Book: The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley Art: Sunset on the Hudson by Charles H Chapin Reading time: 5 mins
In the Christian religion, speaking in a way that is unrestrained and indiscriminate is considered morally evil. According to the bible, for “every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment”. But Christianity is just one of the many religions that have a bleak assessment of those who speak haphazardly. In his book The Perennial Philosophy, Aldous Huxley highlights the fact that in various religious traditions, this type of talk is viewed as an impediment in the way of finding any kind of spiritual or profound knowledge about existence. Huxley notes also that across a diverse array of faiths, silence is a requisite if one is to discover this knowledge.
“The spiritual life is nothing else but the working of the Spirit of God within us, and therefore our own silence must be a great part of our preparation for it, and much speaking or delight in it will be often no small hindrance of that good which we can only have from hearing what the Spirit and voice of God speaketh within us.”William Law
“My dear Mother, heed well the precepts of the saints, who have all warned those who would become holy to speak little of themselves and their own affairs.”St. Francis de Sales, from a letter to St. Jeanne de Chantal
If we look at our conversations with others over a day, what we find is that a great number of our words can be put into three categories: uncharitable words towards others that are inspired by malice; words inspired by greed and self-absorption; and aimless words that have no purpose except that they are a distracting noise. These are conceivably the ‘idle’ words which the Bible refers to. When we add to this the words of our minds inner monologues, idleness is overwhelmingly large.
Various religions identify idle talk as a barrier that stops people from attaining spiritual enlightenment and sacred rewards. They advise that seekers of religious wisdom must first practice silence. The Christian mystic Miguel de Molinos distinguished three types of silence practices, which are also encouraged to some degree in religions such as Buddhism and Taoism. Molinos, who popularised a set of Christian beliefs called Quietism, stated that silence affects the mouth, the mind and the will. The silence of the mouth refers to refraining from idle talk; the silence of the mind refers to being conscious of and quieting our thoughts; the silence of the will refers to avoiding the influence of physical cravings.
“When the hen has laid, she must needs cackle. And what does she get by it? Straightaway comes the chough and robs her of her eggs, and devours all that of which she should have brought forth her live birds. And just so that wicked chough, the devil, beareth away from the cackling anchoresses, and swalloweth up all the goods they have brought forth, and which ought, as birds, to bear them up towards heaven, if it had not been cackled.”From the Ancrene Wisse
“A dog is not considered a good dog because he is a good barker. A man is not considered a good man because he is a good talker.”Chuang Tzu
The unrelenting technological advancements of the 21st century make it nearly impossible for most people to achieve these types of silence. Inventions like the television and social media, and the assault of information that comes with them, make it a challenging task for anyone to practice silence. Such inventions make it difficult to practice the three types of silence identified by Molinos as they are known to distract people with trivial information; embolden those who want to communicate maliciously; contribute to anxiety; and through advertising, create unsatisfiable cravings. The 21st century is, therefore, the age of noise. For this reason, it is easy to understand why even secular people adopt practices with conceivably spiritual origins that promote a quiet life, such as meditation and minimalism.
“For whereas speaking distracts, silence and work collect the thoughts and strengthen the spirit. As soon therefore as a person understands what has been said to him for his good, there is no further need to hear or to discuss; but to set himself in earnest to practice what he has learnt with silence and attention, in humility, charity and contempt of self.”St. John of the Cross
Silence promotes reflection, about both ourselves and the world. The ability to reflect enables us to have a better understanding of the way reality works. Just as we need fuel in the form of food to stoke our bodies, we also need fuel in the form of reflection to gain a better perception of the world and the way to live in it. When reflection is directed towards existence and God, it becomes contemplation. Indeed, in many religions like Buddhism, Vedanta and some forms of Christianity, contemplation is the end goal of human life. In Buddhism for example, those who want to realise Nirvana must first contemplate on knowledge surrounding love, suffering and the nature of reality.
Along with being the age of noise, the 21st century is also the age of action. In our current society, the end of human life is action, not reflection. In an attempt to aid technological and economic progress, one must work and always be working. Huxley proposes that there is nothing in nature that is as perpetual as human creations like the revolving wheel and society. Everything, he says, including the bodies of humans and animals are reciprocating engines that fluctuate between tension and relaxation. Similarly, as established by multiple religions and philosophies, profound knowledge is found only by those who allow silence into their loud lives.
“He who knows does not speak;
He who speaks does not know.”Lao Tzu
“The moral virtues belong to the contemplative life as a predisposition. For the act of contemplation, in which the contemplative life essentially consists, is hindered both by the impetuosity of the passions and by outward disturbances. Now the moral virues curb the impetuosity of the passions and quell the disturbance of outward occupations. Hence moral virtues belong to the contemplative life as a predisposition.”St. Thomas Aquinas