The Eighth Deadly Sin: Fastidiousness

Everyone knows about the seven deadly sins. The dire consequences that can result from them are well documented. Each is sufficient to send a soul to Hell for all eternity, and all lead to corruption and death. However, there is another sin that goes unnoticed in comparison with the Big Seven. I call it the sin of fastidiousness. The very root of the word brings out its disagreeable qualities. “Fastidiousness” derives from the Latin and Middle English for “disgust,” “arrogance,” “tedium” and “scorn.”

Putting together various definitions of the term, we have the following noteworthy features:

A fastidious person tends to be

Overly Meticulous
Having high and often capricious standards
Difficult to please / quick to find fault / exacting
Excessively demanding / fussy / particular /delicate / scrupulous
Excessively sensitive with respect to taste, propriety or clothing style
Excessively concerned with cleanliness or tidiness
Having complex nutritional requirements (This comes from biology, but it could equally well apply to a certain kind of fastidious person.)

Like all sins, there is something excessive about being too fastidious about things. It is true that there are times and situations where we want meticulous people to take pains over every little detail of their work. We want fastidious surgeons who are concerned with cleanliness, and pilots who pay attention to flight routines and check lists. But as a sin, fastidiousness is a kind of excess of care or scrupulosity.

It is a shame to see people complaining of never being able to do anything or go anywhere because they have to clean the house or walk the dog. The house can wait, and dogs do not require servants. Another example is the person so concerned about germs that it becomes impossible to travel anywhere. “I would love to go, but there are too many germs” expresses a fastidiousness that gets in the way of living a full life. While keeping in mind that some prudence in life is necessary, it is a sin to see people thwart themselves because of imagined rules and complex personal rituals.

I remember my son loving the beach in California when he was little, but how he did not want to go there when he was older because there was ‘too much sand’ on the beach and it ‘got between one’s toes.’ How disgusting! However, if you are going to let a little thing like sand between your toes stop you from going to the beach, how much more impoverished is your life than if you were not prevented from doing so by purely imaginary blocks. The main problem with fastidiousness is that it puts the brakes on life.

The last years of Howard Hughes’ life provide an extreme example of this trait. His stellar career in aeronautics degenerated into hypochondria. He ended up living on the top floor of a Las Vegas hotel avoiding all possible contact with germs. He never left his room. In cases like this, fastidiousness merges with obsessive-compulsive syndrome. Of course, not all fastidious persons are so extreme, but the trait does circumscribe a person’s life. It is not wise to let one’s ad hoc personal preferences prevent the taking up of new pursuits and activities.

What is at the root of fastidiousness? I conjecture that fear lies behind it, the fear of change, and ultimately of death. Howard Hughes tried to cheat death by living a germ free life; but, of course, he died anyway. Perhaps it is the same impulse that leads to complex religious rules of living. The Romans were known to be extremely scrupulous about the observance of the traditional sacrifices. They would not act without taking the ‘omens’. To fail to do so involves pollution. So perhaps fastidiousness is also connected with notions of ‘purity.’ To break the rules, to let the sand run between your toes, feels like contacting some sort of ritual impurity.

Fastidiousness is experienced as ‘the way that things must be’. Fastidious persons have no idea that this trait hampers and circumscribes the flow and development of their lives. It prevents them from doing all sorts of things that might enrich them. For example, by making cleanliness the touch stone of choice, valuable experiences will tend to be considered off limits. Take wilderness camping. If one finds disgusting the idea of performing natural bodily functions in the bushes or behind trees, then it will be much more difficult to experience the sublimity of nature and the joys of true solitude.

In conclusion, it is only fair to point out that the sin of fastidiousness is not, in most cases, a moral sin. I doubt that anyone goes to hell for being fastidious. It is, rather, a sin whose punishment does not have to wait until the next life. The punishment is to live a cramped and narrow life, from which the fullness and range of human experience is excluded for no good reason. That is the sin of fastidiousness.

  1. Deadlier sin is to impose fastidiousness on children. How many blown relationships over messy bedrooms? Let the kids live!

  2. We surely nearly all indulge in some of the 7 Deadly Sins now and again in life. However if one or more become a ‘way of life’ then one’s own flourishing as a human being is threatened. Where fastidiousness is concerned it is surely necessary to employ it on occasions when the task in hand demands the highest possible possible standards, and Jeff Mason seems to accept that. However abuse of fastidiousness can result in a psycho-pathological condition and that is what has been described in this definition of fastidiousness. It seems that a similar case could be made for excessive and unnatural Altruism, Philanthropy, Love, Benevolence, and Generosity; in fact almost anything taken to self consuming excess is bad. To describe any of these behaviour patterns taken to the extreme is not to describe them as they function in normality and this I think is what Jeff Mason has done here.

    There is nothing wrong with a bit of fastidiousness here and there and such is the case with the Deadly Sins. I am wondering if Jeff Mason has been unfortunate enough to cross swords with a fastidious psychopath, leading to his exaggerated definition of this particular behaviour pattern.

  3. To be sure, the ultra-clean are so often a bit crazy. But one man’s neat freak is another’s slob. And, there is a very real satisfaction to be taken in ordering one’s living space. Done and redone on a daily basis, cleaning may be one of our most elemental artistic activities. See “Living in Glass Houses: Decoration, Neatness and the Art of Domesticity,” in INTIMUS: Interior Design Theory Reader.

  4. I’m a fastidious person, although I would describe myself as scrupulous or conscientious. I find your saying that my form of being is sinful to be preachy and self-righteous on your part. Generally, fastidious people receive a lot of put-downs because they are not the life of the party, but I am surprised to find the same attitude in a philosophy blog. A lot of great philosophers strike me as having been extremely fastidious: look at Spinoza’s Ethics or Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.

  5. This argument is from a christian point of view and does not reflect my religious beliefs.

    I am currently a senior in high school so I can clearly see where Justapedn is coming from, but i agree with Don Bird simply for the reason that Jesus died for our sins. God does not seek perfection nor does he expect it. There is a difference between committing a fastidious act and living fastidiously, e.g. wanting your house to be meticulously clean the day your having company over isn’t the same as needing your house to be spotless for everyday living. What I’m trying to say is having something control your life whether it be a substance or way of living is sinful, but then again can one ever truly know sobriety without knowing addiction?

  6. This is not philosophy. This is calling a debilitating, tragic mental disorder a “deadly sin”. Which in turns is an unspeakably despicable thing to do. Sick. After OCD (a severe anxiety disorder) and OCPD (a tragic personality disorder), which mental illness is next on your list as deadly sin #9? Social Phobia? Anorexia? Is this article a joke? Doesn’t seem to have been April Fools’ Day.

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