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.

Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

I am excruciatingly sensitive to noise: I always carry earplugs and fantasize about living in the middle of the woods. Is the problem with me or with the world?

As a misophone [“hater of sounds”], I’m in pretty good company. Kant hated noise, as did Proust, Kafka, and Darwin—and even, ironically, Wagner. Kant fled his lodgings on account of a crowing rooster, and Proust went so far as to line his bedroom with cork. Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus secluded themselves in large private parks, and had only to contend with the baby-like cries of hedgehogs and maybe the murderous screams of vixens. The sounds of nature, I find, are always more bearable: I onced toured Cophenhagen Zoo—the only thing open on a Monday—and noted that the most disturbing cries came from the human children.

Young children scream and cry all the time because they haven’t yet learnt how to read. That’s how I’d be without books.

The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) wrote an essay, On Noise, in which he linked misophonia with intellect and creativity:

Certainly there are people, nay, very many, who will smile at [my predicament], because they are not sensitive to noise; it is precisely these people, however, who are not sensitive to argument, thought, poetry or art, in short, to any kind of intellectual impression: a fact to be assigned to the coarse quality and strong texture of their brain tissues.

Schopenhauer railed hardest against the cracking of whips in narrow resounding streets (the 19th century equivalent of revving motorbikes): “Hammering, the barking of dogs, and the screaming of children are abominable; but it is only [his emphasis] the cracking of a whip that is the true murderer of thought.” To him, the cracking of whips was all the more unbearable for being unnecessary and, worse than unnecessary, useless.

Not every sound is noise. I enjoy certain natural sounds such as birds singing, a stream burbling, or waves lapping or breaking; but not, say, an air conditioner humming (unless it is very hot outside), children crying, or people shouting or talking without saying anything useful, interesting, or amusing. If I believe that something is important or meaningful or beautiful, the sound that it makes is much less likely to constitute noise; and contrariwise if I think that it is ugly or meaningless or destructive. Noise, then, is whatever I don’t think is worth hearing, and exists on a spectrum. In the final analysis, it is whatever ends up dissipating rather than concentrating or conserving my energies.

For Schopenhauer, genius is precisely this: the ability of the mind to concentrate itself on a single point and object. But as soon as this bunched-up mind is interrupted or distracted or dispersed, it is no better than an ordinary mind. It is, says Schopenhauer, as with a large diamond, which, if shattered, loses most of its value; or as with an army, which, if dispersed, loses most of its power. It is not merely a matter of genius but also of happiness, because, as every creative person knows, there is no happiness greater than that of the mind at play. Aristotle famously conceived of God, the traditional fount of all reason, as a mind that turns blissfully upon itself. In contrast, people who are too frightened to put two and two together, or are unable to, use noise to help occupy and numb their minds (see my related post on the psychology of music in restaurants). 

Was Schopenhauer being fanciful in linking misophonia with intellect and creativity? In recent years, researchers at Northwestern University have found that real-world creativity (although not, interestingly, academic test scores) may be associated with a reduced ability to filter “irrelevant” sensory information. “Leaky” sensory gating may help our brains integrate ideas that are outside the focus of our attention and thereby promote associative and creative thinking. But if these extraneous ideas are, well, noise, it can also cripple us. The geniotic brain is like a high-compression engine, which knocks if fuelled with lower octane gasoline, i.e. nonsense. Even if he might have overstated his case, Schopenhauer, it seems, was on to something.

There was, however, one singular genius who was not disturbed by noise: Seneca, the famous Stoic philosopher and infamous tutor and adviser to the mad emperor Nero, who, in the end, obliged his hapless mentor to commit suicide.

In my next post, I will look at Seneca’s timeless advice for coping with noise.

References

  • Schopenhauer, A (1851): Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol 2, Ch 30, On Din and Noise.
  • Zabelina DL et al (2015): Creativity and sensory gating indexed by the P50: Selective versus leaky sensory gating in divergent thinkers and creative achievers. Neuropsychologia 69:77-84.

Is Psychiatry the New ‘Opium of the People’?

Picture credits: Atlantic Books/James Davies/Neel Burton

Dr James Davis is a medical anthropologist and trained psychotherapist who is perhaps best known for his book of 2013: Cracked: Why Psychiatry Is Doing More Harm Than Good.

