The Neglect of the Intellect: Sloth

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


I propose to consider the disuse or nonuse of the intellect, for which the most appropriate name is sloth. That English word is the translation of a Latin term in the Christian catalogue of mortal sins set forth by St. Gregory the Great. It also became the name for an almost completely dormant mammal that is usually found hanging by its claws on the branch of a tree. Because of this latter identification, sloth has in ordinary speech come to signify gross physical inactivity. In borrowing that term from both ordinary speech and from theological discourse, I have adopted it to designate an almost total neglect of the intellect or an inadequate use of it.

In the catalogue of mortal sins, sloth stands for spiritual lethargy or torpor. With their connotation of deep sleep, the words “lethargy” and “torpor” may be inappropriate for what I mean in using the word “sloth.” But what I have in mind is conveyed by emphasis on the spiritual, not physical, dimension of our conduct. It is the intellectual, not physical, inactivity of a person for which I am using the word “sloth.”

The ideal of intellectual virtue portrayed in the preceding chapter can be approximated in some degree by anyone who has the ability and willingness to make the effort. There are some human beings who, because of minimal or defective intellectual endowment, may not have the requisite ability. But there are a great many more who have sufficient ability to make the effort and fail to do so. It is those persons that I am charging with the fault of not using their intellects in the proper fashion.

Sloth is a moral fault, but unlike injustice that results in misconduct toward others, sloth is a moral fault that causes the misconduct of the individual’s private life. In this respect, it is more like the lack of temperance, which is abstinence from sensual pleasures or the lack of fortitude, which is a habitual unwillingness to take the pains involved in doing what one ought to do for the sake of leading a morally good life.

One ought to make good use of one’s intellect in order to lead a morally good life. Stated another way, one ought to lead an intellectual life. But many of us do not lead intellectual lives. Many of us are anti-intellectual. Many do not use their intellects beyond those uses they cannot avoid its cooperation with the sensory powers in acts of perception, memory, and imagination.

If they go beyond such cooperative uses of the intellect, which confer conceptual illumination upon the things we perceive, remember, and imagine, they do not use their intellects for the purpose of increased knowledge and augmented understanding, sought for their own sake and not for some ulterior, practical purpose. They do not engage in the pursuit of truth for the love of it and for no other reason. They do not count the sheer delight of thinking well among the joys they prize and seek.

Those who do not lead intellectual lives deploy their intellectual powers in the work-a-day world of earning a living for the sake of getting ahead in that world. If they were not compelled to use their intellects for that purpose, they would not be inclined to do so. When they are not immersed in the economic rat race, they resort to various forms of play and entertainment for the sake of recreation from the fatigues of toil or in order to kill the time that lies heavy on their hands. It never or seldom occurs to them to use free time for the exacting pursuits of leisure instead of for recreation or the pleasures of play.

The pleasures of play are intensified by great skill in one’s participation in whatever sports or games to which one is inclined. One has to use one’s intellect to acquire such skill. But that use of the intellect, taken together with its use for economic or even political advancement, is hardly a sufficient use. While it is not total abstinence from intellectual activity, it is certainly an inadequate employment of whatever degree of intellectual power we have.

In sharp contrast, what I have called the exacting pursuits of leisure are all forms of intellectual activity in which the intellect is (1) used productively in making things that are useful and enjoyable, (2) used practically in making judgments about things to be done for the sake of a morally good life, and (3) used speculatively in the pursuit of truth and in all forms of learning for the sake of gaining knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. These three uses of the intellect will, if they become habitual, confer upon a person the intellectual virtues that Aristotle named in Greek antiquity — art and prudence, understanding, knowledge, and wisdom. On the part of those who have sufficient intellectual ability to do so, sloth is either a habitual reluctance to employ one’s intellectual power adequately, or it consists in almost total abstinence from an active engagement of the intellect in pursuits of leisure.

Anti-intellectualism gives rise to the most extreme, the most morally deplorable, form of sloth. It is to be found in persons for whom the ultimate objectives in life are the maximization of pleasure, money, fame, or power and who, thus motivated, express their contempt for those who waste their lives in purely intellectual pursuits. It is almost as if they wished they did not have the burden of having intellects that might distract them from their fanatical devotion to nonintellectual aims. It is man’s glory to be the only intellectual animal on earth. That imposes upon human beings the moral obligation to lead intellectual lives. The slothful are blind to the glory and neglectful of the obligation.

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