I can think of no exact equivalent in Western literature to Oblomov, the protagonist of Ivan Goncharov’s 19th-century Russian novel of the same name. You have to range a bit farther afield to find one: perhaps the pot-smoking Dude in the Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowki, who can rouse himself for no purpose in life other than bowling. Oblomov, a minor Russian aristocrat, can barely rouse himself out of bed. “When you don’t know what you’re living for, you don’t care how you lived from one day to the next,” he explains to a lady friend whom he can never muster the energy to marry. “You’re happy the day has passed and the night has come, and in your sleep you bury the tedious question of what you lived for that day and what you are going to live for tomorrow.” Oblomov’s problem, if you want to call it that, is that he doesn’t have to lift a finger to survive. “Do I fuss and worry?” he says to his manservant Zakhar, one of 300 serfs on his estate who have attended to his every need since birth. “Do I work? Don’t I have enough to eat? Do I look thin and haggard? Am I in want of anything? Have I not people to fetch and carry for me, to do the things I want done? Thank God, I have never in my life had to draw a pair of stockings on.”
Goncharov’s book was a sensation with the reading public in Russia, for whom Oblomov was a recognizable social type in the terminal stages of the Czarist regime. Oblomovism became a byword for apathy and indolence among the privileged classes, and the book was credited for hastening the coming of the Russian Revolution. As it turned out, however, doing away with the aristocracy proved easier than eliminating Oblomovism. “Russia has made three revolutions, and still the Oblomovs have remained,” Lenin once complained. “They must be washed, cleaned, pulled about, and flogged for a long time before any kind of sense will emerge.” The standard joke under the old Soviet system was, “We pretend to work, they pretend to pay us.”
Indolence has always been frowned on in America, even among the privileged classes. Credit usually goes to the Protestant ethic, which took root early. According to our Calvinist forbearers, hard work did not guarantee salvation, which was a matter of predestination. However, those who were predestined for salvation tended to be hard workers, so it was best to roll up one’s sleeves. Or as St. Jerome advised, “Do something, so that the devil may always find you busy.”
Long before Protestants got in on the act, St. Paul was advising early Christians, “If any one will not work, let him not eat.” By the sixth century, Pope Gregory had identified sloth as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. At first glance, it might be hard to grasp why this should be so, much less why the fourth-century Christian monk Evagrius of Pontus should characterize sloth (acedia) as the most troublesome of all evil thoughts. However, the church fathers were not really concerned about those who thank God they do not have to draw on their own stockings. The real evil was not so much laziness as apathy, which leads inexorably to the neglect of one’s Christian duty. If salvation is the great aim in life, where would we be if nobody cared about the state of his or her own soul?
As such things are reckoned, sloth is a sin of omission, which the Catholic Encyclopedia defines as “the failure to do something one can and ought to do.” This might appear at first to be a victimless crime, but only if we assume we owe a duty only to ourselves. To the extent that salvation is a collective enterprise, we owe a duty to one another, and we sin if we fail to play our part. Finally, we owe a duty to God. As beings made in God’s image, we are created for a purpose greater than ourselves. Sloth then becomes a form of cowardice in our refusal to live up to the best in ourselves. This is why sloth is a mortal sin. The person we were created to be is stillborn.
2 Thessalonians 3:10