‘Of Sound Mind – Seneca On Noise’ by Jen Farren

Of Sound Mind – Seneca On Noise

Jen Farren

Rembrandt's Philosopher in Meditation

Rembrandt’s Philosopher in Meditation

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?” [1]

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!

[1]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/

Jonathan Newhouse, Stoic CEO of Condé Nast

Jules Evans interviews Jonathan Newhouse CEO of Conde Nast, about his practice of Stoic philosophy….

As part of my continued fascination with how people use ancient philosophies in modern life, I went to interview Jonathan Newhouse, chairman of Conde Nast International, which publishes the non-US editions of magazines like Vogue, GQ, Vanity Fair, Glamour and House and Garden. How, I wondered, did Jonathan follow Stoic philosophy in such an image-focused industry? And how did it help him with the pressures of being born into one of the most affluent and successful families in America? Unlike the stars who adorn his magazine covers, Jonathan is a very private person, and this is the first time he’s talked about his love of Stoicism, but he was kind enough to share his thoughts. 

How did you get into Stoicism?

It was 1999. I ran into Alain de Botton in a restaurant. He was having dinner with a friend of mine. He said he was working on a book of philosophy, and mentioned Seneca, who I’d never read. I went out and brought Seneca’s Letters From a Stoic. And it just blew me away. I found it impeccably logical. That led me on to Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.  I read just about everything I could. Now I usually take one of the Stoic books with me when I travel. I incorporated it into my thinking and it’s shaped the way I think and interact with the world in a very positive way.


What struck me was the irrefutable logic of it. People devote a lot of time and emotional effort to things that are beyond their control – what other people do, how other people react to them, even the weather. And they set themselves up for pain, anxiety, disappointment and fear. The Stoics recognised that it was foolish, or counterproductive, to attach oneself to things that are beyond one’s control, when there are things within one’s control – one’s thoughts, attitudes and moral purpose.

I loved the idea that you could make your goal to live a life of moral purpose. I was very taken with the ethical and moral point-of-view of Stoicism. When you read the Stoics, you often come across the word ‘virtue’. They saw the goal of the wise person as to lead a virtuous life. Today, the word ‘virtue’ is almost never heard, except ironically. If you asked 100 people what their goal was in life, hardly any would say leading a virtuous life.

Can you give some practical examples of how you might use Stoic ideas?

Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic philosopher and emperor of Rome

I found I had a more satisfactory way of dealing with disappointment, opposition…For example, I had children, who are grown up now and in their twenties. Parents care a lot about their children and what they do, and it’s very easy to get upset when they don’t behave as you would wish them to. Stoicism makes you realise you can’t control people, not even your own children. It’s liberating. The essence of Stoicism is that you have to accept what you can’t control. I’d get upset or disappointed when things didn’t go my way or when someone didn’t do what I wanted, but I learnt to step back and say ‘what’s going on? Does it involve my moral purpose?’ If it does, then as a wise person you have a path to follow, which is to follow the path governed by reason and virtue. And if it doesn’t involve your moral attitude, then it’s probably not that important. Let me read you one of my favourite quotes from Marcus Aurelius:

They cannot admire you for intellect. Granted—but there are many other qualities of which you cannot say, “but that is not the way I am made”. So display those virtues which are wholly in your own power—integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity. Do you not see how many virtues you can already display without any excuse of lack of talent or aptitude? And yet you are still content to lag behind.

What he’s saying is you can make your goal to live in a dignified way, a virtuous way based upon reason. It is within your power. How many people do that? Where people get screwed up is there are a lot of things that appear to be in our control – whether we achieve something we want to achieve, whether a relationship works out the way we want. The fact is we can influence them, but ultimately a lot of these things are beyond our control. Even our health.

But isn’t that a heresy in the world of business philosophy, where most people think success is all down to your own efforts. You seem to be saying that some of these things involve fortune and luck.

Fortune and luck play a huge part in everything. Stoicism doesn’t mean passivity – you can care and you can be passionate. Let’s say you’re a writer — your duty is to write the best you can. But it’s out of your control whether your book becomes a bestseller or not. Other people have to buy it, a publisher has to publicise it, maybe you have to get on a TV talk show. But nothing can prevent you from living according to the precepts of Stoicism.

Is it easier to be Stoic when you’re well off?

A lot of things are easier if you’re well-off, and probably a few things aren’t as easy. Marcus Aurelius was emperor of Rome, hugely powerful. And Epictetus was a slave. So I don’t think Stoicism is just a luxury for advantaged people. Any person can learn from it.

Marcus was emperor of Rome, which must have been an incredibly complex and stressful job. You also, in some ways, are at the top of an empire, a media empire, which must also be very complex. Does Stoicism help you in that?

