By Lawrence Kramer, author of The Hum of the World: A Philosophy of Listening

When a person speaks the truth, more is demanded than that the spoken words be true. They must also carry the ring of truth. Sometimes the truth only feels true when we can hear the sound of it.  Merely knowing it is not enough. 

Since the middle of the eighteenth century a certain type of visually based knowledge has become increasingly prominent in both science and art. The historian of science Lorraine Daston calls it the coup d’oeil, the stroke of the eye: a sudden, irrefutable understanding glimpsed in a moment that brings a multitude of details together as one. Does this visual epiphany have an auditory equivalent, a coup d’orielle or stroke of the ear? 

The historical record suggests that the answer is “Yes,” though the auditory form is rarer and more focused than its visual counterpart. It may also be older, and perhaps more elemental. Aeschylus testifies to it in his tragedy Agamemnon, when the chorus learns of the fall of Troy from a signal fire but does not believe it until a messenger has described it, and with eloquence; the sound of the messenger’s voice is as weighty as his words. Probably the most famous example is recorded by St. Augustine in his Confessions; I discuss his account in detail in my book The Hum of the World. Augustine tells us that while sitting under fig tree in a wretched, self-accusatory state of mind, and weeping bitterly, he heard the voice of a child chanting the Latin words “Tolle, lege”: take up, read. At once he knew what to do. He retrieved a copy of the Bible he had left on a bench and opened it at random. The passage he lit on held another injunction at its core: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh.” Augustine’s report on the aftermath is unequivocal. His reading, which was silent, corresponded inwardly to the sound of the sudden chant. His entire spiritual history had crystallized in a moment: “I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.”

Augustine’s description includes all of the typical features of the coup d’orielle. The auditory stroke is sudden, unexpected, and certain (in these respects resembling its visual cousin); it comes in the sound of a speaking or singing voice; and it takes the form of a command or admonition or injunction. The guiding word tends to be welcome, as it is for Augustine; the guiding voice tends to be aesthetically pleasing, which is implicitly true here of the child’s chant. The sheer value of sound is essential to this persuasive (or compelling) pleasure, as Augustine’s “tolle, lege” also exemplifies: note the trochaic rhythm of the phrase, the identical closing vowels, the smooth alliteration on the sound of the “l,” and the softening of the “t” of “tolle” to the “l” of “lege.” The words almost chant themselves on the page. And their appeal, their peal, as sound is not extraneous to the knowledge they impart but essential to it. Their sonority embodies the value of the truth they have to tell.

If it is a truth. For Augustine, in this case, that is how it felt, and what he believed. But this reflection on the auditory epiphany would not be complete without the recognition of its dark obverse: the voice that deceives and seduces, the Siren song, the voices in the head that belittle the listener or command acts of violence. Besides, the truth is not always what the listener wants to hear. In what we might call the other most famous example, the sudden voice is neither pleasing nor welcome, which is exactly why its impact is so powerful: “Methought I heard a voice cry, ‘Sleep no more!’ / Macbeth hath murdered sleep.”

In the tradition represented by these Western examples, truth is not simply a matter of what can be verified empirically or conceived abstractly. It is a matter of what can be sounded. Truth has an auditory history much of which still needs to be written.