The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
What are Our Most Suicidal Defects?

by G. E. Troutbeck.
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 721-735

[Georgina Elizabeth Troutbeck, 1858-1947, wrote books for children: The Children's Story of Westminster Abbey, Stories from Italian History, Rambles in Florence, Rambles in Rome. She also wrote song lyrics. Her father, Rev. Dr John Troutbeck, edited the Westminster Abbey Hymn Book and arranged special services at the Abbey, including Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887.]

I am conscious that the title I have given to my paper is not an exuberantly cheerful one,--but I trust that the contents will prove less anxious to throw out suggestions for subsequent consideration and debate, rather than to deliver a set lecture. I have desired, if possible, to elicit the opinions of others rather than to air my own. But an opener of debate has the privilege--and, indeed, the duty--of expressing his or her views, if only with the purpose of stimulating and provoking opposition. I cannot but suppose that many here will differ substantially from my conclusions, and it should be interesting to find out how the matter presents itself to minds of very varying constitution.

In order to guard against any misapprehension at the outset, it may be well to mention that the defects to which reference is to be made are not specially national, or English, in character. Reflections on purely national peculiarities are not, perhaps, very useful. They seem apt to degenerate into criticisms of our neighbour on the one hand, or into superfluous self-depreciation on the other. If allusions to one or two of our more salient national defects occur later on, it is in spite of a conviction that the human heart is very much the same all the world over.

In using the term "suicidal defects" I wish, as far as possible, to insist on those tendencies which, if indulged, do most effectually blur and destroy the specifically human element in us. These, strange to say, are not necessarily the faults upon which the judgment of mankind has passed the severest verdict, nor are they those which are punishable by law.

May I once more make this quite clear? What I want to get at is, not the faults which we condemn as the absolutely worst, but those which are the most dehumanising, in the true sense of the word. That is the definition.

One more definition we ought to have, and that is the definition of the specifically human element. What are we to define as that specifically human element, in which we all share, and which differentiates us (as we think and believe) from all other beings of which we are cognisant?

This sounds abstruse, but it is not really so. We are naturally accustomed to take ourselves for granted, and are very rarely at the pains to analyse this wonderful thing which we call our "self." What, then, shall we take, shortly, as the best rough-and-ready definition of the specifically human element?

We cannot do better than take the well-worn one--Reason and Self-consciousness--in their highest sense, as meaning the power by which we are enabled to grasp and assimilate all that we experience in the world without us, and in our mind within, and thereby rise to an understanding of life as one great whole. It is the power, however rudimentary, of seeing all things sub specie aeternitatis--as they are in their true and eternal essence, apart from their fragmentary manifestation in time and space. When we weaken or deflect this power, we injure that essential principle within us which is our life and our self, that force of which we all are conscious, more or less, which we actually know by present experience to be capable of surviving every form of change in this world, and which many among us, if not all, believe to be unaltered by physical dissolution.

This being so, it would seem that those faults must be most deadly in effect which lead, first, to a misuse, or positive abuse, of the things in the world around us, and secondly, faults which lead to an abuse or deterioration of our own faculties.

As examples of suicidal defects, I have chosen two, namely (1) Avarice, with its kindred sin, Prodigality, and (2) a fault which for want of a better name I will call Slackness, hoping to explain my meaning more fully hereafter.

I choose avarice and prodigality as referring to the misuse or abuse of the world of external experience. Slackness I choose as referring to the neglect or misuse of our own powers.

Now I do not claim to be original in my choice of an illustration. I observe that students of Dante are often to be found preaching from a Dante text, and that is what I propose in part to do, feeling that such a course needs no apology.

The subject of our debate was suggested to my mind by a famous and familiar passage in Dante's Inferno, where he describes the fate of those who have died by their own hand. Having deprived themselves of their bodies they now appear as gnarled and dusky trees, whence strange wailings proceed, and whose branches drop blood when broken. One of the spirits, that of the luckless Pier delle Vigne, explains to Dante that at the final judgment, when soul and body are once more to be united, the suicides will not be allowed to resume their physical form, but their bodies will be suspended eternally from the ghastly trees, "for," as he says, "it is not just that a man should have what he takes away from himself."

There is, however, another very remarkable feature in this part of Dante's tragic story, and it is more especially to that I would fain call attention.