Cracked is a forensic examination of our increasing reliance on psychiatry and psychiatric drugs, in which Davis essentially argues that psychiatry ‘in the name of helping others, has actually been helping itself’.

His latest book, Sedated (March 2021), is broader in scope, looking at the social and political underpinnings that facilitated and enabled this state of affairs.

Since the early 1970s, the number of mental disorders listed in the DSM, the American classification of mental disorders, has risen from 106 to 370. Antidepressant prescribing in the U.K. surged from 25 million prescriptions per year in 2002 to nearly 75 million in 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has only accelerated the trend—while more benign and empowering psychological treatments are ever harder to access.

In Sedated, Davis puts it to us that psychiatric interventions, including superficial psychological interventions principally aimed at returning people to productivity, merely create the illusion of care while leaving the structural causes of distress intact. More than that, by shifting the blame or responsibility onto the sufferer, they serve to obscure these structural causes and, thereby, to preserve and entrench the neoliberal status quo.

The interventions favoured by the government, including even the psychological interventions, are those that involve internal rather than external change, because internal change promises to increase economic productivity and so cost-effectiveness, which is the preferred criterion for endorsing one treatment over another. If we are suffering, we are simply to stiffen ourselves to the social problems created by successive policies aimed solely at the bottom line.

Karl Marx famously said that ‘religion is the opium of the people’. The social institutions responsible for understanding and managing suffering are critical to the preservation of vested interests. With the waning of religion in the West, priests may have been supplanted by psychiatrists. The idea that a pill can make us happy ought to be inherently suspicious but fits perfectly with our materialistic and mechanistic worldview.

Thus, according to the prevailing narrative, suffering is rooted in individual rather than social or existential causes, while well-being is whatever best serves the economic imperative. Behaviours that disrupt economic activity are labelled as mental disorder, and this mental disorder presents yet another money-making opportunity.

If so many of us are ill, if a quarter of us are taking a psychiatric drug, this is because our suffering, having been stripped of its deeper purpose and meaning, is no longer being heeded. It is no longer being interpreted as a vital call to change, or to protest against harmful or inhibiting conditions. 

On the contrary, once we identify as mentally ill, we become disempowered in the belief that the problem lies solely with us, or, more precisely, with misfiring chemicals in our brains. While we are at the clinic, we are not at the barricades.

And while we work to grow the economy, we are not working to grow ourselves.

This is very big picture stuff from James Davies, who weaves our worst fears into a coherent, compelling, and damning narrative.

Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of Madness.

© Neel Burton

In Greek myth, King Minos, to consolidate his position on the Cretan throne, asked the god Poseidon to send him a snow-white bull as a sign of divine favour. But instead of sacrificing the superb bull as he ought to have done, he decided to keep it for his stud farm. Poseidon punished Minos by making his wife Pasiphaë lust for the white bull.

Pasiphaë pleaded with the master craftsman Daedalus to build her a hollow cow in which to hide out with the bull. Daedalus’ cow seemed so true to life that the bull mounted it, and some time later Pasiphaë gave birth to the Minotaur, a monster with the head of a bull and the body of a man. 

Pasiphaë nursed the Minotaur as a calf, but, as he grew, he became increasingly violent and even began eating people. Fearing that his subjects would rise against him, Minos sought to contain his stepson in a series of ever stronger cages; but after he broke out of the strongest cage, he asked Daedalus to build a maze of tunnels beneath his palace. The Labyrinth, as it came to be called, was so intricate that even Daedalus, having built it, struggled to escape from it. The Labyrinth served Minos well, enabling him to intimidate and dispose of his enemies while also hiding and feeding the Minotaur—who now would eat nothing but human flesh.

Minos, Minotaur aside, was a great king. Under his rule, Crete prospered and grew into a naval power. When his eldest son Androgeus came of age, he travelled to Athens to partake in the Panathenaic Games. Somehow Androgeus died, or was killed, and Minos held Athens responsible for his loss. In reparation, and as the price for peace, he required that King Aegeus send him a tribute, every nine years, of seven of the most noble youths and seven of the most virtuous maidens of Athens. These unfortunates, drawn by lots, would be sent to Crete in a ship with black sails, paraded before the people, and cast into the Labyrinth.

