Foundations: No.74 Spring 2018

Overcoming Listlessness: Learning from Evagrius of Pontus            

Early and medieval Christian writers cautioned believers against the Seven Deadly Sins. Even today most Christians could probably name most of them. However, the one that was considered one of the most deadly and complex – acedia – is now virtually unknown and little understood. This paper will briefly examine the nature of acedia by engaging with the writings of Evagrius of Pontus, who was one of the first theologians to deal extensively with what acedia is, and how to overcome it. Some of his remedies may be surprising, and have unexpected contemporary applications.


To those in the Eastern Orthodox church, Evagrius of Pontus is a well-known name, a famous desert Father whose works of spirituality and practical advice for ascetics place him at the beginning of a tradition central to that church’s teaching. Amongst Western Christians, especially perhaps those in the Protestant churches, Evagrius is largely unknown.

Yet this monk, who lived and wrote in the fourth century AD, was one of the first to compile a list of eight deadly temptations that would eventually, after various revisions, become the Seven Deadly Sins against which Christians would be exhorted for centuries to battle.[1] He would also be one of the first to write an extensive list of scriptural verses which could be used in prayer when battling these demonic temptations. Arguably, then, Evagrius and his works need to be better known in the Western Church.

One of the eight vices about which Evagrius wrote was acedia. The term has undergone some nuanced changes in meaning over the centuries. Acedia = sloth = laziness. And laziness is not really seen as much of a problem in the twenty-first century. It might be a minor character flaw, but is it any more serious than that? Can acedia really be called a sin?

The Church Fathers certainly thought so. Not only did they think it was a sin, but it was included in one of the earliest lists of the deadly, or capital, sins and vices – those from which all others flowed – yet in contemporary writing it is seldom mentioned. However, whilst the word itself has largely disappeared from regular usage, a look at its various translations (listlessness, despondency, boredom, dejection, inertia or slackening) suggests that the phenomenon may have a modern resonance.

Acedia was first written about in a monastic context, as we shall explore below, and seems to carry at its heart a withdrawal from or rejection of the demands of the spiritual life. Seen in those terms, it cannot be consigned to history. We will therefore examine the idea of acedia in theological terms by looking at the writings of one the first to teach extensively about the vice, Evagrius of Pontus, placing acedia in a framework that helps to explain how it runs contrary to the Christian ethic of love of God and neighbour.

For Evagrius, in his treatise to Eulogios on the vices opposed to the virtues, “Acedia is an ethereal friendship, one who leads our steps astray…”[2] Listed as one of the eight “thoughts” against which an ascetic must battle, acedia seems to be a mysterious combination of sadness, listlessness, withdrawal and over-activity. More than that, in Evagrian terms, acedia, with its angry and restless rejection of the highest good – knowledge of God – in favour of something else, is an expression of disordered love against which monks must battle.

Before we can examine that proposition, we shall briefly note some biographical details about Evagrius, as this shows how his theology was informed by those who taught and influenced him.


It is generally accepted that Evagrius was born in or around 345 in Ibora, Pontus, to an aristocratic family.[3] His father was a rural bishop, and Evagrius would have received the education that went with his family’s means and his father’s vocation.[4] During the 370s Evagrius was admitted to the office of reader by Basil the Great,[5] before moving in 379 to Cappadocia. There, Evagrius, now a deacon, assisted Gregory of Nazianzus in the disputes with the Arians, culminating in the First Council of Constantinople in 381.[6]

Interpretations of the reason for Evagrius’ departure from Cappadocia vary, but scholars are agreed that it involved a scandalous relationship with a prominent lady.[7] Whatever the truth of the situation, Evagrius left Constantinople in 382 and travelled to Jerusalem. It seems that he suffered some form of physical and mental breakdown, and withdrew from office for around six months.[8]

During this time Evagrius was helped by Melania and Rufinus, with whom he was staying in Jerusalem.[9] On his recovery, and probably at Melania’s instigation, Evagrius took the monastic habit in 383 and travelled to the Egyptian desert, where he would largely remain until his death sixteen years later.[10]

The theological influences on Evagrius were, primarily, the Cappadocian Fathers and, through them, Origen, and it is that link that means evangelical Christians will want to approach his works with caution, or at least be alert to the concerns they raise.

