My book Letters from a Stoic — essayistic letters by Seneca — arrived the other day, and I’m reading through the introduction now. But what I want to write about today is an essay from Lopate’s book, Seneca’s “On Noise.” He begins the essay this way:
I cannot for the life of me see that quiet is as necessary to a person who has shut himself away to do some studying as it is usually thought to be.
As I’d written about this very subject recently, this opening caught my eye. If what Seneca says is true, then I am wrong and this is a flaw of mine, since I need quite a bit of quiet to concentrate. Seneca goes on to argue that a person with a well-ordered mind should be able to block out distractions:
For I force my mind to become self-absorbed and not let outside things distract it. There can be absolute bedlam without so long as there is no commotion within, so long as fear and desire are not at loggerheads, so long as meanness and extravagance are not at odds and harassing each other. For what is the good of having silence throughout the neighbourhood if one’s emotions are in turmoil?
He talks about how people often don’t find peace even when it’s perfectly quiet — even when they are sleeping — which shows that it’s not so much outside noise that is the problem, but inside turmoil. To a certain extent I agree with this. I have trouble concentrating sometimes because my mind is often not at peace. I’m not very good at forcing the kind of “self-absorption” Seneca is describing, and perhaps if I practice I could improve. This would be a good thing.
But I also think, particularly when we’re talking about noise produced by people, that distractableness can be a sign of something more positive: it can indicate an interest in people, a quality of tuned-in-ness to others. I can’t shut voices out very easily because I love to eavesdrop on conversations and observe how people interact and how they sound. If I’m continually distracted from my book by the kids playing outside that may indicate my lack of mental calm, but it may also indicate a irresistible curiosity about what the kids are saying as they play their games.
To me, there’s some connection between being good with people and being unable to shut out their voices. By being “good with people” I mean something like being focused on others, wanting to take care of them, wanting to keep things peaceful, wanting everybody to be happy. I often feel responsible (rightly or wrongly) for making sure everybody is content and everything is okay, and listening to people’s voices, even if they’re not directed at me, is a way to make sure that happens.
As much as I don’t fully agree with Seneca, I do, however, like this line from the essay:
The only true serenity is the one which represents the free development of a sound mind.
This I can agree with.