of hell’s emissaries.” A sloth is a slow-moving American tropical mammal that hangs upside down from branches of trees. Sloth is also a capital sin, slow-moving perhaps, the source of many other sins. Josef Pieper uses the Latin word, acedia. It is a most dangerous vice. It is not just laziness.
Few people concern themselves with sloth. We associate it with an unwillingness to do much of anything, or lethargy. It also connotes doing something other than what we should be doing. Belloc’s Sailor confesses that he is too lazy to give it much attention so that sloth slips into his soul through his failure to deal with it.
But why would sloth be considered “the most amiable of hell’s emissaries”? Aquinas calls sloth “sadness about a spiritual good.” Why is sloth called “amiable” in comparison with the other capital sins? Lust, gluttony, and envy upset us, whereas sloth makes us think that not much is required of us. We can get to what is important some other time.
And why precisely “sadness” as a spiritual good? We do not confront ourselves with what we ought to do or be. Why cannot we be just left alone undisturbed by any urgings to get off our duffs and do something about what is most essential in our lives?
Samuel Johnson remarked that “there is no kind of idleness by which we can so easily be seduced as that which dignifies itself by the appearance of business.” This view implies that sloth is not just some kind of passivity. We can be slothful and very busy at the same time. To be slothful means that we look at everything else but what we are.
Human beings are unique in the universe in that they are themselves responsible for the ultimate status of what they shall be. Instinct does not guide them to a proper appreciation of what they are. They are to “rule” themselves. This self-rule is no easy matter. Its difficulty may be the reason why we are reluctant to devote much time to it.
We go about our lives. We do not internalize or decide to know and accept what we are. We make valiant efforts to deny that any objective standard exists by which we are to measure ourselves.
Yves Simon once remarked that everything we do needs to contain within it a purpose. If we give a man $1,000 an hour for digging a hole and then filling it back up again for all his working days, he would soon go mad.
This same idea came up in a different way in Belloc. The Sailor tells us that the great three-toed sloth will eat us up. By this, we shall reach the “best thing in the world.” Meself (Belloc) replies that the Sailor has forgotten one great “felicity.” This is “manly purpose and final completion of the immortal spirit, which is surely the digging of holes and the filling them up again.”
Whatever can this mean? The Sailor acknowledges that this digging and re-filling are for many “the best thing in the world.” Meself (Belloc) continues: Consider how we “drink to thirst again, eat to hunger again. . .we do penance before sinning and sleep to wake and wake to sleep.”
Our lives, in other words, are rounds of doing much the same things over and over again. We beget children who “may perpetuate all that same round.” Thus, it is possible to see that the digging and filling of holes may indicate the true human felicity.
The Poet thinks there must be something wrong with such arguments. He is challenged to name what he thinks is the “best thing in the world.” His response is delightful: “It is a mixture wherein should be compounded and intimately mixed great wads of unexpected money and the return of old loves.”
The Sailor thinks that this is romantic vanity. It supposes a myriad of old loves coming along like “the old maids of Midhurst trooping out of Church on a Sunday morning.” The old man among them finally says that all young men talk “folly. . . .The best thing in the world is sleep.”
What is it that we “do” in the daily rounds of existence given to each of us? Sloth means that we do not take ourselves seriously. We do not address the ultimate question to our very souls. That we are promised glory makes us sad.
We hang upside down from branches on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It never incites us to inquire about what we are. We are busy about many things. We are lazy. We are slothful. We do not bother to notice from whence the “amiable emissary” comes to us.
*Image: Sloth by Pieter van der Heyden, 1558 [The Met , New York]. The engraving is one of a series of prints made by the artist of the Seven Deadly Sins, each based upon the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.