Thoughtlessness, Sloth, and the Call to Think

What happens when we give up on thinking? Hannah Arendt warned us years ago.
April 13th, 2017

In 1961 Hannah Arendt travelled to Jerusalem to cover the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker. Eichmann, a key player in the Holocaust, was largely responsible for the logistical feat of the mass transportation of Jews to ghettos and ultimately extermination camps. The story that the world anticipated hearing from the trial, and indeed, the story Arendt herself expected to find, was the story of a villain, the final act in a grand and horrifying life of evil. However, presented with Eichmann in the flesh, Arendt found no trace of such a narrative. Eichmann was not Iago. His testimony had none of the drama or torment of Macbeth. He had no grand evil motives. Indeed, he seemed to have no real motives at all. He insisted that he had just followed orders. He was striking exactly because of his thoughtlessness.

Arendt wrote her 1971 book The Life of the Mind largely in response to this startling phenomenon. There is something in the act of thinking itself, she argues, regardless of content and conclusions, that constrains evildoing and plays a key role in our ability to make moral judgments. And she ponders a worrisome possibility: What if, in an age of so much stunning advancement, we have somehow forgotten what thinking really means? In seeking to recover the meaning of thinking, Arendt sounds less like a German philosopher and more like a desert father. Her insight into the habit of thinking and why it must be incorporated into a society so prone to thoughtlessness is as contemporary as ever.

If our intellect is building a house, then thinking is cleaning the kitchen. It is daily work.

Thinking and Knowing

Granted, for Arendt, the key to understanding what it means to think lies in a fine point of German philosophy: the Kantian distinction between reason and intellect. For Kant, reason and intellect are two distinct aspects of our mental life. The intellect, on the one hand, is driven by our need to know and, accordingly, is properly concerned with those things that can be known—sturdy and graspable truth. It is our intellect that drives our science and makes our technology possible.

Arendt worries that in the modern age, while we have been wildly successful in the use of our intellects and our knowledge about the world has grown more rapidly than ever before, the work of reason has been dangerously neglected. For reason, on the other hand, is never fully satisfied in the realm of what can be grasped. While our intellect drives our need to know, reason equips us with an "urgent desire to think," an inclination to cast our minds far beyond the capacity of our intellect, to push farther and deeper.

While it is tempting to think that such a grand gesture should produce even grander results, we shouldn't mistake this activity of thinking for an elevated science. Nothing can be built on what cannot be grasped, and when I have finished thinking I have nothing tangible to show for all my mind's wanderings. For Arendt, the activity of thinking is more like a conversation with a friend than mapping the human genome. If our intellect is building a house, then thinking is cleaning the kitchen. It is daily work. As Arendt writes, "The need to think can never be stilled by allegedly definite insights of 'wise men'; it can be satisfied only through thinking and the thoughts I had yesterday will satisfy this need today only to the extent that I want and am able to think them anew."

Once we begin to understand this distinction between the intellect's knowing and reason's thinking, then we can also begin to see that the thoughtlessness which concerns Arendt is not mere ignorance. For Arendt, it was not that Eichmann did not know what he was doing. It was that he did not think about what he was doing. The thoughtlessness that allows evil to flourish cannot be dispelled with new facts or better information, and the society that has forgotten how to think needs to do more than inform its citizens. Instead, like stretching unused muscles, it must relearn the daily habits of thinking. Like rekindling old friendships, it must nurture thoughtfulness as a disposition toward the world.

Banality and Sloth

When Arendt published her opinion on the "banality" of Eichmann's evil, its thoughtlessness, the public was outraged. Many thought Arendt was somehow letting Eichmann off easy or downplaying the monstrous nature of his crimes. However, in locating the root of Eichmann's crime squarely in the realm of everyday, mundane habit, Arendt was, to some extent, joining a long-standing tradition which recognized that habits are serious business. In this tradition, the seemingly banal vice of sloth has always been safely ensconced among the seven deadly sins. In fact, to the faithful student of Thomas Aquinas Arendt's insights may seem strangely familiar.