Newhouse with Vogue execs at Milan Fashion Week

I don’t think it impacts how I run the business, to be honest. I don’t look at the business every day and think ‘what’s the Stoic way to do a certain thing’. What it does do is help me manage myself and my own feelings. There’s not very much that disturbs my equanimity. I can have a detachment and calmness in doing what I do. I don’t get offended if someone I do business with lets me down, I just recognise this is the way some people behave. It reminds me of a quote from Marcus Aurelius I was looking at this morning:

Whenever you are offended at someone’s lack of shame, you should immediately ask yourself, ‘is it possible for there to be no shameless people in the world?’ It’s not possible – do not ask for the impossible. This person is just one of the shameless inevitably existing in this world.

If someone is behaving in a rude way, step back and say ‘OK that’s their problem. What’s my responsibility? Mine is to follow the precepts of truth, justice, courage and self-control’. Nothing can prevent you from doing that. If you ask most people, do you think you can achieve your goal, people would say, maybe I will, maybe not. If your goal is to live according to reason and virtue, then that is always achievable. I’d never thought of that.

Did you grow up with a particular religion?

I’m from the US, from the New York area. I grew up as a reformed Jew, with the Judeo-Christian moral precepts that most people are exposed to. I was never a seeker after truth.  I didn’t join cults or experiment with philosophies or sects. I wasn’t particularly looking for some kind of answer.

To what extent is the world of media and fashion in tune with Stoic values?

Not in tune. I don’t think there’s any particular awareness of it. In fact, the zeitgeist has been moving away from Stoic virtues. For example, the Stoics thought humans have the capacity for reason as well as passions. They saw passions as the antithesis to reason and kind of the wrong path. But today we put a great value on emotions, and living your emotions and experiencing them and giving into them. The idea of applying a reasoned approach is not in line with today’s thinking.

And also, you could say that media has led to a culture of external display rather than the idea of inner virtue?

Digital has made possible an incredible explosion of narcissism. Through Facebook and Instagram, people are displaying everything about their personal lives. I like the fact that Stoicism is private. I’ve never felt an interest in proselytizing it. I do, however, sometimes talk to close friends about it. For example, about a year ago, a friend of mine in the US lost his wife in a shooting accident. He was devastated.  I sent him a book of Seneca about consolation. He thanked me for it.  I don’t know if it touched him. But occasionally, when I’ve come across someone who I thought would benefit, I’ve given him a book.

For example, I noticed you stood by John Galliano in that whole furore.

Well, in that case I felt he’d been suffering from severe alcoholism, which is an illness. And he was taking steps to recover. And the right thing to do when someone is sick is to have compassion and to support their recovery.

Going back to the idea of proselytizing – Marcus Aurelius also clearly thought you can’t change people so there was no point trying to do ‘Stoic outreach’. Do you think then that we can’t promote these ideas or values through the media?

Individuals should do what they want. If people feel strongly about it, they should write a book, or talk about it. I have no intention of fighting any battle to spread Stoicism. It’s out there – you can walk into a bookshop and buy Marcus Aurelius. A lot of ancient philosophies have something to offer. What’s happened today, which is a shame, is that when people have problems and suffering, their instinct is to go to a psychiatrist and get a pill. Some misfortunes require medication, but pills aren’t the answer to all our problems.

I do think we should teach a whole range of philosophies in schools. In the 16th or 17th centuries, every educated household had a copy of Seneca in their library. Now it would be less than 1% who’d have a copy. They’ve been neglected.

Have you ever met other people interested in Stoicism?

No, there’s no other person I could discuss this with, apart from Alain de Botton.

Elle MacPherson named her son Aurelius after the author of her favourite book, Aurelius’ Meditations.

You must have met so many people. None of them were into Stoicism? Tom Wolfe for example? Elle MacPherson?

I’ve sat next to Elle at dinner parties. I didn’t realise this was one of her intellectual interests!  For me, it’s a private thing.

That’s quite different from, say, Judaism, where there’s so much emphasis on community.

Well, Stoics don’t all meet in church and worship. The Stoics make mention of God, but the deity does not play a major role. It’s a way of thinking, a philosophy, and you don’t need anyone else to share it with. I’m happy if someone else is interested in it. I’ve occasionally talked to friends about it and they nod and say ‘that’s nice’, but I don’t have friends that I hang out with in a bar and talk about Stoicism.

Do you believe in God?

That’s an interesting question. [Pause]. I guess…is there a God that is looking at every single detail of every life in the universe, you know, if Johnny is praying to pass his biology exam, is God listening to that prayer? I don’t know. To me, the principles that are embodied in Stoicism are akin to God. I’m not sure if God exists, but I prefer to live my life as though He does.

The Stoics believed in a moral universe. Do you?

Well, they’d say it all comes down to reason. They saw their moral values as stemming from reason, which enables us to live in a peaceful and harmonious way.

But they also saw a link between reason and the universe.

Yes they did. You know…I haven’t worked it out. This sounds terrible, perhaps, but I love the idea of God. For me, this philosophy itself is  godlike –  almost like a Higher Power, something greater than my own power, which is puny.

And what about the afterlife?

