In the early 18th century the brilliant yet cantankerous German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer penned a scathing indictment of the way in which the abrasive noise of modern society had shattered his sense of inner peace and diminished his ability to concentrate. Even by his own grumpy standards, Schopenhauer’s brief essay ‘On Noise’ is a particularly sarcastic diatribe against the needless ‘knocking, hammering and tumbling’ that marks an age obsessed with growth and ever-expanding construction. (1) Dripping with rhetorical venom, Schopenhauer describes the normal sounds of everyday life- hammering, dogs barking and children crying- as both ‘abominable’ and ‘the most impertinent of all interruptions.’ Understanding himself to be in the tradition of great German thinkers such as Kant, Goethe and Lichtenberg, Schopenhauer identified intrusive noise as being the enemy of intellectual achievement. It was one thing for noise to be frustrating, but its truly insidious nature was ultimately revealed by the way in which it distracted one’s attention from important tasks requiring sustained feats of intense concentration. For Schopenhauer, an especially infuriating interference was the sound of whips being used on horses in the streets surrounding his home, which he depicted as ‘infernal’ and the ‘most unwarrantable and disgraceful of all noises.’ One shudders to think how Schopenhauer might have responded to the sounds of Sydney traffic, council works and apartment construction.
However tempting it a may be to dismiss Schopenhauer’s words as those of a grouchy philosopher and aloof eccentric, to do so would be to miss the underlying point of what he is trying to say. Although autobiographical, Schopenhauer’s On Noise is not simply an expression of his own discontent. Rather, Schopenhauer is saying something important to us about the nature of the human mind and the destructive role that noise plays in preventing the mind from reaching its full potential. Like Nietzsche so forcefully argued several decades later, the human spirit is indeed capable of much greatness, but to achieve these so-called feats of personal heroism one must be able to rise above the distractions that infiltrate our lives. (2) For Schopenhauer the chief distraction was noise, and the tragedy was that we had little say in how much noise we are exposed to. It is largely out of our control, and we are seemingly unable to do anything about our condition.
I suggest, however, that the concept of ‘noise’ in Schopenhauer’s essay can be extended and read as a general indictment against an age of distraction more generally. In our own age of mass media and internet-based technologies, a particularly sinister form of digital noise has radically altered our psychology so that our brains remain in a constant state of hyperarousal. Fuelled by an incremental addiction to dopamine, many of us obsess over the next Facebook like or Instagram update until our thoughts are unable to truly concentrate on any task for sustained periods of time. This form of ‘noise’ is constantly present our lives, but unlike Schopenhauer’s horse whips it is not necessarily something we wrestle with. Rather, we embrace the noise without being fully cognizant of how much it is taking from us; namely, our potential for excellence. In the context of their own time, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche argued that the resulting distraction of a ‘noisy’ life (with its corresponding desire to pursue comfort and pleasure at all costs) led to a culture of mediocrity in which the masses were content to consume any noisy distraction so long as it was both entertaining and pleasurable. When read in this light, Schopenhauer’s On Noise has less to do with the annoying nature of noise itself and instead relates to what noise actually prevents us from doing. Each individual’s potential will be expressed differently, but what is certain for all of us is that unregulated noise and distraction impedes our ability to strive for excellence. The quality of our work, projects and interests inevitably suffers as our focus is jolted by the trivial notifications coming from our smartphones. On Noise, therefore, is not only a lament for the loss of silence and space in our world, but is also a sort of philosophical pep-talk in which we can take inspiration from the concerns of one of philosophies greatest thinkers and the way in which he chose to cultivate a life that would allow the silence necessary for deep reflection and works of creative genius.
Considering the problem of interruptive noise from a theological perspective, I am always struck by Jesus’ frequent retreat from the crowds that often surrounded him. Immediately after the feeding of the five thousand, for example, Jesus dismissed the crowd, sent his disciples out to sea toward Bethsaida and retreated by himself to a lonely mountainside in order to pray (Mark 6:45-6). There are two themes within the stories of Jesus’ retreat from the noise of life that I find particularly compelling. First, Jesus own sense of personal mission guided his ministry, so that distractions from his ultimate purpose were to be avoided. It would have been easy for Jesus to lose himself in the demands and adoration of the crowd, yet his decision to be alone pointed toward one who was aware of his own limits as well as the way in which constant immersion in adulation and clamour led to distraction and ineffectiveness. Jesus retreats were also a way for him to find his bearings amongst the often chaotic nature of his ministry. New Testament scholar Ben Witherington suggests that Jesus’ retreat into solitude for prayer is less about demonstrating God’s power (3) than it is about Jesus seeking guidance from his father. (4) This nuance is important, as it highlights the need for silence if we are to truly discern our path. Jesus knew that strength of mind and purpose could only come through extended periods of being alone. This self-knowledge naturally leads to the second theme, which is that Jesus’ desire to seek out space and silence carries with it the extra element of restoration. Unlike Nietzsche, whose own retreat from the noisy crowd was insular and claustrophobic, Jesus’ spent regular time alone so that he may fully give of himself to others.
What unites the biblical accounts of Jesus’ longing for silence with that contained in Schopenhauer’s essay is a sense that one must make an active decision to pursue solitude and silence. Whilst it is true that silence is not always possible amongst the noise and distraction of modern life, there are numerous ways in which we can cultivate a more quiet life no matter what our personal context. It could be something as simple as switching off the television or going for a walk. No matter how we go about this task, creating time away from noise will open up new possibilities for our individual potential. Most of all, creating silence in our lives allows us the space necessary to engage with the spiritual dimension of our inner lives. Like our physical bodies, our spiritual core needs maintenance and ongoing exercise. Silence and solitude offer us the means through which we can nurture this neglected element of our humanity. In closing this reflection I share the words of author and theologian Henri Nouwen, who spoke truthfully when he wrote that ‘without silence words lose their meaning, without listening speaking no longer heals and without distance closeness cannot cure.’ (5)
- An online version of On Noise can be found on the University of Adelaide’s ebook reference page: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/schopenhauer/arthur/pessimism/chapter8.html
- See: Leslie Paul Thiele. Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of the Soul: A Study of Heroic Individualism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 11-27.
- This is the view of Eduard Schweizer. See: E. Schweizer. The Good News According to Mark (Atlanta: John Knox, 1971), 142.
- See: Ben Witherington III. The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 221.
- Henri J.M. Nouwen. Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life (Notre Dame IN: Ave Maria Press, 1974), 14-15.