It is difficult to be Catholic and also a fan of sloths. “Why do you like something named after a deadly sin?” I have been asked on no few occasions. When I try to justify myself by pointing out that animals cannot sin, the response I usually get is, “Well they’re still pretty lazy.” It is this common misconception, for which sloths everywhere have been unfairly vilified, that I wish to address here. Sloths are the opposite of slothful. In fact, we can learn much from sloths about how to avoid the vice of sloth in our own lives.
First of all, it is necessary to establish what exactly the vice of sloth is. The sloth of the 7 capital vices is not, as many people think, simply characterized by inactivity. Sloth is properly defined as “sorrow for spiritual good” (Summa Theologiae, IIa-IIae, q. 35). In this state, spiritual goods seem evil to us because we see them merely as “toilsome, or troublesome to the body, or as a hindrance to the body’s pleasure,” and so we shun them. As such, slothfulness does not preclude action entirely, but only action of the highest order.
Not only can we be active and slothful simultaneously, we can even make ourselves frantic over all sorts of lesser concerns precisely to avoid addressing what is most important, merely hiding our slothfulness under a veneer of business. Our nature as human beings can only be fully satisfied by God himself, yet we too often shun the authentic human flourishing to be found in union with God to “labor for that which does not satisfy” (Isa 55:2). Sometimes, the best thing for us is to slow down, reassess our priorities, and realize how we are fighting against our own happiness.
The sloth is afflicted with none of these problems. Its end, according to its animal nature, is to preserve its own being, to procreate, and to rear offspring. In attaining these ends, the sloth makes very few unnecessary moves. It does not expend needless energy pursuing ultimately fruitless activity. Few though they may be, all the sloth’s actions are directed to flourishing according to its nature. The sloth is not lazy, but efficient. What matters is not the quantity of action, but the efficacy of these actions in attaining authentic flourishing according to one’s nature.
The fact that God alone satisfies the longing of the human heart does not exclude the possibility of levity and amusement, in fact it even calls for it. It is probably not possible for any human to be as efficient as the sloth. Still, the more we set our sights on spiritual goods, confident that God’s grace makes even these difficult goods attainable, the closer we will be to true happiness. We would all do well to be a little more like the sloth.
Image: Two toed sloth (CC BY-SA 3.0 by a Wikimedia user)