Silence is golden, except when it’s not. One key to a virtuous life is knowing when to speak, how much to speak, and when to shut up.
This is not easy in a culture of blathering chinwaggers who never wait for a response before prattling on. A loquacious person is like a drunk with a loose tongue. Words flow out of him from some bottomless well of verbal diarrhea.
Social media provides these constant talkers with an outlet and an inspiration. As an example, consider President Trump’s ability to stir up a new controversy every week with a cringe-worthy tweet. In May, a poll found that the vast majority of people think that the president tweets too much. Last week, it was “the Squad.” This week, it was Baltimore. Next week, we will be jibber-jabbering about some new tweet from Pennsylvania Avenue.
Loquacity is a kind of narcissism. Good conversation is a dance of give and take. But obnoxious boors fill the void with a one-sided flow of words. They don’t listen. They only want to be listened to.
On the other hand, there are those who say too little. There is a need to speak up and speak out about injustice and untruth. For example, when a crowd at a Trump rally yelled “send her back,” with reference to Rep. Ilhan Omar, the president’s silence was deafening.
Sometime silence is a virtue. But silence can be complicity in the face of stupidity or evil. In some cases, taciturnity results from a character flaw. Those who remain mute lack the courage to speak or the wisdom to know when speech is required.
If loquacity is related to narcissism, then taciturnity comes from shyness and timidity. Some still waters do run deep. But those depths need to give birth on occasion to ideas, actions and words. Those who are too silent remain lost in the depths. They fail to say what needs to be said in times of joy, sorrow, outrage and celebration.
Virtue is found in the middle. The virtue of speaking well is known as eloquence. Sometimes eloquence is thought to focus only on the external form of speech – on pronunciation and word-choice. But eloquence as a virtue depends upon wisdom, courage, justice, and other virtues. Fancy speech without moral content is not eloquent.
Eloquent speakers utter the right words at the right time. They know when to thunder and when to whisper. They have humor and wit. And, above all, they listen before they speak, calibrating their words to the need of the moment.
True eloquence also depends upon the character and dignity of the speaker. When a virtuous person speaks, her words demonstrate moral authority. When a virtuous person remains silent, we sense an inner reserve of wisdom.
The world’s moral and religious traditions have a lot to say about speech and silence. Herman Melville once wrote, “all profound things are preceded and attended by silence.” And “Silence is the only voice of God.” Before the creation, there was silence. But then God spoke and the world burst into bloom. Silence is pregnant with creative tension. Consider the silence when the conductor takes up her baton. We wait for the musicians to sing. And then, miraculously, meaning is born out of the void.
But we are often impatient or afraid. We speak too soon or we speak too late. We are impatient to get on with the show or to direct attention to ourselves. And once we begin the daily round of chatter, we are afraid to stop. We don’t shut up because silence seems like death. We don’t speak because words are commitments that define us.
There is a wonderful passage in the “Tao Te Ching” that says “those who know, don’t talk. And those who talk, don’t know.” This is a mystery and a riddle. It gives us something to talk about or to ponder in silent meditation. And somewhere in our talking and thinking, we might – if we are lucky – find a nugget of wisdom that can help us know when to speak and when to remain silent.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala