Monday, January 20, 2014

History of Ideas: Boredom.

How frightful boredom is - frightfully boring; I know of no stronger expression, no truer expression, for only like knows like. If only there were a higher expression, a stronger one; that would at least indicate a shift. I lie outstretched, inactive; the thing I see is: emptiness; the only thing I live for: emptiness; the only thing I move in: emptiness. I do not even experience pain.  - Kierkegaard.
I'm fascinated by words describing aspects of the human condition which appear overwhelmingly obvious to us and, yet, did not always exist. Boredom is such a word and this is it's history.

 Late Antiquity: The demon Acedia.

Ancient Greece lacked a word for boredom. The closest is 'akedia' which roughly translates as 'not to care about' or 'not participating' but did not form a significant element in Greek thought. The precursor of modern boredom developed during the fourth century in the Christian concept of Acedia. Early accounts describe acedia as a demon attacking monks during the midday and causing the 'sun to appear unmoving in the sky'. Evagrius Ponticus (c345 - c399) thought Acedia the most cunning and dangerous of all demons, sowing dissatisfaction in the souls of men and tempting them from God, but men capable of withstanding the assault will overcome all other sins and find true joy. 

The Middle Ages: The root of all sin. 

By the middle ages acedia was no longer considered a demon but instead a form of spiritual sadness, the opposite of joy, caused by rejecting God and His creation. Acedia became a serious sin from which other sins flowed as the sinner sought satisfaction through vices.

The Renaissance Era:  Melancholy.

The newly rediscovered emphasis upon naturalism replaced acedia with melancholy. Acedia was strongly linked with the soul and morality and whose cure lay outside the body, while melancholy was linked with the body whose cure lay in physical treatment.

The Enlightenment: Pascal.

During the 17th century our modern understanding of boredom began to emerge from it's origins as the demon Acedia.  Pascal drew upon earlier Christian understanding of acedia as a moral state whose only cure was to accept God :

"The only thing that consoles us for our miseries is diversion. And yet it is the greatest of our miseries. For it is that above all which prevents us thinking about ourselves and leads us imperceptibility to destruction. But for that we should be bored, and boredom would drive us imperceptibly to our death. "

Boredom is awareness of the meaninglessness of our lives and the desperate attempt to find meaning through diversion.

The Enlightenment: Kant.

Kant too treats boredom as a moral state but adds a social dimension. The uncivilized man is preoccupied with satisfying his needs but the civilized, cultured man is driven through boredom by a need to constantly experience new forms of pleasure and distraction. The solution is not God but work:
Man feels his life through actions and not through enjoyment and that in idleness man feels a lack of life...The pleasures of life do not fill time but leave it empty. The human mind, however, feel detestation and discomfort in the presence of empty time.

Romanticism is a worldview of extreme aesthetic subjectivity with all objectivity stripped from the external world and placed within the creative fires of the human soul. The responsibility to find meaning and value rests with the individual so objects become both interesting and uninteresting at an individual's whim. This, Hegel argued, leads to a craving for the essential, the real, the truth as the self cannot be satisfied by itself:
Out of this comes misfortune, and the contradiction that, on the one hand, the subject does want to penetrate into truth and longs for objectivity, but on the other hand, cannot renounce his isolation and withdrawal into himself or tear himself free from this unsatisfied abstract inwardness. 
Romantic boredom is a formless craving for the fullness of life but without any clear goal. It is, Kierkegaar warned, an emptiness driving romantics to desperately transform the universe into an image of  themselves and thereby transforming the boring into the interesting.


For Schopenhauser man must choose between suffering and boredom. If our desires are not fulfilled, this leads to suffering. But if our desires are fulfilled, we become bored and unable to find satisfaction for satisfaction is only found through fulfilling our desires. This dilemma forces us to invent imaginary worlds through art or religion and it's only through art we truly find contentment; a train of thought carried forward by Nietzsche.

Personal comments

Boredom comes in various degrees. There is situational boredom where a temporary situation bores us and romantic boredom. This posts describes romantic boredom as a consequence of  Modernity when scientific rationalism and romantic individualism stripped the world of meaning. I intuitively reject this link between meaning and boredom; but the notion deserves further consideration.

It seems true there is a link between romantic boredom and a search for distraction. I spent most of my 20's hiding from the world in various computer games that both entertained and provided a sense of accomplishment. But when the games were turned off and I lay in bed trying to sleep, the knowledge of the utter wasteful futility of my gaming would creep into my consciousness. Kant's words ring true: Man feels his life through actions and not through enjoyment and that in idleness man feels a lack of life.
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