Acedia, iPhone Addiction and the Noonday Devil

I’ve got a long list of problems that rattle around in my head for which I’m woefully unqualified to even contemplate, let alone write about. Like, for instance, how do I stop looking at my damned phone! I suspect that many of you have also gone down a hole reading articles and self-help books that will, supposedly, break this addiction. Almost all of these efforts, in my opinion, run aground when they inevitably reduce the problem to something that’s “in our brains.”  Somehow, by the end of the self-help article, we end up in an MRI machine to find out there’s a phone addiction part of the brain and, gee, we just can’t seem to do much about it! We don’t even have a good name for this problem which is why I’ve been thinking again about how the 4th century monastic notion of acedia might just be the framework we need.

The root of the word acedia comes from the Greek word ἀκηδία meaning negligence or lack of care. Thomas Aquinas developed the concept of acedia into a dual framework of “sadness about spiritual good” (tristitia de bono divino) and “disgust with activity” (taedium operandi). In this formulation, Acedia is neither boredom nor laziness but a kind of frenzied, inability to focus that leads, ultimately, to a dark night of the soul. It came to be called the “noonday devil” for its tendency to haunt monks in the middle of the day.

Aquinas’ twofold definition captures both an underestimated spiritual sadness and the repulsion we all feel these days with our lack of focus. Over the centuries acedia came to be included in lists of the seven deadly sins and get reduced, unfortunately, to “sloth” which loses the original nuance of the term. Perhaps Pieter Bruegel’s print above does a better job than the philosophers, capturing the same surreal and schizophrenic frenzy as a present day doomscrolling bender.

To Aquinas’ definition I think we need to note how, in our time, capitalism intensifies acedia due to the simple fact that you can now monetize it. There’s a whole class of folks who have figured out how to turn our phones into the attention grabbing equivalent of a slot machine by delivering a low but constant level of excitement yoked to genuinely useful features such as maps and online check deposits. In modern acedia we have a socially constructed ill that can’t be countered just by personal willpower. Socially constructed problems require social constructed solutions, that is, we will all have to join together to counter the power of system that profits from acedia.

That said, we’ve still got a problem that we have to deal with personally while we, hopefully, join together to attack the systemic problem. The Desert Fathers and Mothers of the 4th century, Thomas Aquinas and many others spilled much quill ink tackling the solutions to acedia. Applying acedia to phone addiction is a book length project, not a blog post, but allow me to consider some of the solutions these thinkers came up with.

First is simply mapping the qualities of acedia to better understand what to do about it. The Desert Fathers, sitting in their cells, found that restlessness could mean just looking out the window to see what’s going on. Paradoxically, as the Desert Father Evagrius Ponticus pointed out, restlessness can even involve doing something seemingly worthwhile, such as visiting the sick, not for the sake of actually offering any help, but just for a change in scenery.

Mark Fisher in his book Capitalist Realism updates restlessness to our time. Fisher describes a student in one of his classes who was wearing headphones during a lecture. When confronted, the student protested that he wasn’t actually listening to anything. As Fisher put it, the student needed to be jacked into the entertainment matrix in a state Fisher termed “depressive hedonia” or what he describes as the frenzied inability to do anything except seek pleasure.

In the restlessness of iPhone doomsrolling there’s also a quality of schizophrenia with the constant barrage of unrelated images and text. One millisecond you’re watching a cat riding on a robot vacuum and the next you’re reading about “Baby Gronk rizzing up Livvy.” In this insanity, signifier and signified get detached, precisely in the way Jacques Lacan defined schizophrenia: as a thought salad of disconnected images and thoughts.

To get back to the Desert Fathers, they mapped many of acedia’s extended symptoms, some paradoxical: narcissism, hypochondria, binge eating, aversion to physical work and doing too much work, neglecting rules and following rules too strictly.

Perhaps the most important quality of acedia is its metaphysical dimension, something ignored by the popular response to iPhone addiction, because Western elite culture tends to shy away from anything beyond the epistemological limitations of an MRI machine. Failure to recognize the spiritual, existential basis of iPhone acedia, the profound emptiness and despondency it causes is why the proscriptions to make your screen black and white, turn off notifications, or buy a minimalist phone fall flat.

