The child’s language is melodious.  The words hide and protect themselves in the melody – the words that have come shyly out of the silence.  They almost disappear again in the silence.  There is more melody than content in the words of the child.

It is as though silence were accumulating within the child as a reserve for the adult, for the noisy world of the child’s later years as an adult.  The adult who has preserved within himself not only something of the language of childhood but also something of its silence, too, has the power to make others happy.

From Max Picard, The World of Silence (1952)

I know a boy – he is a young man now – whose parents took him to spend the summer every year with their kinfolk in the Spanish countryside.  That was, outside of the village, a place of vast silences, the dry plains, the sun, the hard shadows of rocks, the scrub olives, the lizards and the birds and the flies.  He would leave home in the morning with a small lunch, and journey out into that silence, not returning until suppertime.  Then he would take out his saxophone and play, and the girls from the village would gather round, and it was as if the great gift of the rocks and hills, their mysterious being, had found a voice in that horn.  He did not so much break the silence as give it form and extend it to others.

I know a boy – he is long past boyhood now – whose earliest memories are of silence.  For five years, before kindergarten, he dwelled in the silence of his home.  I see him in my mind’s eye, the boy about to turn five, lying on the floor, etching shapes and words on the cardboard that came from the dry cleaner’s with his father’s white shirts.  He is in a world, making a world.  The only books in the house are a Bible and his mother’s missal.  He has read much of that book, with its red-edged pages, its leather cover, and its aromatic scent.  He cannot remember a time before he could read.  If a book could smell like the incense-smoke of prayer or of pure silence, this book does.  His mother is pottering about the kitchen, cooking the supper.  She is singing softly to herself.  The baby sister is napping.  There is a third child in the house, but he is the quietest of all, sheltered in the mother’s womb.  The boy knows a little about this, in the same way that he knows there is an ocean he has never seen.  It is there.  He continues to write and to draw.

In silence, the young Wordsworth rowed out onto the big lake, and saw the mountain looming up against him, a vast intimation of a presence in the world that is beyond human naming.  In silence, Michelangelo lay upon the scaffolding in the Sistine Chapel, sheltered from the noisy streets below, and painted the unpaintable silence of Adam, the moment before he received from God the breath of life, and he became a living soul.

When Cordelia hears the noisy protestations of her sisters, she turns to the secret springs of life within her:  “What, shall Cordelia speak?  Love, and be silent.”  She will not, even at the prompting of her foolish father King Lear, try to speak what cannot be spoken.  Such were the words of lovers, in times where true childhood had time to flourish.  They were like gentle attempts to touch a hand to a hand.  They were reticent before the mystery.

“Proper education and proper teaching,” writes Max Picard, “are based on the substance of silence.”  For silence, he asserts, is not an absence, but a presence.  It is noise, rather, that is the absence, both of the significant word and of the fullness of being that silence allows us to hear.  Silence belongs to man as the creature who possesses the word; noise, to the creature whom words possess, lashing him on, on, mechanically, without rest, without meaning.

The boy has taken up the book again, and turns to Isaiah.  He sees numbers, and small headings.  Each word on the page is like a living creature.  He can read the words, but he cannot yet reduce them to insignificance.  He cannot trap them and kill them, stuff them with his own knowledge and put them on a shelf.  He wants to watch the living creature.  He wants to follow it, as if you could tiptoe into its cave, and enter another world.

He is not being “stimulated.”  We who do not have the word have forgotten how petty and dreary a thing it is to be stimulated.  The stimulus is the prick or spur you dig into the side of an animal.  Imagine the horse, slow moving creature when he is content, with his large sad eyes.  If we are to make use of him, we must apply the spur.  The stimulus is the instrument of utility.  In a world where even human beings are no more than occasions for profit, the stimulus is everywhere.  It is as if everyone were wearing a hair shirt, not to mortify the flesh, but to nag it, to keep it from resting, to stimulate it.

Everything is a stinging nettle.  We drive down the street, and the signs nettle us; buy this, do that.  We enter a public place, and the music which is not music nettles us.  We look at the spines of books, and their large letters in unnatural colors nettle us.  Libraries are prickle-beds of visual noise.  Textbooks for children are so much noise; then the restlessness of the classroom; the political sloganeering; the inevitable exam; the “enlightened” urging of the parents; the sting, the lash of prestige, of seeking admittance to the “best” school, the “best” team, the “best” club; the noise of a clanking death-in-life.  Then to escape one noise, the children turn to another, the prick of the video game, the twitter, the drug, the sexual hook.

