Thursday, September 04, 2008

Hope: Ascetical Topic for September

Insight from Josef Pieper: Hope comes from going out of oneself

“Soren Kierkegaard gave to the obscure kind of despair the name ‘despair of weakness.’ This despair, he says, consists of man not daring t be himself, even explicitly not wanting to be himself. He refuses to be what he truly is, he does not accept his own essence.

“By this concept, ‘despair of weakness,’ Kierkegaard returned, consciously or unconsciously, to an ancient thought of Western wisdom, namely, the notion of that special kind of ‘sloth’ that, as acedia, is habitually counted among the seven capital sins. But present-day popular understanding has perverted the original concept of ‘sloth’ as a capital sin into nearly its opposite. In ordinary usage ‘sloth’ seems to have settle into the domain of work – understood as lack of diligence, laziness, lack of pleasure in work. But when the great master of Western Christendom named this ‘sloth’ of the heart’ a sin, it was not meant to be an approval of ceaseless activity of the capitalist work establishment. Rather, acedia means that man does not ‘col-lobarate’ or work together with the realization of himself; that he refuses to add his conscious contribution to his very own, truly human existence. It is not at all a question of external activity but of the full realization of the self to which we know we are silently but unmistakably summoned. And not to accept this summons to respond to it with ‘no:’ this is precisely the essence of ‘sloth,’ of acedia. Through the sloth that is sin, man barricades himself against the challenge handed to him by his own dignity. He resists being a spiritual entity endowed with the power to make decisions; he simply does not want to be that for which God lifted him up above al natural potentiality. In other words, man does not want to be what he nevertheless cannot stop being: a spiritual being, truly satisfied with nothing less than God himself; and beyond that, ‘son of God,’ rightful heir to eternal life.

“The ancients, too, thought of sloth and despair as belonging together. They call acedia a form of sadness, namely, that paralyzing tristitiae saeculi of which Paul says that it brings death. But not only that. The ancients say explicitly that this sadness is already the beginning of despair – just as Kierkegaard understands the ‘despair of weakness’ as the first step to actual and complete despair, the reflected ‘despair of self-assertion.’ But where is that ‘obscurity’ and ‘deception’ which must be unmasked and exposed with special care?”

I insert a translation of “acedia” as “Inertia of the self to transcend itself.” The direct opposite of “acedia” is not work, but magnanimity - greatness of soul, enlargement of heart. Work can easily be a paste-on accidental performance that comes and goes on the surface of the self as “substance.”
Hence, Pieper continues:

“From not-wanting-to-be-oneself, from the refusal to collaborate with the completion of one’s own being, from this innermost conflict of man with himself, from this sloth… as the ancients say, springs the ‘roaming restlessness of the spirit.’ He who is in conflict with himself in his inmost dwelling, who consequently does not will to be what he fundamentally is anyway, cannot dwell within himself and cannot be at home with himself. He has to make the vain experiment of breaking out from his own center – for example, into the restlessness of working for work’s sake or into the insatiable curiosity of the lustful eye, which does not really seek knowledge but only an ‘opportunity to abandon oneself to the world’ (Heidegger), which is an opportunity to avoid oneself.

“It must further be realized that both manifestations – the systematic establishment of the work ideal as absolute and the degeneration of the lustful eye – surround themselves with the immense effort of a forced optimism, of a radiating trust in life, of a noisily proclaimed ‘progress.’ Everyone knows that belief in progress is declared a social duty in the world of nothing but work. It is also known that keep happy and happy end belong from the start to the basic elements of this world of illusions in which the greedy eye has create for itself a replacement for the ‘fullness of life.’

“For all that, these optimistic attitudes provide no final meaning in the face of the despair that is their source - even though this source is safely enclosed in the innermost chamber of the heart, so that no cry of pain penetrates to the outside, most likely not even to its own consciousness.”

[1] J. Pieper, “The Obscurity of Hope and Despair” in An Anthology Ignatius (1989) 22-24.

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