Arendt does not discuss Aquinas's vice of sloth in relation to thoughtlessness. Yet the parallels between the two ostensibly benign moral dangers of thoughtlessness and sloth are worth exploring. In contemporary culture sloth has come to mean simply laziness. As such, its inclusion on the official list of the most dangerous vices can seem strange. However, as Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung points out in her book Glittering Vices, the vice of sloth is really more than mere resistance to work or exertion. First articulated in the monastic tradition, sloth originally refers to the weariness solitary desert monks would feel with their commitment to the spiritual life. Sloth, as fourth-century monk Evagrius of Pontus writes, is the "noonday demon," which seizes the monks, making them despair in their calling and long for their old lives in the city. One aspect of this despair was often an apathy toward monastic duties, and so it is not hard to see the fruits of this vice reflected in our modern understanding of sloth as rather harmless opposition to a strong work ethic. However, the roots of this noonday demon were much more serious.

Aquinas opposes sloth not to work but to charity, which, as Aquinas writes in his Summa theologiae, is "a kind of friendship of man for God," which aims for "the fellowship of everlasting happiness." Sloth, for Aquinas, is not primarily a sorrowing in our work, but a sorrowing over our friendship with God.

The vice of sloth when understood in this way is at once something serious and baffling, for it picks out a human aversion to the spiritual good in us. It names, as DeYoung writes in her essay "Acedia's Resistance to the Demands of Love," "the overwhelming urge to stay with the comfortable and the known rather than risk change, even if it promises improvement." Sloth is not simply becoming weary of doing good works. Rather, sloth is remaining complacent in the present and the status quo. It is preferring to accept a lackluster life rather than responding to the demands of a relationship with God.

Socrates: The Great Thinker

In seeking to understand the practice of thinking, Arendt does not turn to Aquinas or desert monks, but to history's great thinker Socrates, who famously knew only that he knew nothing but questioned everything. However, her discussion of the ancient philosopher draws to light the same noonday demon and temptation of the comfortable that the monks knew so well. Indeed, as Arendt sees it, it is no coincidence that Socrates is ultimately convicted of corrupting the youth of Athens and sentenced to death, for to be subject to the questioning of Socrates was a decidedly uncomfortable experience. As the gadfly of Athens, Socrates aroused a sleeping population, but what he woke them to was not an enlightened state, but their own ignorance. For Arendt, Socrates highlights that

thinking has a destructive, undermining effect on all established criteria. . . . These frozen thoughts, Socrates seems to say, come so handily that you can use them in your sleep; but if the wind of thinking, which I shall now stir in you, has shaken you from your sleep and made you fully awake and alive, then you will see that you have nothing in your grasp but perplexities.

To "stop and think" can be terrifying. It is to bring under scrutiny those things that are usually the backdrop to our lives. It is to question our morals with a probing desire for goodness. It is to reimagine not just our policy, but our institutions themselves. It is to look for what lies behind normal, and when normal changes, it is perhaps to not change along with it.

The Soundless Dialogue

For Arendt, there is something in the activity of thinking that compels just these sorts of uncomfortable and unpopular positions. Thoughtful people are prone to be sticks in the mud, and to poke holes where no one else does. This, Arendt argues, is not coincidental, but is rooted in the very experience of thinking itself.

There is a duality in thinking that is not present when I act or make my way in the world, but that only emerges when I stop and think. Arendt calls thinking the "soundless dialogue with myself," and throughout the book she insists that what we find when we retreat into the solitude of thought is always a partner in conversation. As Cato writes, "Never is [a man] less alone than when he is by himself."

To "stop and think" can be terrifying. It is to bring under scrutiny those things that are usually the backdrop to our lives.

This, for Arendt, is the phenomenon of conscience. It is the reason Socrates can insist with confidence in the Gorgias that "it would be better for me that my lyre or a chorus I directed should be out of tune and loud with discord, and that multitudes of men should disagree with me rather than that I, being one, should be out of harmony with myself and contradict me." The thoughtful person feels the full gravity of facing one's self.

