Arthur Schopenhauer: On Noise

Kant wrote an essay on the living forces; but I would like to write a dirge and threnode thereon, for their excessively frequent use in knocking, hammering, and banging has been throughout my life a daily torment to me. There are certainly those, quite a number in fact, who smile at such things because they are not sensitive to noise. Yet they are the very people who are also not sensitive to arguments, ideas, poetry, and works of art, in short, to mental impressions of every kind; for this is due to the toughness and solid texture of their brain substance. On the other hand, in the biographies or other accounts of the personal statements of almost all great authors, such as Kant, Goethe, Lichtenberg, Jean Paul, I find complaints about the torture which thinkers have to endure from noise. If such complaints are not to be found in some authors, this is merely because the context did not lead up to them. I explain the matter as follows. A large diamond cut up into pieces is equal in value to just so many small ones; and an army dispersed and scattered, in other words disbanded into small bodies, is no longer capable of anything. In the same way a great mind is no more capable than an ordinary one, the moment it is interrupted, disturbed, and diverted. For its superiority is conditioned by its concentrating all its powers, as does a concave mirror all its rays, on to one point and object; and it is precisely here that it is prevented by a noisy interruption. This is why eminent minds have always thoroughly disliked every kind of disturbance, interruption, and diversion, but above all the violent disturbance caused by din and noise. Others, on the contrary, are not particularly upset by such things. The most sensible and intelligent of all European nations has even laid down an eleventh commandment, the rule ‘never interrupt!’ Din is the most impertinent of all forms of interruption, for it interrupts, in fact disrupts, even our own thoughts. However, where there is nothing to interrupt, din will naturally not be particularly felt. At times, I am tormented and disturbed for a while by a moderate and constant noise before I am clearly conscious thereof, since I feel it merely as a constant increase in the difficulty of thinking, like a weight tied to my foot, until I become aware of what it is.

Passing now from the genus to the species, I have to denounce as the most inexcusable and scandalous noise the truly infernal cracking of whips in the narrow resounding streets of towns; for it robs life of all peace and pensiveness. Nothing gives me so clear an idea of the apathy, stupidity, and thoughtlessness of men as the toleration of this whip-cracking. This sudden sharp crack which paralyzes the brain, tears and rends the thread of reflection and murders all thoughts, must be painfully felt by anyone who carries in his head anything resembling an idea. All such cracks must, therefore, disturb hundreds in their mental activity, however humble its nature; but they shoot through a thinker’s meditations as painfully and fatally as the executioner’s axe cuts the head from the body. No sound cuts through the brain so sharply as does this cursed whip-cracking; one feels in one’s brain the very sting of the lash and it affects the brain as does touch the mimosa pudica, and lasts as long. With all due respect to the most sacred doctrine of utility, I really do not see why a fellow, fetching a cart-load of sand or manure, should thereby acquire the privilege of nipping in the bud every idea that successively arises in ten thousand heads (in the course of half an hour’s journey through a town). Hammering, the barking of dogs, and the screaming of children are terrible, but the real murderer of ideas is only the crack of a whip. It is meant to crush every good moment for meditation which anyone may at times have. If to urge on draught animals there existed no means other than this most abominable of all noises, there would be some excuse for it, but quite the contrary is the case. This cursed whip-cracking is not only unnecessary, but even useless. Thus the intended psychic effect on the horses is entirely blunted and fails to occur because, through constant abuse of the whip, they have grown accustomed thereto. The horses, accordingly, do not go any faster; and this is also seen especially in the case of cabmen who are on the look-out for a fare and incessantly crack their whips while driving at the slowest pace. The slightest touch of the whip has more effect. But assuming that it were absolutely necessary constantly to remind the horses of the whip’s presence by sounding it, then a sound a hundred times quieter would suffice for the purpose. For it is well known that animals notice the slightest scarcely perceptible indications, both audible and visible, the most surprising examples being furnished by trained dogs and canaries. Accordingly, the matter proves to be a piece of pure wantonness and in fact an insolent disregard for those who work with their heads on the part of those members of the community who work with their hands. That such an infamy is tolerated in towns is a crude barbarity and an iniquity, the more so as it could very easily be stopped by a police order to the effect that every whip-cord should have a knot at the end. There can be no harm in drawing the attention of the proletarians to the mental work of the classes above them, for they have a mortal dread of all such work. A fellow who rides through the narrow streets of a populous town with free post-horses or on a free cart-horse, or even accompanies animals on foot, and keeps on cracking with all his might a whip several yards long, deserves to be taken down at once and given five really good cuts with a stick. All the philanthropists in the world, and all the legislative assemblies which on good grounds abolish all corporal punishment, will not persuade me to the contrary. But something even worse can often enough be seen, namely a carter who, alone and without horses, walks through the streets and incessantly cracks his whip. This fellow has become so accustomed to the crack of a whip, thanks to inexcusable leniency and toleration. With the universal tenderness for the body and all its gratifications, is the thinking mind to be the only thing that never experiences the slightest consideration or protection, to say nothing of respect? Carters, porters, messengers, and the like are the beasts of burden of the human community; they should certainly be treated humanely with justice, fairness, consideration, and care, but they should not be allowed to thwart the higher endeavors of the human race by wantonly making a noise. I would like to know how many great and fine thoughts have already been cracked out of the world by these whips. If I had to give an order, there would soon be established in the heads of carmen an indelible association of ideas between cracking a whip and getting a whipping. Let us hope that the more intelligent and refined nations will make a start in this direction and that, by way of example, the Germans will then be made to follow suit. Meanwhile, Thomas Hood says: “For a musical people, they are the most noisy I ever met with.” That they are so, however, is not due to their being more inclined than others to make a noise, but to the apathy and insensibility (with the result of obtuseness) of those who have to listen to it. They are not thereby disturbed in their thinking or reading for the very reason that they do not think, but merely smoke, such being for them a substitute for thinking. The universal toleration of unnecessary noise, for example the extremely vulgar and ill-mannered slamming of doors, is simply a sign of mental bluntness and a general want of thought. In Germany it seems as though it were positively the intention that no one should come to his senses on account of noise; pointless drumming, for example.

Finally, as regards the literature that deals with the subject of this chapter, I can recommend only one work, but it is a fine one, namely a poetical epistle in terze rime by the famous painter Bronzino entitled De’ romori, a Messer Luca Martini. Here a detailed and amusing description is given in a tragicomic style of the torment that one has to endure from the many different noises of an Italian town.