“Why did she love him so much? He always seemed to women different from what he was, and they loved in him not himself, but the man created by their imagination, whom they had been seeking all their lives; and afterwards, when they noticed their mistake, they loved him all the same. And not one of them had been happy with him.”
–From The Lady with the Dog, by Anton Chekhov
In Anton Chekhov’s short story, The Lady with the Dog, a bored, cynical, serially unfaithful married man has a brief affair with a frustrated, insecure married woman while each is taking a holiday alone. Two deeply unfulfilled people persuaded that adulterous sex will overcome the pointless charade of their lives, drift into a relationship fated to become an “intolerable bondage”. Consumed by shallow passions, and oblivious of the needs of others, they can see no meaning in life, just futility, the burden that characterises their affair from the start.
Chekhov understood the impact that loss of a sense of meaning must inevitably have on society, and he recognised the psychological flaw that has over several centuries come to exemplify the modern mind: the ancient affliction of acedia, or accidie in English. His insight was reaffirmed by Victor Frankl, the Austrian psychotherapist, who saw that the “will to meaning” has priority over Freud’s “will to pleasure” and Nietzsche’s “will to power”.
The implications for leadership, especially at a time when we suffer from a leadership deficit at all levels of society, are far-reaching. People afflicted by acedia will hardly be predisposed to inspire others – in the home, workplace, community, or nation – to be the best they can be in working together for the good of all.
Acedia is the refusal to acknowledge one’s true nature, the denial of one’s purpose and potential in life. It is a rejection of the demands and duties that accompany the essential dignity of human nature, that of the rational animal, the puny creature that can nonetheless comprehend the cosmos. Of course, the dignity of the human person is today widely disputed, though hypocritical appeals to the responsibility of rationality are still made in pursuit of certain ideological agendas.
The ancient Greeks understood that one of the greatest moral failures possible was acedia, from the prefix ‘a’ denoting negation, and ‘kedos’, meaning care. They saw it as a lack of mindfulness, a spiritual indifference, an alienation of self from the world. In the Iliad, Homer tells of the acedia of Achilles in his shameful treatment of the body of the defeated Hector, which he drags behind his chariot in defiance of the Olympian gods and the Greek code of conduct.
In the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa Theologica, likened the sin of acedia to torpor mentis, inertia of the mind, which captures the sense of acedia more fully than mere sloth. Later, Chaucer gave an illuminating discourse on acedia in The Parson’s Tale.
Aldous Huxley, in an essay entitled “Accidie”, found it strange that acedia morphed from a deadly sin in the Middle Ages to become understood as the disease of melancholy during the Renaissance, and later as a lyrical emotion, inspiring much of the most typical modern literature. A sense of futility and alienation, and feelings of ennui and despair, seems to have fired the imaginations of creative minds for a century and more, and still does today. Boredom, futility, and despair are known throughout history, but the modern world contrived to make them respectable as signs of heroic self-expression.
Acedia is rife today, afflicting those appointed to lead as well as those called to follow. It is evident in the music and lyrics of the widely popular Billie Eilish, for example. The enervating lack of meaning arises from a worldview that exalts the detached, autonomous self, and proclaims the inviolability of individual choice. Predictably, unrestrained shopping, sex, and self-exaltation, the nihilism that insists that “what I want is all that matters”, issue only in the spiritual wasteland of acedia.
For the Greeks acedia had to be conquered by ‘enkrateia’, from kratos, meaning power, not over others, but over oneself, the willingness to subdue weakness, and obey a properly formed conscience. In Hinduism, enkrateia would be likened to dharma, which is seen in the Bhagavad Gita when Krishna exhorts a hesitant Arjuna to attack his kinsmen, the Kauravs, on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Failure to do so would be a denial of dharma, the spiritual imperative that directs virtuous conduct in defiance of emotions like fear, anger, dejection, and the carnal promptings of the ego.
Where there is a lack of meaning, there can be no meaningful society, because social bonds require motivation, which necessarily rests on things that have meaning for the people to be motivated. And where there is no society, there can be no leadership, just raw power and compulsion. Acedia drains the spirit from both individual and community, from workforce and management, from citizen and nation.
As Plato told us, “Man is a being in search of meaning.” To abandon the search is to reduce the human person to a thing. And things don’t need leaders, they are simply used.
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