Of Silence


Allegory of Silence, Artus Quellinus the Elder, 1655-1668

by Margaret Cavendish

It is said, That Silence a great virtue: It is true, in a Sick person’s chamber, that loves no noise; or at the dead time of night; or at lunchtimes that natural rest is not to be disturbed; or when Superiors are by; or in the discourse of another; or when attention should be given; or if they have great Impediments of speech; and Speaking, many times, is dangerous, infamous, rude, foolish, malicious, envious, and false.

But it is a Melancholy Conversation that hath no sound: and though Silence is sometimes very commendable; yet in some cafes it is better to speak too much, than too little; as in Hospitality, and the receiving Civil Visits: for it were better Strangers and Friends should think you talk too much, than that they should be displeased in thinking they were not welcome, by your speaking too little. Besides, it is a less fault to err with too much Courtesy, than with too much Neglect. And surely, to be accounted a Fool, it is not so bad as to be said to be Rude: for the one is the Fault of the Judger, and the other is the Fault of the Actor or Speaker: for, Civility is the life of Society; and Society is the life of Human Nature.

It is true, that there are more Errors committed in speaking than in silence: for words are light and subtle, and too airy, that when they are once flown out, cannot be recalled again, but only by asking pardon with more: and there is an old saying, To talk much, and well, is seldom heard. Which cannot be verified in all: for, some will speak well as long as there is grounds to speak on; but the length of time makes it sound to the ear, as Wine tastes to a drunken man, when he cannot relish between good and bad: so that it is not only the Matter, but the Manner, Time, and Subject, in Speaking, which makes it so hard to speak well, or please many: and though it be always pleasing to the Speaker to delight others; yet that doth not always please others, that he delights to speak of; as there is nothing more tedious to strangers, than to hear a man talk much of himself, or to weary them with long Complements; and though civility in that kind ought to be used; yet they should carry such forms and times, as not to lose respect to themselves, or to be over-troublesome in long expressions to others.

There are few but love to hear themselves talk; even Preachers: for a Preacher that preaches long, loves rather to talk than to edify the people; for the memory must not be oppressed in what they should learn; or their Reproofs too sharp in what they should mind; because if with one word or two of Reproof, he reforms; half a score undoes it again; which makes it a Railing instead of Exhortation. Neither is it required that a man should always speak according to his Profession or Employment in the Affairs of the world: for, it would be ridiculous for a Lawyer, in ordinary conversation, to speak as if he were pleading at the Bar; yet every one ought to have respect, in his Discourse, to his Condition; Calling, or Dignity, or to Quality of others: for it is not fit that there is a Priest, which either is or should be a Man of Peace, should speak like a Soldier, which is a Man of War; or speak to a Noble-man, as to a Priest.

Again, there is nothing take so much away the sweetness of Discourse, as long Preambles or Repetitions; and indeed, the whole Discourse is tedious and unpleasing, if it be over-long, though their Tongues were as smooth as Oil, and run upon the ways of truth; yet too much doth, as it were, over fill the Head, and stop the Ears: for, the Head will be as the Stomach, when it is over-charged, it will take surfeit of the most delicious Meat. Wherefore, in speaking, Judgement is required; yet some are so over-wise in the ordering of their Discourse, that it is not only troublesome to themselves, but a pain to the Hearers; having so set and constrained a way of speaking, as if their words went upon hard Scrues, when there is nothing so easy as Speech: for there is not part of man so unwearily active, as the Tongue. And of the other side, some are so full of talk, that they will neither give room nor time to speak; and when two or three such persons, of this voluble quality or nature, meet, they make such a confusion in speaking all together, that it becomes a tumultuous noise, rather than a sociable discoursing; which is a disturbance to Society: for Discourse should be like Musick in parts.

Essay first published in 1671. Via.