The World of Silence

History and Silence

   There is a periodical quietness in the flow of human
history, in the history of individuals and of nations,
in which nothing of "historical" significance occurs at all.
   Everything external is absorbed by the inward silence
of such periods. It is as though the outward events were
trying not to disturb the placid flow of silence, as though
the world of silence were being fed by the stillness of
events. There are eventless periods in human history,
periods in which history seems to carry silence—nothing
but silence—around with her; periods in which men and 
events are hidden beneath the silence. Perhaps the period
from the fall of the Roman Empire to the beginning of
the Middle Ages is an example of such a period of
   Perhaps the reason there is so little recorded history
in the early ages of mankind's evolution is that silence was
still such a power in human life—the silence from which
all historical events came and to which they returned.
There was no "history", only silence. The “historical"
personalities and events were only positions from which
silence gazed at man. From the silence of these "historical" 
personalities and events man learnt his own silence.

   History lives in two different modes—that of the clearly
visible daylight and that of the dark invisible silence.
   Many events not remembered and recorded by history
are not therefore, as Hegel imagined, "without justification"; 
they are rather events known only to silence.
   It is wrong to say that it is a defect in man that his
powers of observation and memory are insufficient to
take in and remember the all-too-many events of history.
Man was not intended to notice and remember everything
that happens. History does not belong to man alone, but
also to the invisible silence.
   Silence is always close to history. There was an example
of this at the end of the last World War, the war that was
like a rebellion of noise against silence; when silence was
powerfully present at least for a few days. Nothing was
said about the war; it was absorbed by the silence before
it was spoken. Silence was for a time more potent than
all the horrors of the war. It could have been a healing
influence, and the world could have been transformed and
re-created in that silence if it had not been overrun and
destroyed by the noise of the whole industrial machine
getting down to work again. That was the great defeat
that mankind suffered immediately after the war.
   We have said that silence is as much a part of history
as noise; the invisible as much a part of history as the
visible. But roughly since the French Revolution man
has taken note only of the loud facts of history. He has
overlooked the things of silence which are just as import-
ant. It is pure materialism to regard only the audible
facts of history as important.
   It is true that historical persons and historical events
reach up into the realm of the visible and the audible, but
they also penetrate deep down into silence: they are pro-
jections from the ground of silence. Historical events and
personalities not only bring their actions to man, they also
bring the silent ground of history. They are like draft
animals drawing silence on behind them.
   The silent side of history is seen a little in the silent
suffering of men and nations. But more suffering is lived
through than is seen from the outside. It seems that man-
kind prefers to suffer in silence, prefers to live in the world
of silence, even if it be by suffering, than to take its suffer-
ing into the loud places of history. This is the only possible
explanation of the patient endurance shown by whole
nations under the heel of tyranny.
   In the midst of the loudness of history these suffering
nations are ambassadors from the world of silence, allies
of the world of silence. It seems that such great suffering
can be imposed on these people only because the great
silence that is in the world helps the silence that is in man
himself to bear the burden of suffering. Suffering becomes
unbearable only when, separated from the great silence in
the world, it is merely a part of the noise of history, and
then has to bear its burden alone.

   From time to time, as we have said already, there are
periods in history in which the silence is more evident
than the noise. History does not flow in a straight line
from the noise of one age to the noise of the next. The 
flow of noise is sometimes interrupted by an age of silence.
In fact, silence can move into an intrinsically noisy age
and fill it with something of its stillness. Today, however,
it is the reverse that happens. It is noise and loudness
that invade the silent places of history. 

   There are nations that seem to slumber in silence for
long centuries: such are the Spaniards during the last
three hundred years. The silence in which they live is
not an emptiness, nor is it a symptom of sterility. It is
rather a sign of the importance and high value of silence
for the Spaniards. Spain has been considered backward
and old-fashioned because it did not join in the universal
noise and mobility of the modern age by industrializing
its economy. But Spain is no more backward than a child
that wants to stay with its mother, or that comes back to
its mother, and to silence.
   In the silent substance of such nations as Spain there
is a great reserve of help and strength for all the other
nations. All of us, the nations of the modern world of
noise, live on the capital of silence which lives on in the
life of a people like the Spaniards. Such nations are
passive, slumbering and silent not only for themselves
but for the other nations, for the noisy and the wide
awake as well. Spain and many of the peoples of Asia and
Africa have silence in safe keeping not only for themselves
but for the rest of us as well. We should all be much more
ravaged by the evils of this all-too-wide-awake world of
noise if we could not share in this surviving fund of
silence. All the nations of the world belong to each other.
That is why we can draw on the silence of other nations
just as they can draw on our wide-awake alertness.

   In the ages when silence was a more active influence
than noise, much importance was attributed to omens:
the silent flight of birds, the silent figurations of immolated animals, 
the silent motions of nature.

         When Galba rode to Rome a few days before his death
          and everywhere along the road victims were being
          slaughtered, a bull which had been enraged by the blow
          of the axe, tore itself loose, ran up to the emperor's
          chariot and covered him over and over with blood.
          Shortly after Galba was murdered. (Suetonius)

   The world of the word by and through which man
exists, the world of the Christian, can be endangered by
this world of omens. It was therefore banished into the
silence by the Word of Christ.
   Where the Word speaks, omens have no further need
to speak, do not dare to speak. But when language is no
longer firm and clear, as in our own world today, man
goes out again in search of omens. But the omens of
today no longer point to a reality: they only show the
destruction of language. They are there only because of its
destruction. To be sure, the destruction of the word is
itself an omen, but it is an omen only in the sense that a
ghost is an omen. In other words, it points not to a future
but to a past reality, to the ruins of the word.
   What men regard as an omen today is like the statue of
an ancient god, an imitation made of plaster of Paris and
crumbling at man's first sight of it.
   When man is no longer under the direction of silence
nor of the word, history and events themselves undertake
to teach him. Truth that can no longer reach man through 
the word is made clear by historical events. The Word of
Christ had warned man against turning to evil, but as the
word fell on deaf ears events were sent to teach him. The
ruin against which man had refused to be warned in time
by the word, was now revealed to man through the fact
of the ruin of his own existence. Truth spoke not through
words but through the events of war and other terrors.

          As men no longer believed in the teaching that violence
          and hatred and crime should not hold sway among them,
          it was brought home to them by the fact of war. 
         (Hitler in Ourselves, Picard)

   In the life of Christ, history itself, sacred history, spoke
the word. God Himself came into the word, the word
that man had forsaken.