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Many of the world’s great thinkers have drawn a link between intellect and silence. Schopenhauer ranted in his essay: ‘On Noise’: “it paralyzes the brain, rends the thread of reflection, and murders thought.” Here is what some of the best and brightest have had to say on the topic:
#1 The Ancient Roman Stoic Seneca wrote about living above a noisy bath-house. Rome had banned coppersmiths setting up shop near to the homes of professors to give the intellectuals peace and quiet to think. Seneca at first boasts of his Stoic attitude but then admits defeat and moves house to keep what he calls a ‘sound mind’.
#2 Writer Franz Kafka took the idea that intellectuals need peace and quiet one stage further: “I need solitude for my writing; not ‘like a hermit’ – that wouldn’t be enough – but like a dead man.”
#3 Marcel Proust shared his sentiments. He wrote ‘A Remembrance of Things Past’ in his bed, wearing earplugs in a cork-lined bedroom to block out the noisy street, and the harpist and dentist upstairs. When he met fellow philosopher Henri Bergson the latter complained he could not work due to noise and Proust was more than happy to recommend his preferred brand of ‘Quies’ ear plugs.
#4 In the 1760s the philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote that his metaphysical thoughts were constantly interrupted by the noise of river boats and street carriages. Like Seneca he moved, but sadly his new home had a noisy cockerel next door. He offered to buy it at any price, but the neighbour refused – so in dire need of space to think he was forced to move house again.
#5 The philosopher Thomas Carlyle shared Kant’s pain, he was so tormented by what he called his neighbours ‘demon fowl’, as well as organ grinders and a neighbour’s piano that he tried to build a sound proof room, ranting: “Silence, Silence: in a thousand senses I proclaim the indispensable worth of Silence, our only safe dwelling-place.”
#6 Richard Wagner needed quiet to compose writing: “a master needs quiet; calm and quiet are his most imperative needs.” While Mozart is famous for saying: “The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.”
#7 Noise was a life-long torment for Schopenhauer. His pet hate was carriage-men cracking in the street, so he proposed to punish anyone cracking a whip with… a whipping! He took comfort in his belief that a superior intellect was sensitive to noise and vice versa, bitchily noting: “when I hear dogs barking unchecked for hours in the courtyard of a house, I know what to think of the inhabitants.”
A 2015 study by Northwestern University suggests highly creative people really are more affected by noise as they have a ‘leaky sensory gate.’ This is their gift as it lets them make new and unusual connections, but it is also their curse, as a ticking clock can become a torment! Thoreau called silence “the universal refuge” but today’s creative intellects face a far greater daily din than a tooting horn or a cock crowing – it may be that earplugs really are the only way to go.