Holding one’s tongue: Silence before speech

How infrequently do we hold our tongue. The phrase ‘holding one’s tongue’ we apply too narrowly, only to cases where we are upset and bound to say something that may hurt our interlocutor. At such a time, holding one’s tongue is appropriate and no doubt it saves us from embarrassment, foolishness, backtracking, and apologizing later on. And yet, not saying what may come to mind is an exercise that is best practiced not narrowly but across a whole range of cases. In lieu of privileging speech over silence, we had better reverse the relationship: holding silence to be the default, we only utter words when they are warranted.

‘Only when they are warranted?’ Yes, only after they have passed the test given by the demands within a specific context: answering cleanly a legitimate question; asserting a true belief in order to broaden the pool of true beliefs among us; saying in a few choice words how we are actually doing; helping the interlocutor make sense of a subject that had so far proven mysterious to him; issuing sincere words of love to one’s beloved. These are but some clear, vivid examples.

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Holding presence of mind amid the turning world

I meditate.

Be quiet. You fill. Silent. Hold.

Be still. You squiggle. Softly. Squirm. Softly. Still and softly.

Be clear. You muddy, jumble, convolve. Be clear, clear, clear.

Be empty.

I sway and bend meltingly. Meditate.

Be silent. [Pause]

Be still. [Pause]

Be clear. [Pause]

Empty. [Pause]

Whisper this again. Breathe: the world is thick, now, dense, now, deeper and more significant. Sway this.

Rest here with mud.





Sober joy or quiet calm: who knows what name it goes by but it goes by unnamably.

Empty the tongue completely.


In an endnote to Chapter 6 entitled ‘Silence,’ the editor Bruce L. Venarde tells us that ‘Taciturnitas traditionally means limited speech, but Benedict generally uses it to signify silence.’ The senses are not unrelated. Silence can lend its ear to limited speech, and limited speech rests and resounds more readily than it wriggles.

In the Chapter 8, ‘Humility,’ Benedict speaks of 12 steps, each step being a spiritual exercise, the whole not reducible to an algorithm. Attentively, we read that ‘The eleventh step of humility is that when a monk speaks he does so gently and without laughter, humbly, seriously, in few words and reasonable ones, not noisily, as it is written, “A wise man is made known by his brevity.”‘

Upon meeting a patron this past week, I wrote,

To loose my words

Off this heavy branch–

Each one, lightly, without counting.

In praise of stuttering

I have become suspicious of eloquence. My suspicion reminds me of two very different stories.

Thomas Aquinas is in the chapel, celebrating the feast of St. Nicholas, when he experiences what appears to him as a mystical vision. Formerly a voluminous writer and prodigious scholar and presently at work on his magnum opus, the Summa Theologica, he says to his intimate Reginald that he will write no more. Nonplussed, Reginald entreats him to continue, and if he will not at least to tell him his reasons. Thomas, by this time exasperated by Reginald’s persistent entreaties, declares,

I adjure you by the living almighty God, and by the faith you have in our order, and by charity that you strictly promise me you will never reveal in my lifetime what I tell you. Everything that I have written seems like straw to me compared to those things that I have seen and have been revealed to me.

A straw: all his writings on Aristotle, on the heavens, on the controversies and disputes; all his writings but a straw in comparison with what he has seen and experienced. And the Summa, which was to be the culmination of his life as a Christian scholar, goes unfinished, will never be finished. Not long after, Thomas will fall ill and die, but one imagines that Thomas’s having lived two or three decades longer would have made no difference in the way of his blessed silence.

Thomas’s silence exists worlds apart from Margaret Edison’s drama Wit. In this play, the protagonist, Vivian Bearing, a professor of English literature and a scholar of metaphysical poetry, especially the works of Donne, is diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer and will die shortly. Professor Bearing is a great wit who makes sure that her deftness and facility with language are evident from the first. It soon becomes clear that her eloquence is her way of turning aside from others, a form of insincerity, a barbarous kind of cruelty, an exhibition of cowardice. Her eloquence is foolishness dressed up in cleverness. The truth is far simpler than eloquence belies, the truth being that clever men bleed just as well as less clever ones.

