An address given at the Ohio State University, November 8,
1966. Reprinted from Sociological Focus
Acedia is an occupational hazard among men of learning that takes the form of a gradual withdrawal of motivation for research and an increasing alienation from science.
During the Middle Ages acedia had only a religious meaning. At that time the word stood for sloth, the fourth cardinal sin, the state of not caring about one’s salvation. With the separation in the Renaissance between scholars, clergymen, and artists, it becomes appropriate to speak of secular versions, a scientific acedia, and an artistic acidia.
In most accounts of acedia, the condition is viewed primarily as a psychological or medical problem; individual variations in personality are seen as affecting a person’s endurance in scientific work. However, even students of acedia who by profession are biologists or psychologists concede that some important determinants are of a social nature and, therefore, located not in the scientist, but in the social setting in which he works. The assumption that acedia is primarily a sociological phenomenon has been made by Robert K Merton, who treats it as a case of anomie; it is ”retreatism”. The man affected by acedia, in this view, becomes the hobo of science; he rejects both the cultural goals and the socially acceptable means to achieve them.
Creativity is never a regular feature of any scientific career, and, therefore, acedia may often be hidden from the view of colleagues and employers for a long time. Today, when the normal time between the completion of a project and its publication may be as long as an entire year, the affected scientist can keep the image of creativity for an equally long period after the onset of his acedia; the light from the dead star is seen on earth a long time after it has actually faded. If the acedia is cured in the meantime, few people may ever have noticed it.
Perhaps the typical delay in discovery of acedia accounts for the failure of universities, research institutes, and industrial research divisions to deal resolutely with the problem. Heads of departments and laboratories do not have any standard ways of coping with acedia. There are no preventive measures, no treatments, no policy, and hardly any serious discussions of the problem. No one has called a conference on acedia to collate our knowledge and to evaluate the improvisations that are now invoked when a case is discovered. What we can say about acedia, therefore, is largely drawn from cases we have accidentally encountered and from general theory.
Everyone knows about some case of acedia among the great ones in his field. The biologists have Darwin’s depression which so delayed the publication of his theories of evolution; the sociologists know about Max Weber’s breakdowns when he was unable to write. Acedia, however, is not confined to the great scientists of the past. Administrators and members of university faculties and research centers know that acedia also affects the scientists of today and is not always limited to the best ones. Every publisher of scientific books or editor of a scientific journal has in his file a letter from a scientist, which bespeaks of acedia as the cause for his failure to meet a deadline for the submission of a manuscript. Even young scientists of average ability can testify about periods in which their work fails to engage them and their creativity is nil.
While acedia thus is common, we know very little about the actual distributions of incidents among different categories of scientists. It seems more common among middle-aged scholars than among the young and the old. And it seems more common among those whose specialty is theory than among those whose specialty is research. But no statistics are available to back up such impressions.
A beginning understanding of acedia can he obtained from Durkheim´s notion of anomie. Anomie is what prevails outside the range of the rewards to which we have become accustomed. Thus there is an upper anomic field in which our rewards are so unusually great that we do not know how to judge them (”crisis of riches”) and a lower anomic field in which our rewards are so unusually small that we do not know how to judge them (”crisis of poverty”). Both are dangerous territories; the ordinary girl who after a quick courtship marries a multimillionaire loses her bearings as readily as the ordinary businessman who unexpectedly finds himself bankrupt and stripped of all his assets.
If acedia is a form of anomie
we would expect to find it among scientists whose rewards have suddenly become
either excessively small or excessively great. It is easy to understand why the
scientist whose efforts end in frustration may withdraw from science. Actually,
the very structure of science breeds a vague sense of failure in the majority of
scientists. The intellectual exchanges around laboratories and research
institutes and particularly around university departments in graduate schools
are focused on the ideas of a very small number of great men who have made
decisive discoveries or who have formulated the current theories. These men are
looked upon as models. The adulation of these men generates inspiration and
industry among beginners and students. But the same adulation brings a sense of
failure among the middle-aged or older scholars, the vast majority of whom
realize that they will never receive the recognition given their chosen models.
When this realization is sudden, we have the acedia of failure
The acedia of success
type of acedia seems to affect those who escape from the world into science.
Linnaeus was a peasant’s son who had to pass through the assimilation process of
the upwardly mobile academician to fit into the university community. While he
was accepted as an equal or as a superior in matters concerning his scientific
specialty, he had to struggle to be accepted in the social life of the larger
academic, political, religious, and economic elite of his time. The scientist
One might surmise that this is often the etiology of acedia in scientists of lowly origin in aristocratic societies, for example, Faraday, son of a blacksmith, and Priestly, son of a weaver, both working in England. In equalitarian societies the scientists of lowly origin do not feel this pressure to the same extent. We sense little acedia in the upwardly mobile Pitirim Sorokin, who rode to scientific fame on a rising proletarian revolution in Russia, the son of a poverty-stricken farmer. In equalitarian societies withdrawal into science and the consequent risks that predispose one to specific acedia seem to have more idiosyncratic causes unrealistic ambitions, lack of ambience or social skills, failures in love—and social mobility seems to have no significant relation to acedia. However, the pattern of few rewards in non-scientific activities and a dangerous concentration of all rewards to a scientific specialty is here typical of the immigrant or exiled scientist of upper-class background. In his new country he does not normally receive the same honor from and influence with business leaders or politicians as in the old country, and hence may withdraw into his science.
