The Via Positiva, Apathy, and the Future of the Planet

Twenty-seven years ago it was my privilege to deliver a Schumacher Society Lecture in Bristol, England at a conference whose theme was “The Environmental Revolution.”  Immediately preceding my talk Lester Brown of the World Watch Institute delivered his address which ended with this statement: “The number one obstacle to an environmental revolution today is:  Human Inertia.” 

“Boredom” Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Has much changed in these past twenty-five years?  How is human inertia or apathy still today a key issue as we face (or refuse to face) Climate Change and a deadline of eleven years to turn things around?  How do we cure the disease called Apathy or Inertia?

Apathy is one of the seven “deadly” sins which our ancestors called acedia. Acedia is an very encompassing word, much bigger than “sloth” which is how the captains of industry preferred translating it during the industrial revolution.

“Untitled” Photo by Verne Ho on Unsplash

Thomas Aquinas defines acedia as “the lack of energy to begin new things.”  Acedia includes apathy, boredom; depression; despair; passivity, inertia, uncaring.  And today it is such a prevalent disease that we have a new word for it: couchpotatoitis.  Passivity, sitting on a couch (or at a computer screen?) eating potato chips, buying everything advertisers are selling us, and watching the world go by–Yes, even a world that is burning up because people are, well, apathetic and prefer the couch to action.

Is there a medicine for acedia?  Aquinas says there is.  “Zeal [the opposite of acedia] comes from an intense experience of the beauty of things.”  There we have it: The Via Positiva is the medicine for acedia, the Number One Obstacle to saving the environment.  Falling in love again with creation.  With the earth and her creatures.  With our own existence and the Earth’s.  Thus it is the basis of an “Extinction Rebellion.”

“Climate Justice March, Maastricht, Netherlands”
Photo by Vincent M.A. Janssen from Pexels

Thus we see once again how important the Via Positiva is for carrying on the battles of the Via Transformativa. What we love matters.  In today’s America an entire political party that has committed itself to denying climate change.  A lot of powerful people and institutions have invested in acedia and it is no secret why.  Because their love is not for creation or the planet or its many beautiful but endangered species or even for our species and our great, great grandchildren: Their love is for the money they can make from their stock supporting fossil fuel corporations.  (Or, if they are politicians, the money they rake in from donations.)

See Matthew Fox, “Religion As If Creation Mattered,” in Fox, Wrestling with the Prophets, 31-51.
Matthew Fox, “Misdirected Love in the First Chakra: Acedia,” in Fox, Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Transforming Evil in Soul and Society, 189-236.
Banner Image: “Apathy.” Photo by Parker Whitson on Unsplash

Queries for Contemplation

Do you agree with Aquinas that an intense experience of the beauty of things can arouse you to caring and action?  How is that best accomplished?

Do you agree with Lester Brown that Inertia and Apathy are holding back an environmental awakening?  What can we do about that personally and societally? Do you sense that the news of Climate Change and the rest is cutting through some Inertia at this time?

Recommended Reading

In one of his foundational works, Fox engages in substantive discussions with some of history’s greatest mystics, philosophers, and prophets on today’s social and spiritual issues on such challenging topics as Eco-Spirituality, AIDS, homosexuality, spiritual feminism, environmental revolution, Native American spirituality, Christian mysticism, Art and Spirituality, Art as Meditation, Interspirituality, and more.

Fox makes the point that religion has so often oversold the concept of “sin” that it has left us without language or power to combat evil. Through comparing the Eastern tradition of the 7 chakras to the Western tradition of the 7 capital sins, Fox allows us to think creatively about our capacity for personal and institutional evil and what we can do about them.

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6 thoughts on “The Via Positiva, Apathy, and the Future of the Planet”

  1. Avatar

    The story of the popcorn reminds me of the eating of the raisin that I believe Thich Nhat Hahn teaches — where I put one raisin in my mouth and take as long as possible to savor and eat it. How many times have I tossed back a handful of almonds or raisins without focusing on the sweetness of each one? Often. We would need so much less if we savored each bite, each piece of furniture, each piece of clothing, each plate and cooking pot. Appreciation of what we already have can help to reduce our consumerism. Maybe we don’t need every shiny new device that we hear about.

    1. Gail Ransom

      Dear Michele,
      I am with you on this. Whenever I have taken the time and attention to stop and savor something, anything, my life feels so rich and exquisitely layered. And yet, I can drive past neighborhoods and fly over cities, look out my window and think, ”Oh, there’s that life,” before returning to the song on my iPad.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team

      1. Avatar

        I was first introduced to this way of thinking by Thomas Moore in his book “The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life.” I learned to see that when I purchase something, if I buy it from an independent, local business, I am not just buying an object, I am buying community. When I appreciate (savor? love? spend time with? use with respect? ) and carefully use something I have, I honor the person who made it and I don’t need another and another and another. I don’t need a new one. I’ve been criticized both for keeping the same things for years (for not keeping up with new trends), for asking people to take good care of my things, and for loving such things as bowls and bureaus. Thomas Moore taught me to savor everything and because of that I need so much less. When I get offtrack and think, ‘Oh! That looks like a shiny new thing. I should buy it,’ I remember that I really don’t need so much.

  2. Avatar

    I’m enjoying todays meditation very much. In the midst of the troubles that surround us. Just remembering the via positiva by savoriness thus taking the moment to appreciate and like wise a moment to collect ourselves before we act. It brings and instant smile. Thank for constant reminder to say yes to the beauty in life and that change will come with our attention and appreciation on love. The call to action is because we care and we can enjoy our actions.
    I’m very grateful for these morning meditations.

  3. Avatar

    I love the creativity of these meditations, the wonderfully appropriate and various photos, and the way that Matt manages to integrate and draw on Creation Spirituality, to make it relevant to our everyday lives.
    Hello Matt, and with much gratitude. Elaina Hyde-Mills ( ICCS student in the 90’s)

    1. Gail Ransom

      Dear Elaine,
      Thank you for writing. We are so glad that you have found these meditations by Matt, still ass relevant to our daily lives now as in the days of ICCS – but perhaps more urgent now. We are glad that you are still following Creations Spirituality and participating in these daily meditations.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditations Team

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