Know that I was once Professor Bearing and now put my lot in with Thomas and with those of Thomas’s kind. “I can write no more,” says Thomas, “for everything I have written seems to me but straw.” The Daodejing also cautions us against eloquence, urging on us stillness and direct speech in opposition to fine discourse and deceit. We read:

Great eloquence seems tongue-tied
If you can be calm and still, you can be the governor of the world (no. 45)
Eloquent speech can be used for bargaining;
Fawning conduct can be used for bribing others. (no. 62)
Trusty speech is not embellished;
Embellished speech is not trusty. (no. 81)


In my life, I had become eloquent, a social aspirant from a middle class background, a person for whom fine words conferred great legitimacy. And they did. I had aspired, by cultivating charm and charisma, to be an eloquent one, to be a master of fine tongues, a paragon of the flowing tongue. In my time, I had learned to master the room, others’ eyes having confirmed my self-importance. And they did. I was alive to this, unalive to others.

And now, as a philosopher, I have slowly let go of the easy eloquence. In a recent conversation I had with Jeppe Graugaard about Dark Mountain Project and about the times in which we live, I said, “It’s almost as though you hear a voice somewhere and you go, “oh, that’s… I’ve never heard that before”, and then… and then… ‘unheimlich’, kind of an uncanny experience, you hear that again somewhere else, and you think “right, well, really?” [laughs].” I said, “And I think it’s in tune, and this is… I’m coming back to institutions, I think it’s in tune with….” I said, “Let’s come back to that for a moment because I don’t think that… that already seems to….” I said, “But surely it doesn’t have to be the case. Uh… and I’d also say one further thing….” And I concluded, “Absolutely and we… so, we’re right now at a point where we’re getting a….”

My pauses are evidence of a desire to think with another, with every philosophical other.

My former posture, one of hubris, had leaned heavily on false eloquence. Too fine words, turned upward, bounding toward the period, were downright vanities. Since my eloquent days, I have had to learn, in hopes of being wise, to put back the stutters in all their appropriate places and also to love them, these revelings, for their intimations of nearby revelations. In so doing, I have come back to my conversation partners who, I told Jeppe, have come to me because they’ve

come unstuck from a social order find themselves–not speechless but in certain forms of stuttering, or they’re not quite sure how to describe their lives, they’re clinging to forms of life that have not really made sense to them, but using the same vocabulary afterward.

They are scared and not wordless but sideways off-worded. And then we go to put words, the right ones. When one says, “What do I mean what do I mean?,” says, “Where am I going with all this?,” when another says something as an aside, as “a tangent,” apologizes for her “digression”; when another can’t find words or looks off in ellipsis; when another gets timid with tinny voice; when another cuts off into the silence; when another… when they (we) do this, I think: “Well, now this is interesting. Here’s the beginning of an interesting inquiry. Let’s hold right here. Stay here with me.”

I have no truck with good eloquence but this is something different. Good eloquence is the lucid conclusion following from a worked-out argument, the final words of a daring line of thought, the most accurate words that replace the inaccurate and esoteric ones, the simplest phrases that bespeak greater understanding, further clarity, mutual insight, mutuality. Good eloquence, discovered at the end of an inquiry, having passed through the stutterings and the dashes, having laughed through all the fine nonsenses, all the fine speeches, good eloquence of the kind lying near the point of death–this kind of eloquence is not so far from stillness, from the silence. And is there anything more to say once we’ve found each other, arriving right here, after all this, in the same place? One more word would ruin it.

Friday meditation: Curating Tao Te Ching

The following are excerpts from Tao Te Ching. All have something to say about the  nature of wisdom. Enjoy this Friday’s meditation.


To speak little is natural.
High winds do not last all morning;
heavy winds do not last all day.


The ancient Masters
didn’t try to educate the people,
but kindly taught them to not-know.
When they think that they know the answers,
people are difficult to guide.
When they know that they don’t know,
people can find their own way.


Wise men don’t need to prove their point;
men who need to prove their point aren’t wise.