What is silence?

The moment we begin reflecting upon silence trying to define it, both the complexity and importance of this concept become patently clear. From antiquity to the present day, silence has been the subject of philosophical and theological speculation, as well as a major player in poetry and literature. This fascination with silence bears witness to the essential link between silence and the world, man, language and art. Without doubt, silence is the protagonist of the most important moments in a man’s life. Giacomo Leopardi writes that silence “is the language of all strong passions, of love, anger, wonder and fear”. Amongst these passions, it is love that stands out. When one is in love, silence acquires a special value. The intimacy between two lovers renders words superfluous; a form of empathy develops between the lovers through which, in silence, every thought and feeling is shared …

Blaise Pascal therefore tells us that “in love, silence is more valuable than words”.

That said, at times, silence, understood as the absence of sound, is partnered with irony. In “I giusti pensieri del modesto signor di Bonafede (The just thoughts of the modest gentleman of Bonafede)”, published in 1926, Leo Longanesi teaches us this in a way which, today, speaks to us more clearly than ever: “I nostri deputati leggono poco, si sente dal loro silenzio (Our parlamentarians read little, this can be heard in their silence)”. A cultural silence.

The theme of silence is infinite. In Act V, scene II, Shakespeare has Hamlet say of the homonymous tragedy: “The rest is silence “.

In Simon & Garfunkel’s well-known song “Sound of Silence”, written in the mid-sixties, we might remember those lyrics about “people hearing without listening”. There are many of them today. Theirs can be defined as an existential silence. Yes, existential.

To all of this I’d like to add something by recommending a good silence. We can find this in the book written by Erlin Kagge, the first man to reach the South Pole alone and the first to reach all “three poles”: the North Pole, the South Pole and a summit of Everest.

Simply titled “Silence” this book, sold in twenty languages, is a pleasure to read. It was written in the form of 33 answers (the last one being a blank page), followed by a chapter of annotations. It is an antidote against a lifestyle that is now based on perpetual entertainment, on a vulgar and constant noise.

To seek silence. Not to turn away from the world, but to observe it and understand it. Because silence is not a disturbing emptiness but listening to inner sounds,” writes Kagge.

Once we realise that today, on average, our concentration is lost every eight seconds, we come to understand well that distraction has become a lifestyle. The era of social media means that Andy Warhol’s prophecy, that “in the future everybody will be world-famous for fifteen minutes”, has been realized in full. Our spasmodic search for likes and entertainment has become a habit. Thus, when we encounter silence, we experience it as an anomaly. Instead of appreciating it, Kagge reminds us, we feel uneasy. Kagge, on the other hand, has made silence his choice in life. In the months he had spent in the Antarctic, on Everest and the North Pole, he says he learned to make the spaces and rhythms of nature his own, and to immerse himself in an interior as well as an exterior silence. He concludes that silence is an immense treasure and a source of regeneration that we all possess which has yet become difficult to draw upon, immersed as we are in the cacophany of daily life. Michele Sciacca, in Come si vince a Waterloo (How do you win at Waterloo?), described our times perfectly: “Our age is noisy and without silences, without harmonies. Poor in words but full of chatter. There is no space left for meditation and reflection. We live lost in the dispersion of a thousand unessential things. Fatigue overcomes us at the end of an ordinary day, and silence doesn’t attract us. Busy with dozens of appointments every day, and punctual to each, we are incapable of a minute of silent recollection and we always arrive late to our appointment with ourselves”. If we would like to express this differently, we might say that our existence is increasingly founded upon that chatter that fills our lives in a world where most believe themselves to be essential and forget, as Montaigne reminds us, that cemeteries are full of those considered, during their lives, to be indispensable. We can therefore, for a moment, try and dwell upon three questions Kagge asks himself in his book: What is silence? Where is it to be found? Why, today, is silence more important than ever? He offers thirty-three possible answers. Thirty-three reflections which spring forth from different experiences, encounters and from his reading, all animated by a single certainty: that silence is the key to a deeper understanding of life. “I had to walk for many miles, but I know it’s possible to find silence anywhere. It’s enough to look for it”. This is why the most beautiful reflection is the thirty-fourth, the blank page that we are all called to fill.

ERLIN KAGGE, Silence: In the age of noise

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