The struggle to find silence in the ancient monastic world – and now

In our contemporary world, noise pollution has reached dangerous levels.

The World Health Organization has argued that “excessive noise” is a serious threat to human health. Studies have shown that excessive exposure to noise not only causes hearing loss but also leads to heart disease, poor sleep and hypertension.

In some parts of the world, a mysterious “droning sound,” similar to a “a diesel engine idling nearby,” has been described as “torture” for the small percent of the population that can hear it.

I’m a scholar of early Christianity and my research shows that monasticism developed in part because people were seeking the solace of quiet places.

But for them, like us, it was a struggle.

Ancient philosophers on noise

Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca. Peter Paul Rubens
Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers frequently regarded noise as a serious distraction, one that challenged their ability to concentrate.

To give just one example: The Stoic philosopher Seneca described in great detail the noises coming from a bathhouse just below the room where he was writing, expressing his irritation at the distracting “babel” all around him. At the end of his letter, he says he has decided to withdraw to the country for quiet.

Noise and Christian monasticism

There were many reasons why Christian monasticism developed.

Ancient Christian writers, like John Cassian, claimed that the origins of monasticism lay in the examples set by the apostles of Jesus, who gave up everything to follow him.

Some modern scholars have argued that monasticism was a natural development following the early history of persecution of Christians, which shaped a view of suffering as a key way to show one’s dedication to the faith.

While the origins of monasticism are not entirely clear, scholars do know that Christian monks drew upon philosophical views about noise and distraction and, in some cases, chose to leave the cacophony of urban life for the wilderness. Even when they stayed in cities or villages, writings from this time period show that they were seeking a life free from the distractions and burdens of society.

Take, for example, the story of Paul, a young Christian in third-century Egypt, identified by his biographer, Jerome, as “the first hermit.”

Jerome says that Paul “amid thunders of persecution retired to a house at a considerable distance and in a more secluded spot.”