As Dante and Virgil stand talking with Pier delle Vigne, and listening to his grievous tale, two spirits come racing madly through the wood, pursued by black she-mastiffs. In order to escape, one of these spirits casts himself into a bush: but the dogs catch him and rend him in pieces, at the same time tearing the miserable bush, wherein another suicide soul is imprisoned. Now the two spirits whom the poet describes as rushing through the forest were spendthrifts, men who had wasted their substance in senseless, riotous living, and who had won an unenviable notoriety in so doing.

We may therefore conclude, not only that Dante holds a very distinct view as to the responsibilities connected with worldly possessions, but that he even classes waste and frivolity with suicide. It could not escape so acute a mind as Dante's that our dealing with property is in some sort symbolical of our whole attitude of mind and soul. The things of this world, rightly regarded, have a sacramental significance, and their misuse, as Dante so sternly points out, implies and insanity allied to that of self-destruction.

In connection with this weird and awful scene, it is profoundly interesting to consider Dante's opinion concerning avarice, a sin to which he attributes the undoing both of individuals and of states, and which, be it remembered, he associates with prodigality, including both these sins in the same condemnation, and sentencing them to the same torments. The important feature for the present argument is that Dante describes avarice and prodigality as rendering the culprits unrecognisable, all likeness to the sinner's original self having been obliterated.

This close juxtaposition of Avaricious and Prodigal is further explained if we compare with the passage in the Inferno a passage from Dante's great prose work, the Convivio or Banquet, where, following Aristotle, he speaks of liberality as the virtue which regulates our giving and receiving of this world's goods, and of magnificence, as regulating or moderating great expenditure, keeping it within certain limits. Liberality, according to Aristotle, is the mean between the two extremes of prodigality and illiberality; magnificence is the mean between vulgar profusion and shabbiness. And here, we may also note the lines in the Inferno (xvii., 34-75) in which Dante tells us that he found the usurers recognisable only by their coats-of-arms. Again, in Purgatorio xix., a wonderful passage describes the purgatorial sufferings of the penitent Avaricious and Prodigal (who again are grouped together). These spirits appear lying prone on the ground, with their faces hidden, so that again Dante cannot recognise any of them--though for a different reason. Ottobuono de' Fieschi (Pope Adrian V.) tells Dante that "Even as our eye, fixed on earthly things did not lift itself on high, so here justice hath sunk it to earth."

But we must not pursue Dante's poem or his particular views any further. It is time to turn to considerations more directly suited to our own age and civilisation, although even so we shall probably find ourselves able to agree almost entirely with the great poet's estimate of avarice and prodigality. It must be remarked, in passing, that it would be hardly be possible, without conscious hypocrisy, to take the medieval view as to the iniquity of usury, and we need not perhaps, trouble ourselves with so complicated and thorny a question. Further, it is a needless exaggeration to teach children that the possession of worldly goods is either a crime or a misfortune. It may, of course, be both; but that is the exception and not the rule. We are quite justified in pointing out that poverty is by no means always meritorious. It is often enough the result and just punishment of vice, laziness, and improvidence. In face of the sweeping and somewhat uncharitable denunciations of the rich so common in certain quarters, it would seem wise to suggest that it is not the mere possession of wealth that is to be condemned, but the frivolous, thoughtless, and selfish use of it, and the absorption of the mind in money-getting.

But, when we turn to the consideration of avarice, the love of money for its own sake, what a dehumanising influence it is, in the widest and deepest sense of the word! Let us take concrete instances. What can an avaricious soul know of the great, primal human affections? To such an one a family circle appears only in the light of an expense. Claims on human sympathy and brotherly help are only so many clutches at the purse, not appeals to the heart. Every wellspring of noble feeling is dried up, and all things are viewed only in a peculiarly mean financial aspect. If we want an illustration of this in art, we may turn to the pages of Moliere and Balzac and there find avarice and its results portrayed by a master-hand.

Again, what can a miserly soul know of art, literature, or any of the loftier inspirations of life? People cannot get at books, pictures, music, and the like, without spending some little money, or, at any rate, distracting their minds for the nonce from the immediate pursuit of money-getting. The fact is that avarice so engages every thought and faculty with the acquisition of the mere means of living, that it leaves a man no time to live. Everybody, of course, needs some money, but money, at its best, is a means and not an end.