Issues with Evagrius’ teaching

In common with many theologians of his day, Evagrius seems to have been influenced by Platonic thought. Given the links between Origen, the Cappadocians and Evagrius, it is unsurprising that elements of Origenistic thought also occur in his writings. Jerome was the first to add Evagrius (posthumously) to the controversy around Orige,[11] whose allegorical interpretations of the Bible and apparent teaching that, “…bodily existence resulted from a fall into sin, but for which creation would have been non-material”,[12] were rightly being questioned. Evagrius was not accused of similar heresies at that stage; that would come over a century later, but he was being drawn into the controversy by association.

By the sixth century, scholars were questioning whether or not it was spiritually dangerous to read any of Evagrius’ work.[13]

However, to counteract the labelling of him as a heretic, we need to remember that Evagrius was active in support of Gregory at the First Council of Constantinople, where he contended against the Arians. One writer suggests that we can deduce from this that “…the bedrock… of his whole literary production is this confession [at Constantinople] of doctrinal orthodoxy”,[14] and further, that, “Evagrius… maintained an outspoken apologetic for Nicene orthodoxy”.[15]

The cultural context in which they were writing was complex. As Kevin Corrigan puts it:

…Evagrius is a child of his own times… As part of the logic of thought and practice, therefore, he had to have a cogent Christian picture of such structures. Evagrius’ [theological teaching] is accordingly restrained, even appropriate when put beside many less restrained details in Gnostic versions.[16]

Perhaps the best approach for an evangelical Christian to take is to follow that recommended in the sixth century, where the theological writings were to be avoided, but the practical advice could be adopted.

Defining terms

The first frustration for anybody seeking to lay down a framework in which to understand Evagrius’ teaching on sin in general, and acedia in particular, is that his insights are scattered across several treatises, and his use of some terms can be interchangeable. For example, as we shall see, Evagrius will sometimes talk of “thoughts”, sometimes of “temptations”, and sometimes of “demons” when describing negative desires which attempt to draw the one seeking God away from him. The diagnosis and the prescribed cure remain the same, but the cause of the affliction can be variously described.

Jeremy Driscoll suggests that the Evagrian understanding was that, “thoughts are the means which demons use to tempt a monk”.[17] This is the assumption we shall adopt throughout this section.

The importance for Evagrius of cutting off the sin at the point of the thoughts, before they can give birth to sinful acts, is seen in his letter to Melania, one of his mentors, where he writes, “Everyone who wishes to travel on the way of virtue should keep diligently from sin, not only by abstaining from the act, but from the very thought in his mind.”[18]

The idea that thoughts themselves can be sinful brings in the question of culpability, and so Evagrius teaches the monk not to allow thoughts to linger. He writes in Praktikos 6, “Whether or not all these thoughts trouble the soul is not within our power; but it is for us to decide if they are to linger within us or not and whether or not they stir up the passions.”[19] Driscoll suggests that, for Evagrius, part of a monk’s training is learning the art of constant vigilance against the thoughts – a vigilance that will be the remedy against demonic attack.[20]

We shall now turn to an examination of acedia itself.

The nature of acedia

The first thing to recognise is that acedia is a complex vice, and therefore difficult to define concisely. We shall give a broad overview of it in Evagrian terms, before attempting to analyse his teaching on it in detail.

Overview of acedia from Evagrius’ works

Gabriel Bunge writes that Evagrius sees acedia as a vice which, like all others, “…has its secret, invisible roots in self-love, that all-hating passion, which manifests itself in a thousand ways as a state of being stuck in oneself that renders one incapable of love… Because it is unnatural, this wayward desire cannot, in its essence, find fulfilment.”[21]

Acedia is an insidious vice, one that poisons the heart and mind with discontent and restlessness. It is not the same as a temporary distraction or feeling of inertia; acedia is, again quoting Bunge, “ …a simultaneous, long-lasting movement of anger and desire, whereby the former is angry with what is at hand, while the latter yearns for what is not present.”[22] It is that interpretative framework of anger and desire that we shall adopt later when, after describing acedia in Evagrian terms, we move to analyse it.