In addition to recognizing it for what it is and calling it out, the suggestions for dealing with acedia of previous times were varied and still useful: meditation, manual work, contemplating of the shortness of our lives, taking time for work and time for leisure uninterrupted by work (something developed in Josef Pieper’s book Leisure the Basis of Culture which also mentions acedia specifically). Philosophy professor Brandon Dahm has a detailed explication of acedia and some practical solutions in an article Correcting Acedia through Wonder and Gratitude that’s well worth reading. In short, wonder and gratitude dissolve the “lack of care” part of the acedia trap. We should also cut ourselves some slack. With all the temptations around us, none of us are going to turn into focus ninjas anytime soon. YouTube holes and Instagram scroll sessions will happen especially when we’re feeling down.

One thing both the Desert Fathers and Aquinas suggest is persistence. The singer Nick Cave has a great blog post on persistence. Cave describes the time he visited Bryan Ferry’s palatial estate with his wife and, before he met Ferry, fell asleep by the pool,

After a while, I awoke to find Bryan Ferry standing in the swimming pool in his bathing trunks. He was white and beautiful and very still. He turned to me and said, I havent written a song in three years.’ ‘Why?I said, Whats wrong? He made a vague circling gesture with his hand taking in both of us, the swimming pool, the high hedge, the manor house, the apple orchard, the walled garden, the mare and foal, the swallows in the eves, our beautiful arboured wives, and the pure, blue sky itself and said, There is nothing to write about.’ Then he pushed off into the water.

Cave goes on to describe what he learned from this:

This incident instructed me on the fragile and capricious nature of the creative spirit and reminded me of the necessity of constant daily work. I think of it when I struggle with my own vacillating creativity. Because deep in my heart, I know there is always something to write about, but there is also always nothing – and terrifyingly little air between.

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  1. This really hits the mark. I don’t know that I necessarily try not to use my phone, but there is a significant difference between tuning out from the stressers of life and doing something that refills our cup. I think after COVID and the barrage of social justice and environmental emergencies put a lot of people in a state of burnout and vicarious (and actual) trauma leading to acedia. Society needs more supports for the renewal rather than just detachment.

    • Thanks Alix! Definitely the COVID period gave us all a lot of acedia and trauma that we have not even begun to recognize let alone deal with.

  2. You’re right that this concept should be a book – can you please be the one to write it? There are so many layers here. I would love to see you peel them back and examine them all.

    Here’s another angle: What can you learn about acedia and phone addiction from neurodiverse people? I’m a recently adult-diagnosed neurodivergent and deep in research mode about it. My relationships to attention, sensory processing, addiction and phones have always been a little orthogonal to those of the people around me, which means that I sometimes see them more clearly.

    For example, I feel myself pulled to the phone, but I also preemptively feel the acedia. Because my reaction to it is so extreme, I’ve completely removed social media from my phone. Like an alcoholic firmly in recovery, I feel the temptation, sure, but I’m also secure in knowing that I can avoid it as long as I don’t get started.

    Another example from the ADHD world is the “dopamenu”, the list you keep on hand of all the activities that give you a hit of dopamine for when you’re squirmy with need. Because for ADHD folks, that’s just baseline. The concept is that when you’re feeling ok, you make a list of the “snacks” “main courses” and “deserts” that work for you. A “snack” might be a quick yoga stretch or a walk around the garden, or maybe a cup of tea. A “main” would be going for a long hike, visiting a museum, or anything that lasts a few hours and fills you up. “deserts” are all the things you’d like to avoid, but give you that hit, and are ok in moderation: cookies, TV, phone time, youtube holes, etc.

    Anyway – so much more of this . . .

    • Hey Anne, the ADHD angle is such an interesting question. I love the snack, main and dessert analogy as well because acedia and binge eating our definitely related. I think you just gave me two chapters!

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