Yet again, the avaricious necessarily grow inhuman and unhappy, because they set their affections only on those things which are lessened by division, rather than on those more excellent things which grow by distribution, and thus the avaricious finally come to regard their fellow-creatures in the light of enemies. It is the penalty which attaches to worldly possessions, that apparently one person cannot have more without another having less. Hence the sordid misery of those souls whose only treasure is on earth, and who have no treasure of faith and hope laid up in that realm of love, righteousness, beauty, and true knowledge, which is our spirit's home and which we call heaven. Can anyone really imagine that they get a quid pro quo when they sacrifice their human birthright of spiritual inspiration on the altar of mammon?

But, further, avarice is not confined to individuals; it may also flourish in states and communities, checking the stream of human progress in every direction. In public life as in private it is possible to confound economy with mere saving, whereas we all know that in some instances saving is very bad economy, and defeats its own object by rendering a certain amount of money practically useless to everyone concerned. Thrift and self-denial should command great respect when they are exercised for worthy and rational objects; but they lose much of their merit if they mean a mere accumulation of pounds, shillings and pence.

Before leaving the subject of avarice, let us translate it for a moment into the spiritual sphere, and speak of the grudging attitude of mind which refuses to share intellectual gifts and opportunities, the disposition which inclines people to keep their knowledge, their experience, their leisure and their books entirely to themselves, to be used exclusively for their own personal advantage. This is perhaps a less common form of the sin of avarice than that connected with money, but it is even more deadly and suicidal, for it means the stultifying of our whole nature, the debasing of our highest faculties for the advancement of selfish ends. We turn our back on our own loftiest human ideal, and thus deprive ourselves of the very well-spring of all our life, the free inter-communion with the world and with God. There is, mercifully, this difference, namely, that we cannot keep our spiritual faculties and mental abilities safely buried in a cellar or sewn into a mattress. If we do not use them, we lose them. And use, in this case, almost necessarily means sharing with others.

Let us, however, turn for a few moments to the consideration of the opposite, yet closely allied fault, prodigality. And here I cannot help saying, that if Dante had been English, he would probably have said more about prodigality and less about avarice. His strictures on avarice point to that being a besetting sin among his fellow-countrymen; whereas, had he belonged to our somewhat wasteful and spendthrift race, he might have found more to say about reckless expenditure and extravagance.

A word then, about this pendant to avarice, namely, prodigality. It does not, perhaps, dry up the sympathies so effectually as the love of hoard and gain, but in many cases it implies an almost equal selfishness, and much greater indulgence of unrestrained appetites. It also produces greater misery than avarice, for, at any rate, the unhappy miser leaves his treasure behind him, and it may be of some use. The prodigal leaves behind him only want and starvation.

There is, further, a curious correspondence between avarice and prodigality, in that neither the avaricious nor the prodigal seem to have any high human aim. People are seldom prodigal, still more rarely liberal, in what they spend on literature, art, and so forth. Ruskin's vivid denunciations in Sesame and Lilies are not one whit too strong.

And, moreover, extravagance by no means implies generosity. Those who are readiest to help in trouble and misfortune, those who are quickest to further schemes for the advance of knowledge, or for improvement in the condition of their neighbours, will not often be found among the devotees of personal luxury. Such people do not understand the true magnificence for the public good, not vulgar orgies in private. I trust it is not uncharitable to say that prodigal expenditure is usually devoted to unworthy, or, at any rate totally inadequate objects. As an illustration of this we need only point to the almost incredible amount spent on horse racing, jewellery, luxurious foods and wines, and in such games as bridge or baccarat, while it is with the greatest difficulty that wholly insufficient sums can be wrung out--to give one example only--for such objects as the maintenance of the fabrics of our great cathedrals.

In short, the tastes usually exhibited by the prodigal are those of the savage, and are without any intrinsic value for the development of a truly human life. Prodigality and avarice alike mean a misuse, and often a positive abuse, of this world's goods, and show that when we are guilty of either, we stand in a perverted relation to the world of outer experience. It is in this sense that avarice and prodigality may be regarded as "suicidal defects," that is, as destructive to the specifically human faculty and likeness.

