How to Cope with Noise

Seneca’s timeless advice for dealing with noise. 

Odysseus and the Sirens, by John William Waterhouse. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In my previous post, Hate Noise? You Might Be a Genius, I discussed the relationship between sensitivity to sound and creative thinking. Many great minds, from Kant to Kafka, and Darwin to Proust, are known to have been atrociously sensitive to sound. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) in particular wrote an essay, On Noise, in which he linked misophonia [“the hatred of sounds”] with intellect and creativity—an association that modern science seems to be confirming.

There was, however, one singular genius, often mentioned in the same breath as Socrates, who managed to make his peace with noise: Seneca (c. 4 BCE-65 CE), the famous Stoic philosopher and infamous tutor and advisor to the mad emperor Nero. In the end, Nero forced his hapless mentor to commit suicide, which Seneca did unflinchingly according to the model that had been set by Socrates.

If you think that Manhattan is noisy, that is nothing to Ancient Rome, with its criers and hawkers, chariot wheels on uneven roads, and lack of window glass let alone double glazing and other soundproofing. Not even Seneca, who has been described as the first-ever investment banker and might have been the richest man in the Roman Empire, could insulate himself from the hubbub.

In the Letters to Lucilius, which he wrote in a (successful) bid to become immortal in the months leading to his death, Seneca claims to be living in lodgings right over a bathing establishment: “So picture to yourself the assortment of sounds, which are strong enough to make me hate my very powers of hearing!” He paints a vivid picture of the soundscape and, by extension, of first century Roman life: the grunts of the weightlifter, the slaps and pummelling of the masseur, the splashing of the enthusiast who bombs into the pool, the ceaseless chatter of the hair-plucker who makes his victims yell…

Despite the din, Seneca remains able to read and write, assuring Lucilius that “this racket means no more to me than the sound of waves or falling water.” Still, he recognises that some noises are worse than others. Intermittent noises, he says, are more upsetting than steady ones. Spoken words are more distracting than mere sounds, in that they demand our attention: compared to speech, even the saw-sharpener is easier to bear. Yet Seneca is able to force his mind to concentrate and “keep it from straying to things outside itself.”

More than that, Seneca sees this as a test of his Stoicism, mental fortitude, and even virtue. Ultimately, he reasons, noise only disturbs us insofar as it resonates with our own emotional turmoil. If our mind is still, no amount of noise can unsettle it; but if our mind is angry or fearful, or burning with greed or envy, no amount of silence can still it: “For of what benefit is a quiet quarter or neighbourhood if our emotions are in an uproar?”

In Virgil, as Aeneas flees burning Troy, he says, “I, whom of yore no dart could cause to flee… Now shake at every sound, and fear the air, Both for my child and for the load I bear.”

We tend to associate sleeping with resting. But unless we are able to still our mind by the use of reason, the night merely changes the form of our worries. Real tranquillity, in contrast, “is the state reached by a rational mind when it is at rest.”

For if we have sincerely retired… and have scorned outward attractions, then… no outward thing will distract us; no music of men or of birds can interrupt good thoughts, when they have once become steadfast and sure. The mind which starts at words or at chance sounds is unstable and has not yet withdrawn into itself; it contains within itself an element of anxiety and rooted fear, and this makes one a prey to care… You may therefore be sure that you are at peace with yourself, when no noise reaches you, when no word shakes you out of yourself, whether it be of flattery or threat.

I think there is a lot of truth in that. When overwhelmed by noise, I find it very helpful to ask myself, “Is my annoyance more to do with me or my prejudices than with the noise itself?” But I would contest that even if we are able to concentrate in a din, our concentration is less profound or complete than it would otherwise have been, and more wearing too.

Seneca readily admits that, having tested ourself, is it simpler to avoid the uproar, or block it out, just as Odysseus blocked his ears and had the Argonauts row faster to get past the sirens. According to lore, the sirens were fated to die if someone ever escaped their singing, and after Odysseus were never again to be seen or heard.