According to Evagrius acedia is unique in that it has its origins in both the physical and the intellectual parts of a human being. We noted earlier that Evagrius describes acedia as “an ethereal friendship, one who leads our steps astray…”[23] In that same section of teaching, Evagrius spells out the symptoms of acedia. It is worth listing them all, for they will form the basis of the discussion that follows:

[Acedia is] hatred of industriousness, a battle against stillness, stormy weather for psalmody, laziness in prayer, a slackening of ascesis, untimely drowsiness, revolving sleep, the oppressiveness of solitude, hatred of one’s cell, an adversary of ascetic works, an opponent of perseverance, muzzling of meditation, ignorance of the scriptures, a partaker in sorrow, a clock for hunger.[24]

Acedia appears both to increase and sap desire, increasing desire for things that will draw the human being away from God, and sapping the desire for beneficial practices (prayer, psalmody, askesis – from the Gk ‘skein’, exercise).

Evagrius describes acedia in one place as the commander of the army opposing the ascetic, bearing down on [ascetic labours] and seeking to destroy them,[25] setting “laziness as an antagonist against the soul”,[26] and in another as “the most oppressive of all the demons”.[27]

Acedia leads the monk to rebel against his place and assigned task in the monastery; for example when he is supposed to be reading, Evagrius suggests that:

The eye of the person afflicted with acedia stares at the doors continuously, and his intellect imagines people coming to visit. The door creaks and he jumps up; he hears a sound, and he leans out the window and does not leave it until he gets stiff from sitting there.[28]

When he reads, the one afflicted with acedia yawns a lot and drifts off into sleep; he rubs his eyes and stretches his arms; turning his eyes away from the book, he stares at the wall and again goes back to reading for a while; leafing through the pages, he looks curiously for the end of texts, he counts the folios and calculates the number of gatherings. Later, he closes the book and puts it under his head and falls asleep…[29]

The picture is one of a person who is unable to focus on the task in hand, who will find even physical discomfort preferable to persevering in the work.

One of the clearest descriptions of acedia in Evagrius’ works comes in Praktikos, advice from Evagrius to those embarking on the monastic life. The contradictory nature of acedia becomes clear in the passage as he shows how, despite the manifold thoughts, the unifying temptation is to abandon the monastery and the struggle for holiness. It is in this passage that the reason for the “demon of acedia” being described as “the noonday demon” is explained, for it “attacks the monk about the fourth hour and besieges his soul until the eighth hour”.[30]

The passage, though lengthy, is worth noting in full because it concentrates in one place the central concepts of Evagrius’ understanding of acedia, and is thus foundational to our examination of it:

The demon of acedia, also called the noonday demon, is the most oppressive of all the demons. He attacks the monk about the fourth hour and besieges his soul until the eighth hour. First of all, he makes it appear that the sun moves slowly or not at all, and that the day seems to be fifty hours long. Then he compels the monk to look constantly towards the windows, to jump out of the cell, to watch the sun to see how far it is from the ninth hour, to look this way and that lest one of the brothers … [sic.] And further, he instils in him a dislike for the place and for his state of life itself, for manual labour, and also the idea that love has disappeared from among the brothers and there is no one to console him. And should there be someone during those days who has offended the monk, this too the demon uses to add further to his dislike (of the place). He leads him on to a desire for other places where he can easily find the wherewithal to meet his needs and pursue a trade that is easier and more productive; he adds that pleasing the Lord is not a question of being in a particular place: for scripture says that the divinity can be worshipped everywhere (cf. John 4:21-4). He joins to these suggestions the memory of his close relations and of his former life; he depicts for him the long course of his lifetime, while bringing the burdens of asceticism before his eyes; and, as the saying has it, he deploys every device in order to have the monk leave his cell and flee the stadium. No other demon follows immediately after this one: a state of peace and ineffable joy ensues in the soul after this struggle.[31]

Evagrius teaches that acedia attacks every part of the person, body, mind and soul:

Whereas the other demons are like the sun which rises and sets, touching only one part of the soul, the noonday demon [acedia] is accustomed to enveloping the entire soul and strangling the mind.[32]

Kevin Corrigan, writing on the similarities between the teaching of Evagrius and that of Gregory of Nyssa, gives an evocative description of acedia as, “a sort of material-less, object-less smog of inert boredom…”[33] Contained in that description is the idea of hopelessness and despair that characterises acedia, that can manifest itself either in laziness or distraction, as we shall discuss later.