When the time came for the third nine-yearly tribute to Crete, Theseus, the son and heir of King of Aegeus of Athens, volunteered to take the place of one of the fourteen unfortunates and confront the Minotaur. He sailed away in the ship with black sails, promising his ailing father that, if successful, he would return on white sails. As he was paraded through the streets of the Cretan capital, Minos’ daughter Ariadne saw him and immediately fell in love with him. He and the other Athenians were locked up in a dungeon to await morning, when they would be fed to the Minotaur.

That evening, Ariadne begged Daedalus, until he relented, to tell her the secret of the Labyrinth. Under the cover of darkness, she ran past the guards to Theseus and slipped him a sword and a clew of crimson thread. She instructed him to tie the thread at the mouth of the Labyrinth and unfurl the clew as he went along, ‘always straight, always down, and never left or right.’ Before leaving, she made him promise that, if he came out alive, he would take her with him and marry her.

As Theseus descended into the dark Labyrinth, the air became putrid and he began tripping over what must have been human remains. He could hear the thumping of the Minotaur, but could not locate him until he could also hear his breathing. He may never have seen him had it not been for the blood-tinged ivory of his eyes and horns. With his head down, the Minotaur made to gore him, but he leapt in Cretan style over his horns, rolled over, drew out his sword, and drove it up to where he imagined he had his heart. He then picked up what remained of the clew and wound it back up to find his way out of the Labyrinth… and into the waiting arms of Ariadne.

In the early twentieth century, the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans working on Crete uncovered the existence of a complex civilization whose people he called the Minoans after the mythical King Minos. Minoan Crete flourished from around 3000 to 1500 BCE and came to revolve around a series of palace complexes, the largest of which was at Knossos in the north of the island. The palace at Knossos covered an area of around six acres (or three football pitches) and contained some 1,300 rooms connected by various corridors and stairways, leading Evans to speculate that the mythical Labyrinth was none other than the palace itself. Pottery and frescoes unearthed by Evans and his team featured bulls and bull-leaping, and the most common symbol on palace walls was the labrys, or double axe—and it has been suggested, including by Evans himself, that “Labyrinth” might mean something like “Sanctuary of the Double Axe”.

Although the Labyrinth was clearly a branching, multicursal maze, it has long been represented, for example on Cretan coins, as a single-path, unicursal maze in which it is impossible to get lost. As a result, the word “labyrinth”, although essentially synonymous with “maze”, has come to connote unicursality, whereas the word “maze” has come to connote multicursality. 

In his Natural History, the naturalist Pliny the Elder (d. 79 CE) describes four ancient labyrinths—in Egypt, Crete, Lemnos, and Italy—all of which seem to have been enclosed multicursal complexes, confirming that this is the ancient, original meaning of the word “labyrinth”. 

In the Histories, the historian Herodotus (d. 425 BCE) claims that the Egyptian labyrinth surpassed even the pyramids in scale and ambition:

I myself have seen [the Egyptian labyrinth], and no words can tell its wonders: the sum of all that the Greeks have built and wrought would be a matter of less labour and cost than was this single labyrinth…

Far from a mere folly, the labyrinth is, like the serpent, the flood, and the trinity, something of a Jungian archetype, found in prehistoric rock drawings at, for example, Pontevedra in Galicia (Spain), Val Camonica in Lombardy (Italy), and Rocky Valley in Cornwall (England).

In medieval Europe, cathedrals sometimes contained a labyrinth traced out in the nave from contrasting paving stones. Those that have survived, such as the striking one in Chartres Cathedral, can still be walked today. Cathedral labyrinths were not simply ludic or ornamental but represented the spiritual path to God and provided a substitute for going on pilgrimage. Cathedral labyrinths were therefore unicursal, as were the first hedge mazes, which evolved from Renaissance knot gardens.

As I argue in my new book, The Meaning of Myth, mazes and labyrinths are in fact spiritual tools. Multicursal mazes such as the Cretan Labyrinth may have been built not only to guard against gold diggers but also to deter or trap evil spirits, including the Minotaur. Unicursal labyrinths on the other hand may have been traced to guide rituals or dances. The circular unicursal labyrinth symbolizes the cosmos, completeness, and unity, and, by extension, the spiritual path or journey of life. More than a simple garden, it is a removed, secluded, and liminal space that serves to calm and concentrate the mind—which is why labyrinths, often simply mown into a summer field, are increasingly to be found in therapeutic settings such as hospitals and hospices. Labyrinths, especially single-path, unicursal ones, serve not only as a thing of beauty but also and above all as an aid to meditation and mindfulness.

