Spiritual asthenia

We have, for the purposes of everyday life up here in the High Doganate, made a distinction between sloth and acedia. Either might be considered idle, but where the first is closer to philosophy, the second is farther away. I convict the whole living world of acedia, except perhaps some obscure patches in the mountains somewhere.

It often takes the form of “busy work.” I’d say about four in five of those actually employed, in this cold northwestern region of former Christendom, are doing things that shouldn’t be necessary, that don’t need doing, or that ought to be against the law. But they aren’t lazy. Some are working hard.

This proportion (four in five) corresponds to the number whose jobs could easily be sent offshore, or done by machines; and therefore are being exported or mechanized. (Meanwhile we import people for the jobs that need doing.) Our economy is based on acedia, not sloth.

My title today may sound a little grand, except to those who read the New Testament in the original Greek, or other classical types. I propose to travel, by the shortest route, from acedia to asthenia.

Asthenia could be translated “weakness” in many contexts — debility; loss of vital power — but wouldn’t you know, the flavour is a little different from the modern term. By putting the word “spiritual” in front of it, we move at least slightly backward, towards the recovery of things as they are, and thus away from things as they aren’t.

To the ancients, asthenia wasn’t mere laziness. It was disease. By the modern medical fraternity it is being gradually rediscovered as a form of disease; but one they can do nothing for, because it is, after all, a spiritual condition, and modern medicine won’t go there. But modern psychology will, and has gone, with the invention of the term “neurasthenia,” which so far as I can see adds nothing but a syllable.

Nietzsche, master of the neurasthenic pansies, is, I suspect, systematically misunderstood, on the assumption that he is advocating, as opposed to diagnosing, our nihilism. German thinkers often skim through our hair in this way, without leaving intellectual wounds.

Over at seminary, I have my poor beleaguered charges reading Hermann Broch (1886–1951), whose Death of Virgil (and other poetical novels) confuse the English reader, and German ones, too, because we forget he might be Catholic. (He was, albeit subtle about it.) He, too, was studying spiritual asthenia, chiefly through creative art. But in a never-completed academic treatise entitled Massenpsychologie (published anyway in Zurich, after his death) he tried to be scientific. Unlike others who traded in mass psychology (Elias Canetti; Ortega y Gasset; Wilhelm Reich for that matter) he eschews material explanations of a spiritual condition.

The mass-man can be addressed only to the extent he has ceased to be fully human. He has become instead a product of nation, race, class, whatever. He is interchangeable, like industrial parts. He resonates on precisely the same frequencies as everyone around him. The modern crowd is not a plurality of individual cells, as in a whole body; it is a singular thing. It is more like dust, and can be whipped into dustdevils.

All this could be filed under the heading of asthenia.

Broch was concerned chiefly with the German-speaking world, from which he came. (Viennese.) His overall view is larger, but he is focused on a political history which he takes from around 1880. That was about the time from which Hitler was coming, though the man himself was not yet born. Still, the wind out of Prussia was blowing, on the modern mass man, no longer anchored.

On men who were, in the New Testament sense, weak. (Not, most assuredly not, meek.) On the man who had lost his spiritual centre, thus his balance. Who could be blown about.

The temptation of evangelism today is to join the party; to blow men our way; to sweep them with a broom into our corner; to improve our demographic position, or slow the decline. But this is ineffective. We are reducing religion to politics — from a something to a nothing.

Rather, the metaphor should be damp them down; return them to the mud of their Creation, so they may live; free them from the weakness, the spiritual asthenia, that has made them slaves.

This has nothing to do with removing their shackles. For remove those, and they are still shackled, no longer to the earth but to the wind.