One problem with acedia is that it weakens the monk spiritually and leaves him unable to combat other temptations. Acedia also leads to self-delusion, suggesting that each new possibility to escape the work set before a person is, in fact, the way to virtue. So, for example, the one suffering from acedia may offer to visit those in distress, but in so doing, they are serving their own ends by avoiding the harder calling of fulfilling their duty of prayer.[34] There are repeated vivid metaphors in Evagrius’ writing, showing how acedia leads to rootlessness, dryness and fruitlessness in the ascetic life.[35] For example, a restless monk who can only remain still for a short time is compared to a “dry twig in the desert”.[36] Acedia also, crucially, leads the monk to see the work of prayer, his brethren and his calling as negative and burdensome. Combating acedia, therefore is not a simple or quick matter.

Having described an overview of Evagrius’ understanding of the nature of acedia, we may now move towards analysing it in some detail.


[i] The twin roots of acedia: anger and desire

Unlike the other seven vices, Evagrius teaches that acedia comes from both the concupiscible (to do with desire) and the irascible (to do with anger) parts of the soul. This combination gives rise to the unique sense of hopelessness and despair that characterises acedia, that can manifest itself either in laziness or distraction. We see this in the Scholia on Psalms, where Evagrius says,  

Through the thoughts the demons are drawn up in battle against us, sometimes moving in the concupiscible part, sometimes moving anger, and at other times moving the irascible part and the concupiscible part in the same moment, from which is born what is called a complex thought. But this only happens in the hour of listlessness [acedia].[37]

The interpretative framework that we shall adopt in this section takes its cue from that dual source: anger and desire. Evagrius explicitly makes the point that acedia is a complex struggle between anger and desire in a fragment of a letter quoted by Driscoll

… [acedia] alone of all the thoughts is an entangled struggle of hate and desire. For the listless one hates whatever is in front of him and desires what is not. And the more desire drags the monk down, the more hate chases him out of his cell. He looks like an irrational beast, dragged by desire, and beat from behind by hate.[38]

Driscoll’s own commentary on that letter draws the conclusion that, “there is something about listlessness [acedia] that involves the monk in a war of proper vs. improper desires, of love vs. hate”.[39]

Evagrius himself is clear that both inertia and diversion, coming from the dual root of acedia in the anger and desire, are different manifestations of the same vice.

Whilst it may initially be hard to see the link between inertia and diversion, viewing them as opposites, once the common cause in acedia is unearthed the connection is clear: both are ways of avoiding the demands of the ascetic life. One prevents any activity, the other promotes restless over-activity; both stultify spiritual growth, leaving the soul unable to make progress towards God. Suffocation or restlessness achieve the same end: spiritual death. A table may be helpful in seeing how anger and desire work together in acedia:

Anger (irascible part of soul)

Desire (concupiscible part of soul)





No activity


This arrangement may initially seem counter-intuitive as anger might more naturally seem to cause restlessness, but in Evagrius’ worldview it makes sense to say that restlessness is a fruit of disordered desire because that negative desire can never be satiated. So there is a constant desire for a new situation, which leads to over-activity, which Evagrius illustrates by comparing a restless monk with a sick person whose appetite needs to be stimulated by several different foods,[40] or a man who requires more than one wife to satisfy his desire for pleasure.[41]  

In the same way, for Evagrius, anger leads to inertia because anger generates an overwhelming sense of dissatisfaction with the present situation. The hatred of his manual labour, of his state of life and of brothers whom he feels have offended him all contribute to a monk’s anger, which in turn generates “laziness in prayer, a slackness of ascesis, ignorance of the scriptures… [and] muzzling of meditation”.[42] In acedia, anger turns in on its human subject, suffocating any positive aspect of desire for progress in the practical life of asceticism.[43]

[ii] Acedia as “container” of other vices

So we have seen that acedia, far from being a “simple” matter of laziness, is for Evagrius the most complex of all vices, with its dual root. But there is a further dimension to its complexity: Jeremy Driscoll notes this in referring to Evagrius’ commentary on Psalm 139:3, “Keep me safe, LORD, from the hands of the wicked; protect me from the violent, who devise ways to trip my feet”.[44] Evagrius states that, “On that day [when listlessness attacks] no other thought follows the thought of listlessness, first because it lingers and second because it contains almost all the other thoughts in itself.”[45]

This thought – that acedia contains almost all other temptations within itself – is extremely suggestive for our study, as it helps us to differentiate between the common understanding that acedia = sloth = laziness and the idea that acedia is in fact a much deeper sin, with connotations of rebellion, restlessness and rejection of progress towards love and knowledge.