It is essentially a pornographic world, where everyone lies naked on a bed of nettles, and every new thing is dead before it is born.

Silence is so great a blessing to us because we cannot use it.  All things truly creative, which partake of the spirit of play, send their roots deep down into silence.  Watch the play of children, when they are given time to play, and an outdoors for play, without the direction – the stimuli – of goading and noisome parents.  People say that children at play are noisy.  That is not true.  They may whoop and holler and laugh, they may be heard from far off, but they aren’t making noise.  When an old man hears the cries of boys playing ball in a field around the corner, it is as if time had returned to its home in eternity, and the field of his youth had never gone away.

When Jesus said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven,” perhaps He meant to recommend more than humility and innocence.  For the great power of childhood is its direct address to the mystery of being.  The child is not yet swept up into the world of profit and loss.  He plays, and it is like contemplation.  He prays, and it is like play.  Even the dialogues of Plato, says Picard, partake of a kind of childhood, because when the play of conversation is over, the characters seem to let the silence settle among them again, as we can imagine Socrates and Phaedrus resting a little while longer under the plane tree on the road from Athens.

What do we now mean by “education,” if not efficiently directed stimuli, profitable noise?  We teach young people to encounter great works of art as if they were noise, prating about themselves and, Lord forgive us, about their creators, nagging us to prate about them in our turn.  And in all of this senile prattle what is lost, but the beautiful work itself, and the child, and the speaking silence between them?

We cannot educate young people, because we no longer understand what people are for.  We are the creatures who behold, who play, who give a tongue to silence.  That is one of the things meant by the verse, “Let us make man in our image.”

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Anthony Esolen
Anthony Esolen is Distinguished Professor at Thales College and the author or translator of 28 books, on literature, culture, and the Christian faith, among them the three-volume Modern Library translation of The Divine Comedy, and, most recently, In the Beginning Was the Word: An Annotated Reading of the Prologue of John (Angelico Press). He and his wife Debra also produce a web magazine, Word and Song, dedicated to a revival of interest in the good, the true, and the beautiful, through traditional hymns, poetry, classic films, popular music from its golden age, and the quirky history of the English language.


  1. “We cannot educate young people, because we no longer understand what people are for.”

    They’re for sitting in cubicles and pushing buttons, right?

    Not sure why there are not any comments here, other than that people just don’t know what to say. That’s the hopeful answer, I guess. The pessimistic answer is that we have given up (actually the REAL pessimistic answer is that no one cares). It’s pretty telling and sad that Porchers seem to either not know or not care about what to do about the primary education system (occasionally there are posts relating to universities, but that’s a much less important problem). Some just default to “Hey, let’s everybody homeschool!” but that doesn’t cut it for all sorts of reasons. It’d be nice if someone anywhere proposed anything that would change the broken paradigm of education–why do we have an age-centric lecture system as the one and only system for educating children? What does that accomplish anyway? What possible rationale is there, practically, socially, historically, etc., for thinking that is effective for anything?

    I love this series of yours, by the way. I’ll offer that, if nothing else.

  2. I’ve seen fine postings at FPR. This is one of them — the kind of thing that brings me back here. I expect to share it, this fall, with students at the state university where I work.

  3. Of course, when we say “silence” we are speaking abstractly or ideally. There is no silence in earthly living, ever. Perhaps we should say “quietness”, which more accurately states what the absence of the kind of nettling stimulation that Mr. Esolen decries–“pornographic”, he aptly calls it–is really like. I like to think that some people are naturally (by heavenly dispensation?) given to aural quietness, at least. My granddaughter has always disliked loud sounds, though she’s not an adolescent yet. Her mother before her was the same (and still is), and as a boy, I sought out silence without thinking about it or that that was what I was doing. I now think that a lot of what made my young adulthood so unsatisfying was my determination to immerse myself in noise–rock music, rallies and “demonstrations” (not too many of those–slogan-shouting and amplified bloviation have always disgusted me), dance bars–although, thanks be, I never could abide stadium sports, motorcycles, racing cars, firearms, fire engines and police sirens, heavy construction/destruction equipment, sports bars, and the reverberating canyons of modern cities, which constitute the foremost curse of the skyscraper. I avoid modern restaurants with their lack of upholstery, drapery, and carpeting. Lastly, I have long left the modest, uncharismatic, crypto-Protestant church of my upbringing for meetings of the Religious Society of Friends that worship in the traditional Quaker manner–in silence, we say, though we are listening, always.

