The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


Imagine you’re a Christian hermit, living in the deserts of western Egypt in the fourth century. The sun beats down on the roof of your mud-brick cell. Inside, you’re praying, kneeling upon a carpet of stones—when you start to feel a little bit bored. It’s a distracting, creeping feeling. Like the tickle of a gnat crawling up your arm. You must defeat it, or else risk succumbing to that most dangerous of all sinful passions: acedia.

Acedia (pronounced a-seed-ee-a) or sometimes called accidie, is an emotion that has no real equivalent today. It was a short-lived but disastrous emotional crisis, usually striking between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Its first signs were listlessness and irritability, but it didn’t take long to turn into desolation and despair.

According to the Desert Father John Cassian, acedia felt like the mind was gripped by a “foul darkness.” The body was affected too: as Amma Theodora, a female monastic of this period, explained, it left a sensation of being “weighed down,” with weak knees, floppy limbs and a feverish head. The solitaries lived in loose-knit communities, undertaking their acts of extreme self-denial and prayer in caves and huts scattered across the desert wilderness. Under the spell of acedia, some monks picked fights with their brethren living nearby, or else complaining of their choice of vocation, attempted to set off back to the earthly delights of Alexandria or Constantinople, tempting their friends to join them. Some were found slumped and weeping in their cells; others tried to kill themselves, abandoning their bodies to the hazardous desert. Acedia was such a serious threat to the lifestyle—and lives—of these early monks that it was considered the most dangerous of the Eight Evil Thoughts, the forerunners to the Seven Deadly Sins.

Where did it come from? The Desert Mothers and Fathers believed it was sent by the Devil’s minions known as “noonday demons,” who whizzed about the communities infecting inhabitants with malaise. Today we might be inclined to say acedia was just a different name for the illness we now call “depression.” Yet, the fact acedia struck only briefly, and only at the hottest hours of the day, and that all its victims were already feverish from their isolation and extreme acts of penitence, suggests acedia’s origins were more peculiar. The phenomenon may have had more to do with isolated living in the punishing heat of desert, and suspecting that a malicious noonday demon was hovering nearby, than any “chemical imbalance” in the brain.

In the sixth century, acedia was dropped from the list of mortal sins. Some of its symptoms were absorbed into the illness melancholia, a forerunner to our own states of depression and anxiety (see: MELANCHOLY). The rest became the moral vice sloth. Though people still spoke of feeling acedia, it came to mean something more like inertia—an equivalent, perhaps, to that listless feeling that descends on a rainy Sunday morning (see: APATHY). Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the dangers of acedia abated when the center of religious thought relocated from the wilderness to the rather more congenial vineyards of Italy. Hangovers probably replaced heatstroke as the major threat to monastic life.

For more on the effects of the weather on emotions see: HUFF, in a.

See also: BOREDOM.