Having spent time understanding what Evagrius means by acedia, and seen how serious it is in impeding the monk’s progress in the ascetic life, we are now in a position to examine Evagrius’ suggested remedies against acedia.

Remedies against acedia


Evagrius, when listing the negative “movements” of a human being, including sloth (acedia),[46] assigns to each a positive, corresponding, opposite, “move-ment”. That for acedia is perseverance.[47]

Perseverance builds up the mind to defeat acedia and resist the other sins it contains. In a passage in his treatise to Eulogios on the vices opposed to the virtues, Evagrius describes how perseverance destroys acedia:

Perseverance is the severing of acedia, the cutting down of thoughts, concern for death, meditation on the cross, fear firmly affixed, beaten gold, legislation for affections, a book of thanksgiving, a breastplate of stillness, an armour of ascetic works, a fervent work of excellence, an example of the virtues.[48]

The passage contains several key Evagrian ideas: First, the idea that being concerned for one’s death will lead to perseverance, and thus overcome acedia. In To Monks, this link is made explicit when he writes, “Remember always your departure from life and forget not the eternal judgment, and there will be no fault in your soul.”[49] It is by focusing on eternity, and not listening to the challenges posed by acedia, that the monk will find the motivation to continue the ascetic life.

Evagrius counsels the monk to remain in his cell or at his task, battling the demon of acedia when it strikes, not to run away: “If the spirit of acedia comes over you, do not leave your dwelling or avoid a worthwhile contest at an opportune moment, for in the same way that one might polish silver, so will your heart be made to shine.”[50]

So, acedia is opposed to, and defeated by, perseverance in an act of the will that controls negative desire and harnesses the power of the irascible part of the soul to fight the temptations.


In Book Six of The Antirrhetikos, Evagrius systematically lists fifty-seven possible temptations that could beset a monk, all of which he sees as demonic deceptions stemming from acedia. Meditation on Scripture is, according to Evagrius, one of the most effective remedies against acedia, so his first recommendation to anyone suffering temptation is that they learn and recite Scripture to quote against the demons.

Bearing in mind the dual root of acedia, Evagrius also teaches that the use of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs will “…[cool] our boiling irascibility and [extinguish] our desires”.[51]

Other remedies against acedia, as well as perseverance and the application of Scripture, advocated by Evagrius are short, intense prayers, physical work, breaking tasks into more manageable goals, and patience.[52] There is another remedy which Evagrius recommends to the monk battling acedia which, when combined with perseverance, will be particularly effective: “Perseverance along with tears represses acedia…”[53] It is to that unexpected weapon that we now turn.


Evagrius views tears as a vital part of the Christian’s fight against acedia. For example, in Exhortation to a Virgin he writes, “Sadness is burdensome and acedia is irresistible, but tears shed before God are stronger than both.”[54] He devotes one entire section of the Chapters on Prayer to the importance of tears, suggesting that the monk should pray for tears as a sign of repentance, and “Make use of tears to obtain the fulfilment of your every request, for the Lord rejoices greatly over you when he receives prayer accompanied by tears.”[55]

That tears have a remedial effect on acedia is suggested when Evagrius writes that, “The spirit of acedia drives away tears…” The callusing of the heart that acedia brings needs to be countered by tears. We see this when he prescribes Psalm 6:6 in Antirrhetikos 6.7:

[Pray Psalm 6:6] against the hardened soul that does not want to shed tears at night because of thoughts of listlessness [acedia] – for the shedding of tears is a great remedy for nocturnal visions that are born from listlessness.

In Praktikos, Evagrius suggests the use of tears as a way of dividing the soul, along with preaching the psalms to one’s own soul, as did David in Psalm 42:

When we come up against the demon of acedia, then with tears let us divide the soul and have one part offer consolation and the other receive consolation.

