The Virtue of Silence

William the SilentWe live in an era that is addicted to communication. I thought about this last night whilst having a chat about talk shows: the person I was conversing with and I were disgusted that certain members of the general public are willing to divulge even the most gross personal details of their daily routine. For example, supposedly, a popular sitcom actress from the Seventies recently revealed not only that she consumed heavy amounts of hormones, also, she injected a cocktail of serum directly into her groin on a daily basis. Supposedly this helps maintain her sexual vitality, despite her having long ago vaulted over the age of fifty.

This incident begs the question: was that really necessary? Would it not have been better if she didn’t say anything at all, and perhaps maintained an air of mystery about what kept her youthful? Under those circumstances, the guesses as to the source of her vigour might have ranged from genetics, to exercise, to proper diet: all of which were more salutary and less cringe-making than the truth. In short, silence and discretion would have better served her dignity, and perhaps would have provided a better example to her presumably dwindling fan base.

However, modern society doesn’t like silence. Perhaps the most oft repeated discussion among today’s couples has the following script:

“What are you thinking?”

“Nothing.”

“Come on, what are you thinking?”

“Nothing!”

The interrogation then proceeds until such time as the individual who has hitherto been lacking a thought has to admit they are thinking about how annoyed they are at being asked such questions, or is forced to invent some inoffensive reason for feeling less than optimal. Conversations of this type are perhaps symptomatic of a problem, namely, our mindset has a problem with a void: absence of communication in a steady flow seems to indicate some sort of repression or pathology. Perhaps we can partially blame psychotherapy for this issue, not beceause it suggests that silence is indeed a form of illness, but because it emphasises “talking cures” for mental dysfunction. This may have been extrapolated by the public imagination into a need to discuss everything even if there is nothing to be discussed. However, silence need not be maladjusted: not every aspect of human existence requires vocalisation, nor is it apropos to vent every last feeling one has.

In a previous era, maintaining silence was considered virtuous. The “Father of the Netherlands”, William of Nassau, a.k.a, William of Orange, had the nickname “William the Silent”. According to legend, this nickname was given to him on the basis of his refusal to speak unless it was absolutely necessary; in his case, keeping quiet was very wise. For example, one story suggests he was able to draw out Spain’s plans to purge Dutch Protestants from the King of France without the latter being aware of William’s true sympathies.

A more famous exemplar of silence may be Sir Thomas More. A staunch Catholic, he resolutely refused to comment on the fallout from Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and the King’s subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn; this had led to legislation declaring Henry the head of the Church in England, which More refused to acknowledge or accept, but he also did not deny. This silence was interpreted by the wider world as protest, but at the same time it was legally difficult to assail as outright treason. It was only perjury by More’s former associate which finally gave the government sufficient pretext to have him executed. However, More remains an example of piety and courage that has echoed down the ages. It has been even been memorialised in the classic play, “A Man for All Seasons”.

Beyond William and Sir Thomas, silence has been considered holy at times. Trappist orders still make a virtue out of not speaking; while it’s a myth that they take an actual “vow of silence”, St. Benedict, the founder of their order, made it clear that remaining quiet was preferable and small talk is discouraged among the order to this day. If one performs a simple experiment, one can see the benefit: try writing a letter in a crowded room, and then try writing it in isolation. When one is solitary, there are no distracting voices to which thoughts can attach themselves, thus contemplation is less muddied. If one’s vocation is to explore man’s relationship with God, chit chat about the weather or the latest breakfast cereal to hit the market does seem rather a hindrance.

Most of us, however, appear to live in a crowd: not only do we have twenty four hour a day news and information, we have telephones which we can take to the most remote corners of the planet without the connection to the rest of the world ever being dropped. Furthermore, through these devices we can access microblogging sites like Twitter and inform each other of the most mundane details of every activity we perform. I admittedly subscribe to Twitter, though I could hardly be called an enthusiastic follower: it is not necessary for me to know that the foam on a cup of someone’s cappuccino is substandard. I also do not necessarily want to tell the world about the pedestrian features of my life: with silence, I stand a chance of remaining at least somewhat interesting.

I am aware, however, that I am swimming against the tide. The problem is that not only are we losing the virtues of silence, by not allowing a breathing space in which thought can occur, the words we say may lose much of their potency. A good playwright will insert meaningful pauses in their text; an accomplished composer will insert a “rest” from time to time. The impact of what has been put forward can then be processed through rather than drowned in an onrushing flood of further input; silences may allow for greater complexity in the composition. If an item is allowed to be contemplated from a variety of angles, then perhaps it can mean more: words may say more than words alone can say, for example. If the follow up is just ever more words or notes, then perhaps the richness, depth and tone of what has been produced stands a greater chance of being lost.

I do not expect that silence will make a comeback any time soon. Our world is too bound together in an endless stream of communication for this form of “pollution” to be rapidly dissipated. Relentless exhibitionism remains the fashion. However, there may come a point where we become bored with it, tired of not having the space to think or even to dream. It is this ennui which is slowly killing off “reality television” shows like Big Brother. Furthermore, President Obama recently made a contribution to the cause by being restrained in his comments about Iran: he did not have to say that he supports Mousavi and the students, he let American values which have already been communicated through a variety of means, do that work. Rather, he exercised restraint so as not to give the Iranian regime a pretext to persecute its own people further.

There is a long way to go. But perhaps the day we rediscover the simple pleasures of being quiet may be also be the day that the world just becomes that bit more appealing, more intriguing and more filled with salubrious mystery.

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