Of Sound Mind – Seneca On Noise
In our world of non-stop noise, how can Stoic thinking help? 2,000 years ago Seneca wrote a very witty letter (Letter 56) about living above a noisy Roman bath house. It vividly paints his struggle to keep tranquil amid life’s din.
“Here I am with a babel of noise going on all about me, I have lodgings right over a public bathhouse. Now imagine to yourself every kind of sound that can make one weary of one’s years.”
He wasn’t exaggerating, the Roman city was astonishingly noisy:
“Show me the apartment that lets you sleep! In this city sleep costs millions: carts clattering through the winding streets, curses hurled at some herd stuck in a traffic-jam would rouse a dozing seal or an Emperor.” (Juvenal Satire 3)
Seneca lists the noises he has to put up with: wagons, fountains, tools, pipes and flutes, a grunting, hissing weight-lifter, a slapping, pummeling masseuse, and the piercing yell of the barber’s clients as he plucks their armpits. His gripes continue:
“If on top of this some ball player comes along and starts shouting out the score, that’s the end! Then add someone starting up a brawl, and someone else caught thieving, and the man who likes the sound of his voice in the bath, and the people who leap into the pool with a tremendous splash.”
Then there is the lure of drink and sausage sellers and the sound of a man reciting poetry to distract him from his work. The Romans believed that intellectuals needed quiet to concentrate. Laws were created to ban noisy workshops from setting up near to professors.
[Indeed many later thinkers have written of their hatred of noise – most notably Schopenhauer who became so enraged at the cracking of horse-whips in the street that he devoted a whole philosophical essay to it (On Noise) ranting: “it paralyzes the brain, rends the thread of reflection, and murders thought.” Among many other Kafka, Proust and Wagner all demanded silence to create. A 2015 study has indicated that creative thinkers have a ‘leaky sensory gate’ – which lets them connect ideas in original ways, but can turn a ticking clock into a form of torture.]
But Seneca was not among them, and brags about his Stoic ability live with such a racket:
“You must be made of iron, you may say, or else hard of hearing if your mind is unaffected by all this babel of discordant noises around you, when continual ‘good morning’ greetings were enough to finish off the Stoic Chrysippus! But I swear I no more notice all this roar of noise than I do the sound of waves or falling water.”
He visualizes the noisy bath-house as an analogy for life:
“The program of life is the same as that of a bathing establishment, a crowd, or a journey: sometimes things will be thrown at you, sometimes they will strike you by accident.”
He thinks people disturbed by noise (or life) simply lack self-control. Epictetus uses the bath-house to practice the rehearsal of difficulty – imagining the pushing, splashing and swearing that he is likely to find there to help him cope:
“In life some things are unpleasant and difficult…Do you not bear uproar, and noise, and other disagreeable circumstances? But, comparing these with the merit of the spectacle, you endure them. Have you not received faculties to support every event?”
Seneca goes on to outline his view of the ‘sound mind’ – one free of noise!
“The only true serenity is the one which represents the free development of a sound mind….There can be absolute bedlam without so long as there is no commotion within.”
But life always involves noise of some sort– the only total silence is final. Silence can be a punishment from isolation. Conversely, as George Orwell pointed out we often use noise as a form of self-hypnosis in order to avoid uncomfortable thoughts. So even if we can shut off the external noise our inner noise can be as destructive. As Seneca put it:
“What is the good of having silence throughout the neighbourhood if one’s emotions are in turmoil? There is no such thing as “peaceful stillness” except where reason has lulled it to rest.”
But then, just as we are buying in to his argument, he ends with an abrupt about-face:
“This is all very well but isn’t it sometimes a lot simpler just to keep away from the din?” I concede that, and in fact it is the reason why I shall shortly be moving elsewhere. What I wanted was to give myself a test and some practice. Why should I need to suffer the torture any longer than I want to when Ulysses found so easy a remedy for his companions even against the Sirens?” 
So did Seneca fail his test? Not at all, Stoics are not Masochists – why struggle if an ordeal can be avoided? In the 1760s the philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote was also tormented by the noise of river boats and street carriages. Like Seneca he moved, but sadly his new home had a noisy cockerel next door. His neighbour refused to sell it, so Kant hit the road again.
Seneca’s advice is practical and realistic; be aware and keep a check on the unmeaning din (both inner and outer). His ideal ‘sound mind’ is when:
“Noise never reaches you and when voices never shake you out of yourself, whether they be menacing or inviting or just a meaningless hubbub of empty sound all round you.”
So, to put it another way – the wise are of sound mind, but sometimes the wise move house!
The beeswax earplugs in The Odyssey protected the sailors from the tempting Siren-songs. Proust is known to have been a devotee of Quies earplugs.
Jen is a freelance writer and blogs from here: https://obscurantor.wordpress.com/