This again suggests that tears play a part in “unblocking” the soul troubled by acedia. In short, for Evagrius, “…tears wipe the soul clean of sins…”[56]

Physical labour

Though the least frequently-mentioned of the remedies against acedia, physical work is mentioned in Antirrhetikos as a helpful device, when the monk is told to battle “…the demon of listlessness that hates the manual labour of the skill that it knows…”[57]

How the remedies combat acedia

The four remedies which Evagrius prescribes – perseverance, Scripture, tears and physical labour – each play a different part in overcoming acedia. Scripture is recommended because it follows the pattern Christ set during his own temptation. That remedy is generic to all the thoughts. Specific to the fight against acedia, tears undo the hardened heart and prompt repentance; physical labour calms the thoughts and tires the body; and perseverance brings success and builds strength. In general, Evagrius teaches that actions of both body and soul are needed to combat the passions, and that love plays a part in destroying those that assault the soul: “Abstinence cuts away the passions of the body; spiritual love cuts away those of the soul.”[58]

In one summary section in Eight Thoughts, Evagrius suggests a simple rule that the monk who has recognised that he is in danger of falling prey to acedia should follow:

Set a measure for yourself in every work and do not let up until you have completed it. Pray with understanding and intensity, and the spirit of acedia will flee from you.[59]

Is this salvation by works?

At first glance, yes. Evagrius seems to be advocating a system whereby, undertaking certain spiritual practices, the monk can (automatically?) grow in holiness and grow towards God. This approach is something that an evangelical Christian would want to reject, given that our salvation is by faith alone through grace alone. Evagrius has a place for grace, but it is for grace working with a human being’s effort.[60]

However, the disciplines which Evagrius recommends to the monk battling acedia are helpful in and of themselves, and some could even be described as means of grace given by God to help Christians grow in holiness – not towards union with Christ, that is accomplished by the Trinitarian grace of God alone – but in godliness of character.

The practice of memorising and reciting Scripture is known to be a helpful way of the Christian “preaching” to him- or herself. Jesus himself quoted Scripture when tempted. Perseverance is something commended by the writers of the Epistles both as a fruit of suffering and also as something to be cultivated. Tears are a sign of anguish and humility before God, which he sees.

The evangelical Christian will need to guard against seeing these means of grace as ways of gaining favour with God, without rejecting them entirely.


As we have seen, acedia starts with thoughts of restlessness, or demonic temptation towards listlessness, which leads one to discontent with present circumstances. One manifestation of acedia might be withdrawal, but another might be, quoting Bunge, “busy, untiring activism [masquerading as] the Christian virtue of brotherly love.”[61] for acedia “…not only talks us into lukewarm minimalism, but also drives us, on occasion, to a destructive maximalism”.[62]

Acedia thus resists the demands made by the ascetic life yet, according to Evagrian teaching, that ascetic life is the only way to true knowledge of God. So, in Evagrian terms, acedia is an expression of disordered love against which monks must battle.[63]

It appears then that acedia, far from being a simple matter of indolence, somehow seeks not only to deny God’s goodness by making temporary pleasures seem more rewarding than pursuing spiritual growth, but also impedes the soul’s pursuit of God. If one simple phrase were to be coined to describe the restless, self-centred, self-deluding and self-defeating heart of acedia’s sinfulness, its culpability and its nature, perhaps “stubborn indifference” might be that phrase.

The question could still remain: what have this ancient vice and ancient Eastern Orthodox writer to do with twenty-first-century evangelical thinking and ministry? One possible answer is that although Evagrius was writing in the fourth century, his analysis and his remedies are instantly recognisable and applicable to our times where, perhaps more than ever, restlessness is seen in every area of human relationships and society. Now, as then, listlessness seeks refuge in escape, disengagement and over-stimulation. The results are destructive in terms of relationships between humans and God, humans and humans, and humans and their work, just as they were seventeen centuries ago.

For example, the Christian leader who is tempted to procrastinate when facing writing a sermon may need to recognise that sloth is at work, and resist the urge to run away from the task God has given them by being distracted by administration. The believer who finds the other members of their church irritating, or some of the teaching not to their taste, may be tempted to leave and find another fellowship, but that may be a form of acedia – seeking to escape and disengage from the congregation where God has placed them – not just to grow themselves, but to be a blessing and encouragement to others. These examples, and many others, may serve to show us that the sin of acedia needs to be unmasked and battled against now, just as it did in the past.


Next article >>   Back to contents page >>