The Weariness and Work of Sloth

An examination into the heart and motives behind a workaholic campus.

Like all good millennials, I have a pathological – and paradoxical – fear of clichés. In my desperation to be authentic, I squirm under the labels assigned to me, preferring to labor under the assumption that I am original and unique. I am not conservative; I am orthodox. I am not a hipster; I just like well-made, original clothing, like cumin-colored rock climbing pants, mismatched woolen socks, and flannel shirts (the older the better).

Clichés are interesting phenomena. They are instantly recognizable, tremendously overused, and incredibly annoying but are often full of unexpected and important truths that come out when the cliché is looked at more closely or followed back to its roots. One important cliché embedded in our cultural subconscious is the narrative of an older generation accusing their children, or more often their grandchildren, of being lazy. This cliché may have arisen out of the attitudes of those who endured the Great Depression, yet it persists. On a campus as busy, pressurized, and work-oriented as Cornell’s, this cliché might appear obtuse. However, examining Cornell’s workaholic mentality, and the struggles and pressures of its students, could throw some interesting light on a deeper meaning within the cliché.

As manifested by Cornell’s obsession with work, there is something wrong with our generation, but it is not what our clichéd grandparents think it is; our vice is not laziness, but sloth. And although it may seem like splitting hairs, distinguishing between sloth and laziness is important. Laziness is excessively gratifying one’s desire to relax, and fleeing from one’s fear of labor, and shows itself in the pushing off or denial of work. Sloth is farther reaching, more insidious, and better at hiding than laziness, arising from a deep emptiness or lack, and can exhibit itself as laziness, but also, counter-intuitively, as excessive busyness. Sloth ultimately arises from a life in which there is no object worthy enough to love or live for, resulting in overwhelming apathy, and leading to a strangled immobility or desperate bustle. Ultimately, sloth can be addressed only by finding an object worthy enough to inspire and invigorate one’s life.

Dorothy Sayers, the British author, poet, playwright, and scholar, defined sloth as the sin which “believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.”[1] Although Sayers’ description may appear extreme, without regard for gradients or half-measures, it defines sloth as that state in which the heart can be moved by nothing, thus capturing its main symptom: apathy.

Apathy is the paradoxical characteristic that both provides sloth with its connection to laziness and masks it so well under the guise of busyness. It can be the languor and immobility of the self because there is no innate reason to move, but it can also manifest itself as a perpetual busyness because there is no innate reason to stop. Apathy could be described as the inertia of the soul, as its behavior seems to be dictated by Newton’s first law. The apathetic soul at rest tends to stay at rest, while the one in motion tends to stay in motion. This phenomenon explains in part how a workaholic campus like Cornell’s can have nothing to do with laziness yet be fraught with sloth.

The vice of sloth exhibits itself through apathy, yet from where does this symptom come? For while it is clear that the apathetic and slothful soul lacks emotions, there are at least two possible hypotheses that could account for this deficit. The first, which I reject as a primary explanation of apathy, is the idea that some people are incapable of feeling emotions to the extent that others do; that is, there is something wrong with the machinery. Perhaps my grounds for rejecting this hypothesis are irrational, but it seems too simple, self-justifying, and fatalistic an answer for such a complex question; it does not provide one with hope for improvement. Furthermore, it implies that some people, those with emotions, are born better than others. The second hypothesis, which I favor, asserts that the apathetic soul does not lack the capability, but rather the suitable object(s) for emotion. If you remember anything from your biology class, an appropriate analogy would be that of an enzymatic reaction refusing to occur, not because there is anything wrong with the enzyme, but because it lacks the appropriate substrate. It should also be noted that with my Judeo- Christian Western worldview, I have assumed a hierarchy to the emotions, with love standing paramount to the others. Therefore, when I say that the apathetic soul lacks a suitable object for its emotions, I really mean that it lacks an appropriate object to love. I will show later how the other emotions order themselves aright once this sovereign emotion has been satisfied.

Thomas Chalmers, a Scottish pastor, theologian, and political economist from the early nineteenth century, described the desperate need the human soul has for an object to love in his essay The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.[2] While not explicitly mentioning sloth, Chalmers’ picture of the human soul without an object to love looks very much like the sin in question. Chalmers said that such was the “grasping tendency of the human heart, that it must have a something to lay hold of—and which, if wrested away without the substitution of another something in its place, would leave a void and a vacancy as painful to the mind, as hunger is to the natural system.” He later describes the situation of a heart without an object to love as living “in a state of cheerless abandonment,” where “it would be alive to nothing but the burden of its own consciousness, and feel it to be intolerable.” Chalmers shows in his essay how it is intolerable for the heart to live without an object of love and how a heart can enter such a state if the objects it loves are unable to keep it satisfied.

I assert that the sin of sloth ultimately arises out of the complete or growing realization that there is no object in sight worth loving. A weariness or malaise of the soul is bred from the emptiness of direction or meaning and can either result in the surrender of depression or the manic busyness of a heart clinging desperately to the objects that had satisfied it in the past. This might explain both the state of many Cornellians’ mental health as well as their attitude towards work and staying busy.

In The Expulsive Power of a New Affection, Chalmers hints at the treatment he recommends for sloth: introducing to oneself a new affection. This means finding an object with such lasting weight and worth that it can sustain and anchor the soul’s love. The crux of Christianity is the belief that the only thing with enough worth to satisfy our souls is the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” The Old Testament book Jeremiah shows that the anger God has for people rests primarily on their refusal to satisfy themselves with his worth:

Be appalled, O heavens, at this;
be shocked, be utterly desolate,
declares the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
broken cisterns that can hold no water.[3]

As mentioned earlier, if the soul is in love with an object worthy of its affection, all other subordinate emotions order themselves after this love. Such a love naturally gives rise to each of the other emotions denied by sloth in Sayers’ quote. The soul believes in and cares for the object of love, seeks to know more about it, hates the very thought of being untrue to it, finds purpose and meaning in living for the object, and gladly gives its life for the object’s sake.

One serious objection to satisfying oneself in God must be addressed: how can the soul satisfy itself in such an ethereal concept as God? This is an important problem because it can be repeatedly observed how often people give their lives to ideals and concepts like charity and humanism, only to watch themselves descend into cynicism and bitterness. Concepts do not have the weight to keep us satisfied. The only response is that, whether one can believe it or not, the God of the Bible is a person, not a concept, that can be met through his words in the Bible and his presence in the Holy Spirit. Becoming satisfied in him is just as much like falling in love as it is like giving one’s life to some grand purpose. He entered the physical world in a physical human body, in the person of Jesus Christ. This incarnation rooted God, in a way, making him more tangible to us, and provided us with an object of love that was both infinitely worthy and incredibly familiar. All of our natural loves, longings, and desires find their fulfillment in him, for every aspect of beauty and goodness is found in him. The gamble is a blind one, for you cannot sample God like you might a fine cheese or wine, but the stakes are infinitely high.


1 Chalmers, Thomas. The Expulsive Power of a New Affection. Minneapolis: Curiosmith, 2012.

2 Sayers, D. The Other Six Deadly Sins. London: Methuen, 1943.

3 Jeremiah 2:12-13 ESV


John Nystrom is a junior animal science major on the pre-vet track. He is interested in the partnership of livestock and people, and how this partnership can both empower and enhance the lives of individu­als around the world. His favorite authors include C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and G. K. Chesterton.

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