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Thoreau on How Silence Ennobles Speech and the Ideal Space for Conversation

“There are many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout.”

More than a century before Susan Sontag wrote that “silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech,” Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) wrote in his journal in 1853: “I wish to hear the silence of the night, for the silence is something positive and to be heard.” In another entry, he noted that in any great space for conversation, “there should be a certain degree of silence surrounding you.” For Thoreau, as for Sontag, silence wasn’t merely an aesthetic experience — it was a singular mode of inhabiting one’s own thoughts and conversing with the world.

Only a year later, Thoreau published Walden (public library; public domain) — one of the most insightful books ever written, which also gave us his enduring ideas on defining your own success — and expounded on this notion that silence ennobles conversation by giving thought space to unfold.

Thoreau writes of the small cabin he built with his own hands:

I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society. When visitors came in larger and unexpected numbers there was but the third chair for them all, but they generally economized the room by standing up. It is surprising how many great men and women a small house will contain. I have had twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my roof, and yet we often parted without being aware that we had come very near to one another.

Illustration from ‘Henry Builds a Cabin,’ a children’s book about Thoreau’s philosophy. Click image for more.

Long before modern psychologists came to study embodied cognition — the way the body in physical space affects the mind — Thoreau, whose house included a “withdrawing room,” describes the ideal physical space for silence-fortified conversation:

You want room for your thoughts to get into sailing trim and run a course or two before they make their port. The bullet of your thought must have overcome its lateral and ricochet motion and fallen into its last and steady course before it reaches the ear of the hearer, else it may plough out again through the side of his head. Also, our sentences wanted room to unfold and form their columns in the interval. Individuals, like nations, must have suitable broad and natural boundaries, even a considerable neutral ground, between them. I have found it a singular luxury to talk across the pond to a companion on the opposite side. In my house we were so near that we could not begin to hear, — we could not speak low enough to be heard; as when you throw two stones into calm water so near that they break each other’s undulations.

I revisit this passage often as I witness all the ways in which our culture designs the mansion of the mind further and further away from this ideal. There is, of course, the visible physical manifestation — our increasingly lavish abodes turn the sanctuary of the home into a showroom. But there is also the more worrisome invisibilia of public discourse — rather than throwing two stones into the calm water of considered conversation, the internet’s outrage culture hurls bucketfuls of rocks — reactive comments through which we decimate each other’s undulations.

Thoreau captures what we stand to lose — what we do lose — when we strip conversation of contemplative pause:

If we would enjoy the most intimate society with that in each of us which is without, or above, being spoken to, we must not only be silent, but commonly so far apart bodily that we cannot possibly hear each other’s voice in any case. Referred to this standard, speech is for the convenience of those who are hard of hearing; but there are many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout.

Complement Walden, absolutely indispensable in its entirety, with John Cage on how silence thwarts our negative impulses, Paul Goodman on the nine kinds of silence, and this marvelous 1866 guide to the art of conversation, heeding which can greatly elevate contemporary discourse.

For more of Thoreau’s abiding genius, see his ideas on the art of walking, the value of useful ignorance, what it really means to be awake, and the greatest gift of growing old.

Published September 16, 2015




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