Essay / Blog

Waking Up to Sloth

I passed by the field of a sluggard,
by the vineyard of a man lacking sense,
and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns;
the ground was covered with nettles,
and its stone wall was broken down.
Then I saw and considered it;
I looked and received instruction.
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want like an armed man.
– Proverbs 24:30-34

One danger of reading Proverbs is thinking they apply to someone else or that they’re usually only warning me against doing something in the future. In a class of hard-working honors students, few if any will look into this proverb on sloth as into a mirror. But, like so many proverbs, this one is well aware of our ability to be deaf and blind to wisdom right in front of us. For here, the person who is considering what he sees is placed front and center. “I passed by,” “I saw and considered,” “I looked and received instruction.” Everything in this proverb is shouting, “Slow down! Pay close attention! Wake up!”

Other proverbs on sloth do not typically emphasize the observer in this way:

Slothfulness casts into a deep sleep,
    and an idle person will suffer hunger. (19:5)
Love not sleep, lest you come to poverty;
    open your eyes, and you will have plenty of bread. (20:13)
The sluggard does not plow in the autumn;
    he will seek at harvest and have nothing. (20:4)

These proverbs get right to the point, and the point has much in common with a hasty read of Proverbs 24: sleep too much instead of work and you won’t have what you need. But here in Proverbs 24, part of the subject of the proverb is being careful to rightly observe the causes and costs of sloth. And here the true cause of the broken wall and the tangle of thorns is one that you need to be awake to see, for it is small.

We think we know sloth when we see it, that we know when we ourselves are being slothful. It’s lazing around in bed all morning or gaming every night. It’s catching up on the latest updates instead of doing homework or laundry. But these kinds of sloth don’t result in surprise. I may be dismayed and annoyed, but I’m not surprised to find myself digging hurriedly through piles of unfolded clothes to find matching socks. This is not a want that snuck up on me “like an armed man.” This proverb is not about that kind of obvious sloth.

It’s about something easy to not even notice: “a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands.”

That littleness is in such stark contrast to the degree of neglect suffered by the field, its entire overgrowth and useless broken wall, and in the resistlessness of the poverty that attacks. Looking closely, the wise person is able to notice what the slothful man did not. She heeds the warning that we fool ourselves when we think that what is small doesn’t matter. “Just five minutes more” in the morning, “just a couple of minutes to myself, for heaven’s sake!” can set a trajectory, however imperceptible, to finding ourselves rudely awakened by lack.

Sloth truly is a sleepy sort of vice, a slow slide into unknowing foolery with eyes half-closed. It is a turn inward, and therefore a turn away from living, and even from desire itself. The sluggard craves, but he doesn’t really desire. He “buries his hand in the dish and will not even bring it back to his mouth” (19:24). He doesn’t sleep because he wants to. He sleeps because he doesn’t want anything else enough. This is why the sluggard is condemned like a fool. In their different ways, both turn in towards the self and away from reality; both neglect their own good and the common good.

Sloth lulls desire into mere craving, shutting the eyes to the real satisfaction at hand, let alone to what keen eyes alone will be able to observe. But wisdom calls us to be awake, and not so that we can be hasty. Wisdom wakes us up to slow us down that we might observe more closely, for it matters to judge well in little things, too.

Image: “The Greatest Button In the World” by Sean McGrath is licensed under CC by 2.0


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