To walk the labyrinth is to re-enter the womb and travel inward, and to come back out is a kind of rebirth. Ariadne’s crimson thread is thus an umbilical cord that ties Theseus to the world while he undertakes the hero’s journey into the underworld and slays the monster. To escape the Labyrinth, Theseus simply followed the clew, or clue. This revised spelling of “clew”, “a ball of thread or yarn”, underwent a sense shift from around 1600 in reference to Theseus and the Minotaur, giving us the modern word “clue” and, more recently, “clueless”.

In myth, snakes, or serpents, are often connected to seers and oracles.

Teiresias is the most notorious seer in Greek myth. As a young man, he came upon a pair of coupling serpents on Mount Cithaeron, and, in disgust, struck them with his staff. This offended the goddess Hera, who turned him into a woman. Teiresias spent the next seven years as a priestess of Hera, and even married and had children in that time. After seven years as a woman, Teiresias once again chanced upon a pair of coupling serpents, but, this time, gave them a wide berth. As a result, Hera released him from his sentence.

Later, Zeus and Hera dragged Teiresias into an argument about who has the more pleasure in sex: woman, as Zeus claimed; or man, as Hera claimed. Teiresias averred that, “Of ten parts, a man enjoys only one.” For this, Hera struck him blind, but Zeus compensated him with the gift of foresight and a lifespan of seven generations.

The ancients took divination very seriously. Leaders would consult an oracle or seer before any major undertaking. Aristotle, that great logical and scientific mind, also wrote a lesser known treatise entitled On Divination in Sleep. Oracles were considered superior to seers because the literal word of a god. They were, however, difficult to consult, each with their own seasons and conditions, such that most of the demand for divination was met by seers like Teiresias.

The oracular tradition may have originated with the oracle of the Egyptian goddess Wadjet at Per-Wadjet (modern-day Desouk, near Alexandria). Wadjet was depicted as a snake, usually an Egyptian cobra. Or she was depicted as a snake with the head of a woman, or a woman with the head of a snake, or two snake heads. She nursed the infant Horus, and protected Ra by coiling herself upon his head. The snake goddess figurines excavated in the Minoan palace at Knossos may have been connected to Wadjet, as is the uraeus, the stylized upright cobra used as a symbol of sovereignty and divine authority, and mounted, among others, onto the crowns and masks of the pharaohs—including, famously, Tutankhamun.

But why a snake, or snakes? As I argue in my new book, The Meaning of Myth, snake venom is both a deadly poison and an antidote, and also has many other medicinal properties—having been used, for example, to control pain or stem haemorrhage. According to the Book of Numbers, Moses erected a bronze serpent onto a pole to protect the Israelites from the bites of the “fiery serpents” sent by God in punishment. The same archetype recurs in the two symbols of the medical profession: the more traditional Rod of Asclepius, god of healing, with one snake; and the more commercial Rod of Hermes, or Caduceus, with two snakes. The rod or staff represents control over the dual nature of the snake, or the Moses-like harnessing of the powers of the snake.

In addition, snakes are close to the ground and shed their skins, making them symbols of the nourishing earth, the underworld, rebirth, immortality and creativity—and, by extension, of culture and wisdom. The ouroboros [Greek, “tail eater”], an icon of a serpent or dragon eating its own tail, originated in Egypt and later transferred into the Greek mystery cults, Gnosticism, and Hermeticism. The ouroboros symbolizes the circle of life, and maybe also sexual intercourse, with the tail representing the male organ and the mouth the female one.

The most notorious of snakes is perhaps the one in Eden, at the foot of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. According to the Book of Genesis, the serpent is the most subtle of all the beasts in God’s creation, and, like Adam and Eve, has the ability to speak and reason. The only other animal that speaks in the Pentateuch is Balaam’s ass, and then only because God opened its mouth. Seduced by the snake, Eve, and then Adam, ate of the tree, and “the eyes of them both were opened.”