    Mr. Esolen, you’ve written truly. Thanks.

    (P. S. I had to chuckle, however, about those stinky [“noisome”], directive parents you mention.)

  4. Brian should know that in contemporary education, lecturing is out, and group work is in. As a high school English teacher, however, I find that so-called progressive instructional methods fail to provide students with a deep understanding of literature and writing. I prefer discussions, and even lectures, the methods by which I was educated. To build upon Professor Esolen’s point, the old-fashioned techniques allowed for the silence of contemplation. Today’s state-sanctioned, whirligig classrooms require students to do little more than move and talk–to displace thought with noise.

  5. Mr. Cote: Come on, man. Is it really necessary to initiate comments here with such clear passive-aggressive hostility? Seriously? I’m quite familiar with contemporary primary schooling, and lectures are certainly not “out”, nor do they provide anything like “the silence of contemplation.”

  6. Brian,
    Since when is fair debate “passive-aggressive hostility”? And in what way are you familiar with education? You make many claims that cry out for support, including this one: “It’s pretty telling and sad that Porchers seem to either not know or not care about what to do about the primary education system (occasionally there are posts relating to universities, but that’s a much less important problem).” That’s a wild accusation. Why shouldn’t certain “Porchers” take offense at your calling them ignorant and apathetic? I recommend that you reread your own words. I sense that your true bugbear is disagreement, not hostility. Regarding lectures, I fondly remember great teachers and professors who held me spellbound; as they gave generously of their knowledge, I contemplated their words and ideas, silently. My point is that the old forms of education respected the interior lives of students. Such was my experience, for which I ask no apology.

  7. Great piece, Tony — was reading somewhere recently about how both the noise and the hyperactivity of modern times make contemplation very difficult. What used to come naturally now often requires a concerted effort.

    A very good little book with some rather interesting observations about modernity, silence, and noise came out about 10-15 years ago, The Silence of Angels by Dale Allison. It was reprinted a few years back under the title The Luminous Dusk. I believe it was Dale Nelson, who commented above, who first put me onto it. Well worth a look.

  8. Mr. Cote: Your opening sentence clearly reads as “Brian doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Is that not a fair reading? That’s not “disagreement”, that’s open hostility. Sorry, but that’s my reading on it, for which I ask no apology.

    The line you quote from my initial posting was clearly regarding the complete silence that followed this outstanding post from Mr. Esolen. I’m pretty sure my comment you quoted offended no one, since apparently no one felt the need to respond to this article, or my comment.

    You seem to be focused on high-school and higher education. That’s not at all what I was talking about, nor was it the focus of Mr. Esolen’s post. This is clear from the repeated references to small children, as well as to “primary school.” Surely you’re not going to claim that now or ever children ages 5-12 are “held..spellbound” by lectures from their teachers?

    • In third grade, I was spellbound by Miss Kinney’s lecture on Native American tribes. In sixth grade, I was spellbound by Mr. Alexopolous’s lecture on planets, stars, and galaxies. In the eighth grade, I was spellbound–every day–by Mr. Lunt’s meteorology class. Those were good days.

  9. On a more constructive note, I have read Professor Esolen’s entire series here at FPR. I will risk presumption to say that as an educator, I regard the professor’s words as infinitely more valuable to my career than anything I have read from the education establishment. If you like the series as much as I do, you should seek out his scintillating book “Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child.” You get 250 pages of gorgeous prose and humane insight. Perhaps it is gauche to plug a book by an FPR author, but I have no stake in the matter other than to share a quality work with people who devote their lives to the pursuit of quality.

  10. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote a tract in the early ’90s called “Rebuilding Russia.” In it he challenges the idea that the West’s full-throttle capitalism, with its incessant and frenzied marketing campaigns, would be right for his home country–or really any country, for that matter. At one point he asks how we can “protect the right of our ears to silence, the right of our eyes to inner vision”–not terms we usually see in the human rights discourse. Whether Solzhenitsyn was being sincere here in calling these rights, I don’t know. But he seems convinced that in order even to talk about the right ordering of society and of human life we need to have access to the source that makes the very existence of these things possible. This, in turn, is something we do best in a contemplative mode that is first passive before anything else.

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