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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  • TC

    I love my music but also really enjoy the silence. Most often when I am outside in the woods or on a mountaintop do I really embrace it. Nice post.

  • Myrna

    I just found your blog but plan to come back often — love it. This is an absolutely wonderful post. To me, the scariest part of this lack of silence is that it seems to contribute to the dumbing down of people. When everyone is focused on sharing the mundane details of their lives, there’s no time to sit and process ideas worthy of sharing. That’s probably too broad of a statement but it’s tiring to read endless updates about… nothing.

  • “I tell you everything that is really nothing, and nothing of what is everything, do not be fooled by what I am saying. Please listen carefully and try to hear what I am not saying.” ~Charles C. Finn

  • I know is unacceptable to leave a trite comment like “great post” but all of your posts are. It takes me days of thinking about them to peel the layers, and when I do all I can say is a pathetic and admiring “wow!”.

    I must be one of the few that never watch so-called reality shows. I watched the first couple of weeks of Survivor and that was it – click. I proceeded to the bookshelf to read and enjoy an old classic I have read numerous times before.

    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 have the same policy when it comes to my blogs.
    .-= timethief´s last blog ..It’s no secret =-.

  • This is one great article I don’t think I agree regarding silence as speaking from the heart and soul are often part of the journey to serenity in the mind. However, you are a great writer with great ideas to ponder.

    Glad I found you..

    Dorothy from grammology
    grammology.com
    .-= Dorothy Stahlnecker´s last blog ..Is your love Undconditional? =-.

  • Maladjusted

    When he wanted to annoy the (deceased) Hegel, Kierkegaard used to like to come up with the example of how two seemingly opposite things could be ruined by being synthesised into a third term which preserved moments of each. One of his classic examples was: speech (conversation) is a good thing; silence is also a good thing. But the synthesis of speech and silence is CHATTER which lacks the merits of either speech or silence.

    Most blogs are surely chatter. Even (maybe especially) mine.

    -Best wishes,

    -Mal.

  • Uh-oh. 🙂 I am probably in big trouble here because I divulge *the most* personal information on my blog. Some would probably say that my blog indulges far too frequently on ‘overshares’ (a newer term for TMI). But then, I figure, if people are offended or disgusted by it, they can kiss my peaches. 🙂

    Melinda
    .-= Melinda´s last blog ..Why Heroin Addicts and Vegetarians Make Strange Bedfellows =-.

  • Well said. Regarding talk shows, they seem to be playgrounds for people who harbour the desire to become famous in any way possible, perhaps driven by the belief that celebrity equals success, which equals happiness. Unfortunately, controversy often results in publicity, so I guess this might be one reason for people to reveal astounding details on television; things they would perhaps never speak of in private. I get the impression that many reality shows also select the most intolerant, vocal, and least compatible participants for the same reason. The more clashes between the participants, the more controversy they manage to stir up, and the more publicity they will get. It’s a weird and shallow attempt to capitalize off the baser instincts of the viewers, and even more strangely, it seems to work more often than it perhaps should.

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