The Eighth Capital Sin
I’m thinking the list of seven capital sins—Pride, Envy, Avarice, Anger, Sloth, Gluttony, Lust—ought to be expanded to eight.
This may be audacious of me, and I’m not sure what type of campaign I’d need in order to obtain official recognition for an eighth sin, but I don’t think I’m out of line. After all, the list is due for a change (it has scarcely been revised since the late sixth century, when St. Gregory the Great wrote his Morals on the Book of Job), and an expansion would get the list back to its original dimensions; the first list, devised by a desert monk named Evagrius in the fourth century, consisted of eight.
I’m proposing to add Noise, or Noisiness, to the list.
The Three Stages of Noise
I’m not talking about the tendency to make noise, though that tendency is part of Noisiness, just as a temper tantrum is often part of Anger. I’m talking about the disposition toward Noisiness that is found in the soul.
A capital sin, after all, is not an act, but rather an attitude, or disposition, that leads to other sins. Envy, for instance, is an attitude that tends to lead us to brooding over our perceived misfortunes, failing to give thanks for God’s blessings, and showing ill-will toward our wealthy neighbors. Likewise, Anger extinguishes charity (love) from the heart, thus leading to other sins such as blasphemy and cruelty, and Lust leads to masturbation and other staples of modern living.
The disposition toward Noisiness can be broken down into three levels, just as I’ve seen Gluttony broken down into eating more than we need (something all people tend to do), eating to satiation (something overweight people do), and eating far past satiation (something obese people do).
First, there’s the tendency that afflicts all of us: The tendency to fill the heart and mind with a stream of self-occupied thoughts and imaginations. Inner chatter. Often applauded by pop culture (“daydreaming,” “lost in our thoughts”), it’s rarely recognized for what it really is: A state of mental existence where we are incessantly accosted by an involuntary stream of thoughts. Wise men have repeatedly pointed out for thousands of years that these thoughts and dream are not “ours.” Unless we undertake great effort, we have little or no control over them—virtually no ability to stop them and only a little ability to direct them. Even if we initially invite or direct them, they eventually take their own course.
This tendency of inner chatter to go where it wants leads to the second stage of Noisiness: Loud inner chatter. The stream, if not checked, eventually grows into a rushing river of chatter, characterized by things like extravagant dreaming (visions of vast earthly wealth or fame), cruel or violent thoughts, and lustful imaginations.
From the second stage, Noisiness goes to the third stage, which is the stage where it becomes visible to the outside world. Just as Avarice eventually becomes noticeable in the cheater, or Anger in the temper tantrum, or Pride in the person who can’t suffer any affront without indignation, Noisiness eventually produces external noise. Examples include the person who talks constantly or loudly, the family that keeps a blaring television on at all times, teenagers who churn out loud music from car windows, a general societal tendency to be obsessed with, or oblivious to, loud objects, like lawn mowers, jet skis, motorcycles.
Noise, Pride, and the Other Capitals
I have a couple of reasons to campaign for Noise’s enrollment among the capital sins. First of all, Noise has a natural place among the capital sins. It smoothly intertwines with them, just like Envy is often found in Lust and Gluttony co-habitates with Sloth.
For instance, the inner chatter of the first stage of Noise often flows into the second stage of Noise where it produces seriously sinful thoughts. Relatively innocent and wandering thoughts tend to find themselves at the doorstep of some lusty, naked blonde who craves our sexual favors for some inexplicable reason. Or they find themselves imagining that someone has wronged us and producing visions of the revenge we’ll take.
Noise also tends to produce the type of Pride known as vainglory. The talker, for instance, is a person who wants another person to hear his inner chatter. The loud talker (one of the most annoying manifestation of Noisiness) is a person who wants anyone within earshot to hear it. The person with a loud stereo wants others to hear what he’s listening to. They’re all attempts to draw attention to oneself.
Some forms of Noise also seem to be closely related to Gluttony. As a youngster, I would often listen to rock music at extremely high decibels, not so much so others could hear it, but so I could suck the pounding beat of the music into my heart until I rocked back and forth, feeling the beat against my ribs. Me absorbed in me, hearing nothing but the beat in me, like the glutton wholly preoccupied in shoving food down his throat.
Manifestations and Max Picard
In order to be considered a capital sin, I suppose manifestations of the disposition must be reasonably pervasive. I like to think that’s the reason Noise didn’t make the earliest list of capital sins by Evagrius, John Cassian, and Gregory the Great. Though these men were no doubt acquainted with noise in the great metropolitan areas of the late Roman Empire and the dawn of the Dark Ages, those times didn’t know the pervasive sense of noise that contaminates modern life.
Max Picard, a twentieth-century philosopher and hater of noise, observed the historical uniqueness of the modern world’s artificial and non-stop noise, which, for him, was exemplified by the radio: “Radio has occupied the whole space of silence. There is no silence any longer. Even when the radio is turned off, the radio-noise is so amorphous that it seems to have no beginning and no end; it is limitless.”
As many are beginning to realize, Noise today has become a non-stop nuisance. You can’t go or be anywhere without hearing the roar of music or machinery.
