Our century has made a religion of communication, enshrining the idea that we ought to be constantly on tap, endlessly engaged in some or other form of exchanging information and perpetually contributing our due quotient to the sum of nonstop chatter – as if communicating with each other were a moral good, and not merely so much white noise. Our phones have become our oracles. Instant messaging is our hotline to higher communion.
In silence we can find an assured retreat from the intolerable din, but it would be a mistake to think that the allure of silence is primarily that of passive withdrawal, like a child sulking because they don’t want to play with all the other kids. Silence is not what is left once the chatter has died away: it is not a residue, or vacated space. Instead, like the darkness of night, it is a gateway into richness and depth, mystery and resonance. In the coinage of Frauds Bacon, “silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom”.
In thinking about the virtues of silence, I am reminded of the writer Sarah Maidand’s lived experiment, in which she embarked on a quest to rediscover those qualities of silence that have become impossible to access amid the crashing cacophony of modern urban life. What I love about her memoir is that it makes no bones about the difficulty of this journey into silence, which she documents in A Book of Silence. Maitland missed friends and frivolity, the fertilising properties of conversation, not least the refined palliative that is BBC Radio 4, and yet, over the long seasons of her voluntary exile from society, she gradually came to learn the value of truly listening: to her inner voice, her doubts and intuitions, the workings of pre-rational thought. And she learned to attend anew to the world around her, finding real joy, for example, in engaging more viscerally with nature (everything from gardening, to noticing that so many of the forces that our lives depend on are silent: gravity, electricity, light, tides, the unheard spinning of the Earth on its axis). The biggest surprise, writes Maitland, was discovering “the energy of silence”.
The way the sun rises, cresting the mountains, piercing the clouds, chasing the darkness. It is easy to miss it, day after day, year after year, that unmistakable warmth. Bringer of life. Guide to the weary traveler. The lost sailer. The blooming flower.
We owe so much to her warmth. Taken for granted. Ignored. Passed up.
It only takes a moment. To take it all in. To be grateful. One moment out of thousands.
If only we notice her warmth, the life she brings, can we share it. For she too needs to rest. And when she does and the darkness creeps back in, it is up to us to be the light. The warmth. The guide to the weary traveler. The lost soul.
Having now come to the of our brief and very incomplete review of the problems of philosophy, it will be well to consider, in conclusion, what is the value of philosophy and why it ought to be studied. It is the more necessary to consider this question, in view of the fact that many men, under the influence of science or of practical affairs, are inclined to doubt whether philosophy is anything better than innocent but useless trifling, hair-splitting distinctions, and controversies on matters concerning which knowledge is impossible.
This view of philosophy appears to result, partly from a wrong conception of the ends of life, partly from a wrong conception of the kind of goods which philosophy strives to achieve. Physical science, through the medium of inventions, is useful to innumerable people who are wholly ignorant of it; thus the study of physical science is to be recommended, not only, or primarily, because of the effect on the student, but rather because of the effect on mankind in general. Thus utility does not belong to philosophy. If the study of philosophy has any value at all for others than students of philosophy, it must be only indirectly, through its effects upon the lives of those who study it. It is in these effects, therefore, if anywhere, that the value of philosophy must be primarily sought. But further, if we are not to fail in our endeavour to determine the value of philosophy, we must first free our minds from the prejudices of what are wrongly called ‘practical’ men. The ‘practical’ man, as this word is often used, is one who recognizes only material needs, who realizes that men must have food for the body, but is oblivious of the necessity of providing food for the mind.
If all men were well off, if poverty and disease had-been reduced to their lowest possible point, there would still remain much to be done to produce a valuable society; and even in the existing world the goods of the mind are at least as important as the goods of the body. It is exclusively among the goods of the mind that the value of philosophy is to be found; and only those who are not indifferent to these goods can be persuaded that the study of philosophy is not a waste of time.
The Stoics saw the world as a single great community in which all men are brothers, ruled by a supreme providence which could be spoken of, almost according to choice or context, under a variety of names or descriptions including the divine reason, creative reason, nature, the spirit or purpose of the universe, destiny, a personal god, even (by way of concession to traditional religion) ‘the gods’. It is man’s duty to live in conformity with the divine will, and this means, firstly, bringing his life into line with ‘nature’s laws’, and secondly, resigning himself completely and uncomplainingly to whatever fate may send him. Only by living thus, and not setting too high a value on things which can at any moment be taken away from him, can he discover that true, unshakeable peace and contentment to which ambition, luxury and above all avarice are among the greatest obstacles.
Living ‘ in accordance with nature ‘ means not only questioning convention and training ourselves to do without all except the necessities (plain food, water, basic clothing and shelter) but developing the inborn gift of reason which marks us off as different from the animal world. We are meant to set free or perfect this rational element, this particle of the universal reason, the ‘ divine spark’ in our human make-up, so that it may campaign against and conquer pain, grief, superstition and the fear of death. It will show us that ‘there’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so’, discipline the pleasures and the passions, and generally subordinate the body and emotions to the mind and soul.
In this way we shall arrive at the true end of man, happiness, through having attained the one and only good thing In life, the ideal or goal called arete in Greek and in Latin virtus — for which the English word ‘virtue’ is so unsatisfactory a translation This, the summum bonum or ‘supreme ideal’ usually summarized in ancient philosophy as a combination of four qualities: wisdom (or moral insight), courage, self-control and justice (or upright dealing). It enables a man to be ‘self-sufficient’, immune to suffering, superior to the wounds and upsets of life (often personalized as Fortuna, the goddess of fortune). Even a slave thus armed can be called ‘free’, or indeed titled ‘a king’ since even a king cannot touch him.
Another example of these ‘paradoxes’ for which the Stoics were celebrated is one directed at the vanity of worldly possessions: ‘the route to wealth is the contempt of wealth’.