Let us now turn to the second defect which, at the outset, I proposed to consider. Let us agree to call this fault by the name "Slackness," which being a comprehensive term, will enable it to include a good deal.

What I wish to convey by the word "slackness" will be best shown by a short explanation of what the Mediaevals meant by the sin they called "Acedia," or, in Italian, "Accidia." And here, again, we must borrow an illustration from Dante. In the Inferno, this particular form of sin is represented by the wrathful and sullen, whom Dante finds immersed in the muddy waters of the Styx. The sullen, who are invisible, and whose presence is only indicated by bubbles on the surface of the miry stream, give the following account of themselves: "Sullen were we in the sweet air, that is gladdened by the sun, carrying lazy smoke within our hearts; now lie we sullen here in the black mire!"

      "Tristi fummo
      Nell' aer dolce che dal sol s'allegra,
      Portando dentro accidioso fummo;
      Or ci attristiam nella belletta uegra."
      Inf. vii. 121-3.

In the Purgatorio, this same sin is represented by the slothful, and these two pictures give the clue to what was meant by "Acedia." This nor unfamiliar word, Acedia in Latin, Accidia in Italian, Accidie in Chaucer and others, is a transliteration of the Greek "aknoia, which means carelessness of indifference. It appears to be closely allied to the sin which the Mediaevals called "tristitia," and which indicated a sullen, resentful, and discontented disposition. The meaning attached to both these sins is not that of sloth in a mere general sense only, but of spiritual negligence and sloth, indifference to, or distaste for, spiritual things, thus indicating carelessness about man's highest and most specifically human interests.

It will be found that this "acedia" or "tristizia" appears in all enumerations of the seven deadly sins. It does not always occur in the same place among them, but it is always there. "Acedia," or, as we call it, sloth, is a sin of defect, not of excess; it is a depression of the whole soul; it is due to include, not only laziness, but pusillanimity [cowardice] and an insensibility to causes of righteous anger. It is, in short, what Browning calls "the unlit lamp and the ungirt loin," and its connection with our present subject cannot be better indicated than by quoting Proverbs xviii. 9, as it stands in the Revised Version. "He also that is slack in his work is brother to him that is a destroyer."

An admirable modern description of "acedia" may be found in R. L. Stevenson's Celestial Surgeon, familiar, probably, to many, but which may be quoted for those who do not happen to know it--

      "If I have faltered more or less
      In my great task of happiness;
      If I have moved among my race
      And shown no glorious morning face;
      If beams from happy human eyes
      Have moved me not; if morning skies,
      Books, and my food, and summer rain
      Knocked at my sullen heart in vain:--
      Lord, Thy most pointed pleasure take,
      And stab my spirit broad awake;
      Or, Lord, if too obdurate I,
      Choose Thou before that spirit die,
      A piercing pain, a killing sin,
      And to my dead heart run them in!"

I propose, for our present purpose, to take this defect chiefly in its aspect of "slothfulness," and shall make a few suggestions under different headings.

First, then, to take sloth in its usual acceptation. It appears, at first sight, to savour of exaggeration to state that sloth is a "suicidal defect." Moreover, we should be careful how we accuse others, and especially the young, of sloth. Often enough that which looks like sloth and apathy is really slow development, a mind feeling about for its true work. And again, we live in an exceedingly fussy time, and those people who are not in an everlasting hurry are often quite unjustly set down as unoccupied. However, there is plenty of real sloth, and of that it is not too much to say that it produces a slow, but steady deterioration of our whole nature. It means that we deliberately do less than our best, and therefore gradually lose our powers. If we carefully avoid every kind of effort, we naturally, and quite justly, lose the ability to make any effort, and so sink in the scale of life. By constantly choosing the broad and easy way, we forfeit, not only our capacity for action, but our taste, our spiritual insight, our sense of what is really worthy in any department of life whatever. We narrow our whole outlook, forgetting that, as has been well said, "Man cannot have the joys of a wider life without suffering its sorrows," and, we might add, without doing its work.

Closely allied to actual sloth is our anxious avoidance of all possible pain, care, and responsibility. This tendency seems, on merely superficial consideration, to be a very natural one, and it is perhaps well to realise that to some natures it is only too easy to take a morbid delight and interest in unpleasant things, and herein lies the difficulty. It is very unwholesome to be for ever dwelling on the dark side of life, and gloating over our own miseries and those of others. And yet, are we not poor creatures if we cannot look pain and suffering in the face,--if everything has to be smoothed over for us?