The acedia of differentiation
is well illustrated by Lavoisier. He was born of wealthy parents, became a
partner in Ferme Generale, the private and profitable company that handled tax
collection for the French Crown. He married the daughter of another partner in
the Ferme. He had a flying start in science and at the age of twenty-five he was
already a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences. However, his background,
contacts, and abilities soon were to draw him in other directions. He served as
a member of the Provincial Parliament of Orléans, sponsoring a large number of
reform bills. From his father he inherited, among other things, a farm to which
he added new land, and became so involved in agriculture that he gladly served
in the official Administration of Agriculture. He did much consulting for the
government on education, taxes, and budgets, and the new republic of 1789
elected him president of the Discount Bank, which eventually became the Bank of
France. The preceding royal regime had turned to him for advice about gunpowder
production and he had organized and helped administer the state-owned Regie de
Poudres. His scientific activity both profited and suffered from his political
and financial involvements. He did agricultural experiments on his farm and he
ran many experiments in the laboratory attached to his gunpowder arsenal. Often,
however, his other commitments took over. His acedia appears rather painless: it
just seems that his science was drowned in a shower of other exciting activities.
Herbert Tingsten, the outstanding Swedish social scientist, illustrates a
similar, painless withdrawal from his academic life to become editor-in-chief of
a large newspaper. The casualty in this process was his book on the ideas of
liberalism, his most difficult undertaking, which was never completed. Others in
a similar situation have suffered more. Max Weber, for instance, under
cross-pressure from both academic and political commitments was for long periods
unable to pursue either. A near casualty in his case was the ambitious Economy
We see that acedia of differentiation, in contrast to the acedia of specialization, seems more likely to be a predicament of the scholar born in a well-connected upper-class family whose members are called upon to manage the financial or political affairs of the society. In competition with the rewards from the economic and political sphere, science might lose out.
The above predicaments do not necessarily by themselves produce acedia; they are the predispositions that cock the mechanism. A large number of events, both trivial and serious, may trigger the disease. Among these events we count anything that is physically exhausting: colds, stomach disorders, aches of various kinds, lack of sleep because of overwork or overentertainment. An emotionally exhausting event can also become triggering: death or illness, a financial squeeze, an illicit love affair getting out of hand, jealousy, fights with associates. It is only natural for the affected person and his family and friends to think that such exhausting events are the cause of his acedia. Actually, they serve to launch the acedia, a fact that becomes obvious when the triggering events are past, but the acedia still prevails.
”Acedia”, says Nobel laureate Ragnar Granit, ”appears
slowly and affects at first the general state of well-being. It might begin with
a suspicion that everything is not in right order with appetites and health. At
the same time, the diseased more and more often begins to recall the passages in
his scientific works which have been weak or deficient. In time, all his work
appears to have been deficient. Even if his entire contribution to science is
not completely dubious, it is at any rate just an array of insignificant
bagatelles. The diseased thinks that he has chosen the wrong course in life, and
he begins to toy with the idea of a pleasant and easy office job, or, if his
ambition is still left, a quiet career as a higher civil servant, or he imagines
that it is not yet too late to secure an industrial position, be rich and quit
counting his pennies. The stomach functions poorly and the heart jumps out of
beat, facts that make him decide to decline invitations to dinner and give up
the small vices of everyday life. Finally comes the crisis, the great
depression, and the mighty voice of Ecclesiastes
Acedia may be acute or chronic. However, once developed, acedia usually gets worse rather than better. Each day without creative scientific writing or reading makes it easier to spend another day in the same unproductive way. This, of course, leads to an accumulation of embarrassment and guilt that undermines self-confidence and makes it even harder to start and carry out a new experiment or writing project. The acedia thus becomes an imprisonment in a vicious circle of no creativity.
Acedia is most readily diagnosed in the course of a personal interview. Obtain in advance of the interview a curriculum vitae including a bibliography from the scientist. Establish his normal rate of scientific productivity, making due allowance for his other duties, such as teaching and administration. Notice drops in publications in years past and particularly in the recent year. Inquire about projects that did not result in any publication. Find out whether it has been increasingly difficult for the scientist to submit this article to the journal and that monograph to the publisher.
Explore whether the scientist finds it difficult to sit at his desk writing scholarly reports, whether sentences form readily for him, or not. Find out whether the books and articles published in his specialty are still interesting documents to him or are becoming like unbearable collections of words. Does he read the new issue of the journal right after it has arrived in the mail, as he used to do in the past? Has his study, his library, his laboratory begun to feel like a prison? Have the exciting theories in his field suddenly turned grey ? Have the investigations that before seemed intriguing and full of discoveries become deadly routines? Find out whether he feels that everything worthwhile in his field has been performed or said by others.