Well, I think when you’re dead, it’s probably like before you’re born. There’s no consciousness, no pain, no nothing. It’s frightening, but it will happen to all of us, and I can accept it. That’s the way God or Nature made the world, and to protest against it or to feel anguish is foolish and irrational, so why indulge it? You know when you jump into a swimming pool, there’s a moment when you know you’re going to go from one state to another, and then it happens. I think death is something like that. Except you won’t be swimming afterwards. Anyway, Stoicism has made me less afraid of dying.

I left with the impression of a man with a quiet and deep integrity. Of course, I still wondered if the media could perhaps play a role in trying to shape more positive values in our culture, but Jonathan is not alone among Stoics in being wary of proselytizing. Still, occasionally some Stoic philosophy sneaks into one of his family’s magazines – like in 1955, when JD Salinger published Franny and Zooey in the New Yorker. In the story, Zooey scrawls some Epictetus quotes across her school’s blackboards. Good going Zooey.

This article was first published on Jules Evan’s website in October 2013, and is reprinted here with his kind permission. 


‘How Stoicism is Helping to Strengthen My Mind’ by Emma Young

How Stoicism is Helping to Strengthen My Mind

by Emma Young


I knew I had a problem when my work became about me. Researching a story on the upsides of anger for New Scientist magazine, I found myself taking the opportunity to quiz academic experts on topics that were relevant not to the piece, but to my own life. After agreeing to be interviewed for another assignment, an American psychologist who has found that ‘loving-kindness’meditation can improve relationships and boost psychological wellbeing found herself so enthusiastically interrogated, it came across as aggressive. (I winced repeatedly while transcribing the recording of our conversation).

The thing is, I didn’t actually have a problem with anger. And my relationships with my family and friends were pretty good. What I did have was a more general mental ‘weakness’, for want of a better word. I had the kind of mind that would lay awake night after night, worrying about past ‘mistakes’(why didn’t I buy that flat, why did I leave that job, why did I say that to my friend?). I made diet and exercise plans, and abandoned them. I felt stressed out, and irritable, which affected not only me but my husband and my two young boys.

And so, I decided to change. I had a degree in psychology and 20 years’experience as a science and health journalist, so I set out to find strategies that could build a stronger mind. I researched meditation, exercise, diet, military and sporting mental toughness interventions – and also self-talk. And when it came to what I tell myself – and the most useful guidance in how to think – I’ve found that I’m most drawn to Stoicism – and it’s made a real difference.

I contacted the Stoicism Today group, and interviewed a founder member, Donald Robertston, asking him what livingly Stoically means, and how to do it. I’d just spent a few months immersed in the positive psychology literature, and I found what he had to tell me incredibly refreshing. He told me how, in preparation for exams he was about to take, he’d envisage failing, to prepare himself for that genuine possibility. How different this seemed to the ‘go-me!’, positive take on life. And yet, when it comes to things we’d really like in life – to the toughest goals we set for ourselves – of course, failure is a genuine possibility. In fact, I’m sure it happens more often than wild success. That’s certainly been the case for me. Robertson’s approach seemed so much more rational, and less likely to lead to debilitating self-criticism, especially when coupled with the fact, as he explained, that a core Stoic value is that the only things we have real control over are our thoughts and our actions – and that exam success is only partly in our control, because it is also in the ‘hands of fate’.

But if I had clear guidance, now, not to worry about things that are outside my control – whether that’s bad traffic or an ambiguous comment from a friend – I realised I’d also shirked a big responsibility: to be in control of my own thoughts. It felt like a serious challenge. But because I could now slough off the weight of so many pointless and destructive thoughts, I felt I had the mental space to focus on this. Faced with a person seeking a confrontation, for example, I could tell myself: don’t worry about what they’re saying and what they’re thinking, worry about what you’re saying and how you’re behaving. And I do try to, and I do feel this really helps.

Donald Roberston stressed to me that living Stoically is not easy – that it does require constant vigilance and effort, but that effort lessens over time, just as a physical challenge gets easier the fitter you become. I’ve been surprised by how easily I’ve managed to stop myself being upset by  anonymous challenges (like bad traffic, or a delayed flight). I find it harder to control my emotions and thoughts when faced with a person seemingly intent on disrupting them. But I know that every time I keep my temper and stay calm, I’m getting stronger. And it’s not just a theoretical improvement – I feel it, too.

See also the Elle review, June 2015: “Young won’t settle for any shoddy theories in her quest to develop a ‘comprehensive programme that could build basic mental strength’. She covers a lot of ground: meditation, exercise, diet, sleep, controlling negative thoughts, mental toughness and getting in touch with your senses. I tried out meditation because Young actually proves that it diminishes stress…Young says: ‘Getting upset about something outside your control is destructive. You can only control your emotions and your actions’. This is just what I needed to hear.” 

The book is available to purchase here.

Emma Young is the author of Sane: How I shaped up my mind, improved my mental strength and found calm, published by Hodder & Stoughton. Emma has a degree in psychology from the University of Durham and 20 years’ experience as a science and health journalist on titles including the Guardian, the Sydney Morning Herald and New Scientist