The tendency to regard all ties and responsibilities as irksome, the wish to escape from sharing in the common human burden of work and anxiety, is a most suicidal form of sloth. By refusing to bear our part in the natural labours, and sorrows of life, do we not lost some of our specifically human--may it not be added, divine?--heritage? Apart from the stimulus of pain, that most precious means of development, should we not shortly sink to a level below that of the beasts of the field? Moreover, once allow the principle of avoiding all care and trouble to get fair hold on us, and there is no depth of degrading indulgence to which we may not gradually fall. I purposely refrain from using the term "self-indulgence," because it is not our true self that we indulge when we walk down that broad and easy road of least resistance and mere pursuit of comfort. Thus, the real reason why we have a right to object to senseless luxury is that it enervates our higher and truer nature.

And look, also, at the increased capacity for trivial suffering which this attitude of mind brings in its train. To take a very homely example. Do we not all know the traveller who is so taken up with the avoidance of the petty discomforts of a journey, that he or she at last arrives at noticing little or nothing beyond the upholstery of the railway carriages or the meals and cups of tea to be hard "en route"? For such folk scenery and historical interest occupy a very subsidiary place! To such pitiable condition we may be reduced if we cannot endure any form of hardness.

Another form of sloth, though not usually recognised as such, is the constant pursuit of "distraction," as we call it, and our dread of any solitude. This restlessness and perpetual need of what we call amusement means that we have few if any resources within ourselves, and no thoughts of our own. Why should we always want to be "distracted"? Why should we always lean on others for assistance in "passing away the time," as that miserable phrase goes? To want to "get away from ourselves" sounds very nice and humble, but a good deal depends upon what we mean by it. We all possess a self from which it would be the greatest satisfaction to get away, but unfortunately this is too often the self which clings to us with an exasperating pertinacity. On the other hand, we have a true self which it is our business to develop, not to destroy or avoid, and this development demands and requires a strenuous inner life, as well as an outward one. We need not be hermits or misanthropist, but surely this all too prevalent dislike of quiet and solitude is an unhealthy symptom, and a terrible confession of mental weakness and slackened moral fibre. One is sometimes tempted to speculate as to whether this dread of even temporary solitude is due to a fear that if other people go away, we shall find that no one at all will be left, because we have no self worthy of the name to be left alone with.

It may be, also, that there are "spectres of the mind" which we feel we cannot lay, and therefore dare not face, not realising that the one and only way to lay such spectres is to face them fairly and squarely. Who among us does not know these haunting memories and fears, which seem at times to lie in wait for us at every corner? We have to learn that it is of no real use to run away; we must summon up energy and courage to have it out with ourselves, and not think to drown all serious thought and all regret in a whirlpool of business or society.

This is perhaps a fitting place in which to refer to another aspect of defective moral and spiritual life, namely, the restless fussiness in so-called work which is so much in vogue. It might be suggested that this tendency in some sense corresponds to prodigality, while sloth in its usual interpretation might answer to avarice. This restlessness, this squandering of our powers, may be only in evanescent phase, a fashion--but surely, in spite of specious appearances, a hurtful fashion. The pursuit of intellectual and philanthropic dissipation leaves us no time for study, thought, or for development of the loftier faculties of mind and spirit, faculties which imperatively demand periods of repose and reflection in order to grow to their full stature of power. This fussy endeavour to do so many things tends to make us superficial, unreal, and parasitical; for, if we are never quiet, we are obliged to pick up other people's thoughts and opinions, as we leave ourselves no leisure or opportunity for forming views of our own. We must all confess at times that we might with advantage do a little less, in order that we might know and think and feel a little more.

This restlessness is a symptom of weakness, and is often the sign of a lack of true mental and spiritual energy, thus showing an affinity to sloth in the wider sense of neglect of spiritual things. We are too apt, in our twentieth century superiority, to look with disdain on the contemplative life, and to forget that it is, when properly understood, the highest and most strenuous life we can lead. Those, therefore, who are strong-minded enough to take their own line, and refuse to take up too many things, ought not to be confounded with the slothful and negligent, as we, in our impatient and short-sighted way, often do confound them. Let us hope that the coming generation will not consider it seriously wrong if they occasionally sit still and thing.