The murderer, left alone to think, is pulled into conversation with a murderer. The hypocrite goes home to a hypocrite. For Socrates it is better to have the whole world against him than to be faced in his solitude with someone discordant. And here the true temptation of thoughtlessness shines through. For if we are not Socrates it is not so hard to avoid thinking. If I do not wish to meet the person who is waiting for me at home, I can simply not go home.

In our modern world this is easier than ever. With our cellphones in our pockets we are never truly left to ourselves. After working long hours we are too exhausted for a silent conversation, or perhaps we are too absorbed in fighting the good fight to pause and wander home. Often, it seems that we are too busy for thoughtfulness. We would like our thinking to be a little bit more like our knowing—a long-term solution. In place of daily habits, we rush to find a once-and-for-all position that we can claim as our identity. We love the slumber of party lines, and we are not interested in watching them crumble in the wind of thought. Having established that the partner in our silent dialogue is indeed a good person, we carefully do not bother to check back in. We think so that we can stop thinking.

Refusing to Go Home

As DeYoung points out, traditionally, the scriptural examples of sloth have not been the sluggards of the Bible, but Lot's wife who looked back as the Lord was destroying the city of Sodom and was turned into a pillar of salt, and the Israelites who, on the brink of their entrance into the Promised Land, hung back and were instead made to wander the desert for forty years. The beatitude opposed to the vice of sloth is the fourth, from Matthew 5:6: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied."

Like Lot's wife and the Israelites in the desert, thoughtlessness is a refusal to face what it would mean to go home. It rests in the comfort of the known and has no wish to be awoken to the desert corruption that is its reality.

Ultimately thoughtlessness is serious for much the same reason that sloth is serious. When we are overcome by sloth the divine good in us becomes like a thorn in our side, and our divine calling a cause for sorrow. Accordingly, no matter whether we busy ourselves with work or slide into apathy, our lives remain cut off from the very relationship that is able to provide true strength and true rest. In a similar way, when our lives are cut off and buffered from the activity of thinking, though the work of our intellect marches on, its potential, unchecked by winds of thought and soundless dialogues, takes on a decidedly frightening character, perhaps best (if extremely) showcased in Eichmann's very competent scheduling of trains.

Forming New Habits

In Glittering Vices, DeYoung records the advice of Evagrius to those monks facing the noonday demon.

You must not abandon the cell in the time of temptations, fashioning excuses seemingly reasonable. Rather, you must remain seated inside, exercise perseverance. . . . Fleeing and circumventing such struggles teaches the mind to be unskilled, cowardly, and evasive.

The monk who wishes to beat back sloth does not wait to feel the proper joy in his calling. Rather, he perseveres in the calling even while it is a sorrow to him. As DeYoung makes clear, the habits of a virtuous life do not always spring from a virtuous disposition. Instead, it is often only through practicing virtuous habits that the disposition can be cultivated.

In the same way, Arendt's call to thinking is not a call just for those with a Socratic love of wisdom. The capacity to think, she writes, is "not a prerogative of the few but an ever-present faculty in everybody," and the call to think is a call for all people—regardless of position, intelligence, or desire—to practice the habits of a thoughtful life, to persevere through the discomfort of the wind of thought, to maintain that difficult friendship with one's self.

The call to think is a call to wonder and wander beyond the safe limits of what we know and what we think we know. It is a call to listen to the other side of the argument with the desire to truly understand, or at least the courage to try. It is a call to sometimes disagree, even with those you like and who like you. To be thoughtful might mean questioning the vulnerable pieces of a position instead of carefully compensating for their fragility. It might mean that your conception of doing justice becomes more complicated or that your relationship with technology becomes rocky, or that you start to cultivate the sort of imagination that can glimpse different ways to educate, different ways to work, and different ways to be wealthy.

The call to think is not a call to grasp the ungraspable, but it is a call to not recoil or hide from its disrupting force or from the still small voice of our soundless dialogues. We cannot get a firm hold on the Promised Land from the desert, but with the right habits guiding our mental life, perhaps we can allow its strange winds to shape our wanderings.

 

Hannah LaGrand is working on a Philosophy MA at McMaster University. She lives in Hamilton, Ontario with her husband and their dog, Bagel.

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