In this, incidentally, Noise reveals that it’s a particularly-twisted type of capital sin. It’s the only sin that can be foisted on the innocent. No other capital sin can be forced on you—Anger comes closest, but even this sin is avoided by the holiest people, regardless of provocation. Noise in today’s world is analogous to forced gluttony. If you can imagine getting food crammed down your throat, with the result that you feel sluggish and dull, then you can imagine the havoc pervasive noise wreaks on the person who seeks the quiet life.
After having the priests of Baal slaughtered, Elijah fled Jezebel’s wrath to Mt. Sinai and waited for the word of the Lord. “A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord—but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake—but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was fire—but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound,” a “still and small” breeze, and then the Lord spoke, “Elijah, why are you here?”
Although there are occasions when God uses loud or bright means of communicating—as when he spoke to Moses to the accompaniment of thunder and lightening—He seems to prefer the quiet, inauspicious route, as seen in His approach to Elijah and in His nativity.
If God speaks in the quiet, quiet people are more-likely to hear Him. Conversely, noisy people are less likely to hear Him.
This is probably the most important reason I think of Noisiness as a capital sin. Noise tends to create a sinful disposition because it extinguishes God from the heart. If God speaks to the quiet heart and mind, the noisy person is ill-disposed to hear His whispering, thereby preventing God from entering his soul. The result is a soul disposed toward sin because it simply isn’t inclined to follow the Word it can’t hear.
Noisiness also tends to block out all things outside one’s self, not just God. People, the chirping of birds, the rustle of leaves—all things that might nudge a person out of his self-occupation, which could in turn lead him back to God, are walled away.
In fact, the poster child in my campaign to make Noise a new capital sin will be the young adult with headphones. This person is taking a visible, tangible, step toward excluding all other things, except those things that he willingly invites by taking off his headset. The person who loves their headphones is a person wrapped in a manifestation of Noisiness that walks hand-in-hand with the form of Pride known as narcissism, the tendency to find joy in nothing but oneself.
Silence: The Eighth Capital Virtue
The Church has always been quick to point out the remedies for capital sins, usually by pointing to the virtuous dispositions that defeat each of the sins. Meekness combats Anger, Diligence thwarts Sloth, Temperance defeats Gluttony, and, of course, Humility, the queen of the virtues, is the opposite of Pride, the king of vice.
Noisiness, too, has a virtuous disposition that defeats it. It’s called Silence. Just as Noisiness refers to the inner disposition toward noise, and not primarily to its outer manifestations that plague modern life, Silence refers to an inner disposition. In this regard, the best description I’ve ever read of Silence was provided by John Senior in The Restoration of Christian Culture:
Silence is not just the absence of noise any more than peace is the absence of war. It is rather a positive and difficult accomplishment, a state of justice in the soul in which according to the classical formulation stretching back to Plato, each part receives its due in the performance of its proper function—the passions to give affective force in accomplishing the dictates of the will, the will to execute the commands of reason and reason to receive the truth; truth from without in abstracting essences from sense-particulars, truth from within in recognizing principles, and truth from above in obedience to grace. All that in the single word, ausculta—“hear”.
These words not only describe Silence. They magnify the reasons I’m campaigning to make Noisiness a capital sin. In Silence, the heart and mind are put in order, are “returned to their proper function.” In Silence, the passions are put to the service of the will, which in turn serves reason, which in turn serves truth, which is ultimately found in God. Noisiness is the opposite of Silence, and the important virtues of Silence are extinguished in the Noisy man.
With this in mind, I guess I’d be tempted to make my campaign goal a little loftier. Instead of characterizing Noise as merely another capital sin, I’ll campaign to have it recognized as the worst of the capital sins in the modern world, second only to Pride. Narcissism and Noise: The Consuls of Contemporary Culture. The alliteration rings nicely.
The Campaign Has Started
Fishing, hunting, and golf have become hugely popular in the past few years. I’ve been told that other activities customarily performed in the quiet—such as mushrooming, hiking, and bird watching—are also on the rise. Why? There are lots of possible answers, but all these things have one thing in common: They offer a sanctuary from noise.
Whether we realize it or not, we are God’s creatures and are therefore called to hear God. If God speaks in the quiet, like He did to Elijah, His creatures naturally tend to desire the quiet. Because it doesn’t occur to most people that they have an existential need to be in quietness, I suspect they’re unwittingly inclining toward activities that provide a reason to get themselves there.
This throng of people unwittingly clamoring for the quiet leads me to think it might be an opportune time to start the campaign. They’re a natural contingency; they just need to understand why they’re yearning for quiet spots. I also think I’ve found allies in thinkers who have been writing articles about the plague of noise in modern culture. I also have a great poster child in the young adult with the headphones. Now all I need is a little funding and some air time.
Now, can I advertise over the radio without turning Mr. Picard over in his grave?
Author's note: Drafted about ten years ago. You'll forgive any anachronisms that have sneaked into it. My attitude toward headphones, incidentally, has softened considerably. With reservations, I find them preferable to the loud talker, leaf blower, and other forms of auditory rape.
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Texting is the nifty tool that has gotten out of control. It’s perfect to convey messages with little content (“I’m on my way,” “Thanks for the reminder,” “Happy birthday,” etc.), not to carry on conversations.
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