But, returning once more to our more immediate subject, I should like to suggest that another form of mental and moral "slackness" is presented by our slavish subservience to conventionality. This, as I know, is a difficult question, and one to be approached with a certain diffidence, as many uncomfortable things are done in the name of a noble and spirited unconventionality, and a plea for the less conventional views of life is apt to give rise to misapprehensions. But in the present instance there is no question of pleading for the abrogation of moral laws, nor for the breaking of any of the commandments, nor even for the total disregard of all social conventions, because, silly as some of our social conventions may be, they yet have their uses. What I wish to convey by the word conventionality is the dull, tiresome habit of allowing thought to run only in well-worn channels, always being afraid of "dangerous" new ideas, and never having the courage to think differently from our own little clique of acquaintances. These mere conventional habits of thought end by annihilating our proper individuality. If we shrink from doing or thinking anything except what everyone else does and thinks, we efface all originality and independence from our minds. We have not only the right, but the duty, of forming independent judgments; and if we neglect that duty and forego that right, we lose the power of both thought and action. We cease to develop and to make progress, and therefore must necessarily slip back. We must all have seen people so wedded to conventional views and methods of life, as to be hardly able to take an intelligent interest or delight in anything, for fear of not doing this, that, or the other in the "right way," whatever the "right way" may mean! It is surely desirable that children and young people should be burdened with as few unwholesome and artificial restrictions as are possible in our present imperfect existence; and above all, that they should not be taught or encouraged to judge their fellow-creatures by the false standard of ordinary conventionality--standards which almost always have reference to money and worldly position, rather than to character, or even attainments. Nothing, short of actual moral wrong, is so cramping both to the heart and to the understanding as this conventional outlook on men and things.

In conclusion, may I say a few words on the Mediaeval interpretation of "Acedia," namely that intellectual, sloth, that moral and spiritual apathy which are so great a temptation to us all? These temptations, I suppose, assail with special force a race like our own, gifted as we are with practical and administrative ability rather than with intellectual acumen. We most of us realise fairly readily that we must exert ourselves in order to obtain a share of this world's goods; though even here we are all too willing to let others--the State--someone else anyhow, do the troublesome part for us. But what lethargic indifference do we show about the attainment and development of our best and truest selves, that winning of our souls which is the real aim and goal of existence. The exhortation to "fight the good fight of faith" applies with the greatest force to that higher self, which, we too often think, may safely be left to take care of itself.

With regard to all that characterises that loftiest and most essentially human self, faith is truly the "substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." To keep that faith we must fight indeed, fight against the deepest doubts that can assail us. We must develop that divine quality of patience, which belongs to the strenuous, not to the easy going, who are quickly discouraged.

In fine, the goal of human existence is what we call "eternal life," and we are bidden to "lay hold" on that life here and now; not to wait, as if expecting that by some external agency it will be dropped into our listless hands, which assuredly could never hold it. There are moments, when, amid our love of ease and our shrinking not only from pain, but even from the most trifling inconvenience, we cannot help envying those ardent souls who, in a sublime desperation, have staked their all for the sake of some pearl of great price. In spite of all attempts to persuade ourselves to the contrary, we know that if, in their fervour, they have flung away the corruptible crown, they have obtained the incorruptible.

I have now endeavoured to set out some of my reasons for choosing avarice and prodigality on the one hand and slackness on the other, as among the most self-destructive of our defects. To put it very shortly: the two former vitiate our relations to the world of external experience, and the latter saps the most vital energies of the spirit within, impairing and destroying that most specifically human gift of reason and self-consciousness, whereby we can return upon ourselves from that which is outside us, having grasped something of its true and eternal meaning. Other faults there are, of perhaps graver social significance; but these are much more swiftly detected, and, apparently, more severely punished, at any rate in this world.

Those who do not feel able to agree with the views expressed in this paper will, in any case, concede that the most insidious foes of the soul are the sins which often pass unrecognised, and whose greatest danger it is that they are seldom found out.

Typed by happi, Mar. 2024; Proofread by LNL, June 2024