Speech and silence can both be vices. Knowing the difference between the two requires wisdom. And through wisdom, we will find the virtue between the vices, and learn how to give life through both our words and the silences between them.
A Time To Keep Silence
If something is of ultimate importance, you should say it as soon as possible, right? If something is true, and vital to know, then circumstances be damned, we just have to say it. The person we’re talking to will, in the end, be better off than if we hadn’t said it.
Christians often apply such logic to evangelism and discipleship. These tasks deal, necessarily, in ultimates – life and death, curses and blessings, first things and last things. If the Good News is so good, the judgement so terrible, and the task so unfinished, then we should surely be turning every possible moment into a conversation about Christ and the Gospel. The truth, by virtue of being true, demands restatement whenever possible. Even if people are not ready or willing to listen, they will have heard the word of God, which is living and active, and that is never a bad thing. And who knows – perhaps the Holy Spirit will zap them with new life out of nowhere.
And yet thinking about truth in this way is actually quite odd. If we consider how some of history’s greatest philosophers (i.e. those who love wisdom) and theologians (i.e. those who speak about God) have thought about speaking ultimate truth, we find they have this in common: there is a right time to speak of ultimate things, and a right time to remain silent.
This week, I’ve been reading Plato’s dialogue Alcibiades for a Davenant Hall class, taught by my colleague and podcast co-host Colin Redemer. The work is a conversation between the philosopher Socrates and the title character, young Alcibiades (a genuine historical figure who became a great Athenian leader, defecting at different points to both Sparta and Persia). Alcibiades has reached young manhood, and his ambitions to enter into politics are finally blossoming into reality. This is what kicks off the dialogue: Socrates has long seen Alcibiades’ drive and ability, but only now does he approach the younger man to take him under his philosophical wing before he begins his political career. Why? Because he knows Alcibiades is now ready to listen. Socrates says:
“It is impossible to put any of these ideas of yours into effect without me – that’s how much influence I think I have over you and your business. I think this is why the god hasn’t allowed me to talk to you all this time; and I’ve been waiting for the day he allows me.
I’m hoping for the same thing from you as you are from the Athenians: I hope to exert great influence over you by showing you that I’m worth the world to you and that nobody is capable of providing you with the influence you crave, neither your guardian nor your relatives, nor anybody else except me – with the god’s help, of course. When you were younger, before you were full of such ambitions, I think the god didn’t let me talk to you because the conversation would have been pointless. But now he’s told me to, because now you will listen to me.”
The blossoming of a serious desire for leadership signals to Socrates that Alcibiades is finally ready to listen to him regarding ultimate things. And it is ultimate things Socrates really wants to talk about. His main message to Alcibiades is that there is no point embarking upon a political career if he has not first cultivated his very soul. It is hard to imagine a more important topic of discussion, and yet Socrates did not badger Alcibiades with it every day. He waited. In fact, he says that God himself made him wait.
You find a similar thought in Augustine’s Confessions.