We might diagnose a case as acedia if both the actual behavior (publication record, working and reading habits) and the attitudes (excitement with the scientific work, feeling of making a genuine contribution) point in the negative direction.
The cure of the acedia of failure and that of success are special cases of the general problems of adjusting to failure and success.
The cure of the acedia of specialization consists of broadening the field of interest. The affected scientist should be encouraged to take up new problems and to branch into new research fields. Einstein studied photoelectric effects, phenomena far from those of relativity. Pareto switched from economics to sociology. Clark Hull switched from perception psychology to learning psychology. It is often easier to develop new interests completely outside of science. Vacations, new hobbies, community service, more time to play with children or grandchildren might be good. Anything rewarding outside of the narrow specialty is useful; even administrative committees or participation in academic ceremonies and processions might help the affected scientist feel better. The acedia of differentiation calls for the opposite treatment. The lures of the outside world must not be allowed to enter the laboratory or the study. A line must be drawn somewhere. The harassed scientist must set aside regular time periods when he has only one date, his science. Lawyers and friends in business must be kept away during these hours and so must politicians, civil servants, and the long array of helpseekers, journalists, namedroppers and crackpots that generally cluster around the big wheels in a society or community.
treatment is occasionally reported. A German physicist who upon its publication
received a copy of Maxwell’s Electrodynamics
The preventive for the acedia of failure must be sought in a stabilization of rewards and recognition for scientific abilities. The tenure system mitigates the acedia of failure; it sets a floor through which one cannot fall. A series of regular, modest, mandatory increases in salary or rank by simple seniority would give everyone a sense of progress; this is done at many American research centers and universities. The acedia of success can probably not be prevented short of abandoning the system of elevating men who have made decisive discoveries into a kind of stars comparable to those of filmdom. A Nobel Prize winner is esteemed and honored way beyond the accustomed range of rewards for his colleagues. If this is the crowning event in a long array of honors given over many years, he will be accustomed to this range. But the sudden large elevation may be a disservice.
As we have seen, both acedia of specialization and differentiation seem to have their causes in the disproportional rewards in scientific and non-scientific activities. The former acedia grows out of insufficient rewards in non-scientific pursuits; the latter acedia grows out of insufficient rewards in scientific pursuits. It is natural, therefore, to seek a remedy for both by making these two classes of rewards more commensurate with each other.
In Europe, medals, prizes, and orders, even knighthoods, are given as rewards for discoveries; and academies or royal societies replete with impressive ceremony, tradition, and glamour, grant membership to the outstanding researchers in each generation. The important point here is that such rewards are generally visible in all parts of society. One does not need to understand a scientific piece of work to realize that at person who possesses such a reward has great accomplishments to his credit; the Nobel Prize, the knighthood, the medal from the King’s hand (and the accompanying publicity), for example, are enough to make sure that status in science is also honored outside science.
The European scientist, however, is faced with a scarcity of academic chairs open to him. In small European countries with less than a handful of universities, it might well happen that a scholar has only one or two chances in a lifetime to apply for a chair. When the big rewards are so rare and far between, they are likely to become overwhelmingly important to the applicant. Little can be done to reduce the risk of acedia among the unsuccessful applicants short of the creation of new universities and new chairs.
The American scientist has little difficulty in becoming a professor, should he want to work in a University. However, the best an American scientist can expect is that some colleagues in his field honor him for his contributions. Outside his science he is faced with a world which, on the whole, rates him not according to the weight of bibliography, but according to his economic standing, which is likely to be modest. He, like most other Americans, is judged by the community on the basis of visible symbols of economic success, the size and location of his house or apartment, his kind of car, his hi-fi set, and so forth. While he might be quite prepared to forego some of these things and ”live for his science”, his family will probably raise the issues. His wife will want the deep-freeze; the children will ask about a swimming pool and color television. The American scientist risks alienation from his science because, in spite of all his dedication, it does not deliver to him enough of what the larger American society defines as the good life. The ”Americanization” of Europe means essentially that consumer goods replace the old status system as the most attractive rewards. This has in fact put the European scientist in a particularly frustrating situation. The old system of honorific rewards is losing out to the new system of consumption rewards while academic salaries—the prerequisite for consumption rewards—have remained rather low.
What is needed then, both in America and in Europe, is a societal device that ties scientific discoveries to visible rewards. For one thing, the correspondence between scientific achievement and financial remuneration must be improved. Perhaps an international foundation should be created with the responsibility of examining published papers and monographs, rating their contributions, and paying yearly cash stipends to the authors in accordance with the ratings. Since it is often impossible to judge the significance of a discovery until some time has lapsed, funds should be dispersed primarily for past publications, perhaps according to the extent their ideas have been used and cited by others in responsible journals, thus providing a system of royalty payments for scientific creativity. One might surmise that the honorific aspects of well-publicized royalties like these would, in due time, also become quite important.
This is a drastic proposal. But it might cost less than the innumerable hours, days, months, and years lost because of scientific acedia.