Today we are launching a new series on solitude by Jennifer Stitt, a historian of modern American thought, culture, and politics working on her Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This piece on silence and solitude is the first of five short essays that will be published monthly.
In 1852, Herman Melville described the dark depravity of silence. “All profound things, and emotions of things are preceded and attained by Silence,” Melville wrote. “It is the most awful thing in all nature.” For Melville, there was no sanctuary in silence, no peace or wisdom to be found in calm quietude. It was, despite its profundity, a state of hopelessness and a denunciation of a godless, “accursed” world. Nearly destitute, buried beneath the burden of his unsold and unread books, his failures fueled his fear that he was, in the end, alone, unheard—that the mute emptiness was all that there was. From silence, Melville despondently declared, “those imposter philosophers pretend somehow to have got an answer; which is absurd, as though they should say they had got water out of stone; for how can a man get a Voice out of Silence?”
Melville stood alone, terrified, on the brink of oblivion, and heard only the echo of his own desolation. But many other thinkers have discovered solace in the “wise silence” of solitude. For them, silence rendered refuge, vital reprieve from the babel of insistent voices that incessantly aspired to persuade. In silent contemplation, one could finally hear oneself think.
A decade before Melville, in 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson described silence as an entire world unto itself, that soundless space where the whole soul of man resided, where “every part and particle is equally related,” and where the “common heart” simultaneously embraced each individual’s particularity and made humanity “one with all other.”
But describing such spiritual unity was, even for a poet of Emerson’s talents, nearly impossible. “Language cannot paint it,” he wrote. “It is too subtle. It is undefinable, unmeasurable; but we know that it pervades and contains us.” And yet, despite such ineffability, Emerson persistently probed the hidden depths of man’s transcendence. He provoked his readers to consider their own divinity carefully and exhorted them to cultivate habits of solitary contemplation, habits which would awaken the soul to itself, to others, and, ultimately, to the wonders and mysteries of the world.
Emerson taught that revelation “of all nature and all thought” was accessible to everyone; “the learned,” he asserted, “have no monopoly on wisdom.” Just as every individual could learn to sit quietly and listen, every individual could also learn to hear—truly hear—the voice of God. He who would know “what the great God speaketh,” Emerson proclaimed, must “‘go into his closet and shut the door,’ as Jesus said. . . . He must greatly listen to himself, withdrawing himself from all the accents of other men’s devotion.” By discarding the inauthentic authority of mass man, the unexchangeable self—the soul, as Emerson understood it—could enter into communion with the infinite and divine. “The soul gives itself, alone, original and pure,” he stated, “to the collective universal mind” where we all have a spirit-home, where “we see and know each other,” and where society is made possible.
At the very moment that Emerson entered into his quiet closet, his friend and disciple Henry David Thoreau fled the bustle of Concord, Massachusetts, and built a cabin on the northwestern shore of Walden Pond. In his journal, Thoreau recounted listening to the “fertile and eloquent” silence while meditatively walking through the woods: “I wish to hear the silence of the night, for the silence is something positive and to be heard. . . . The silence rings; it is musical and thrills me. A night in which the silence was audible. I hear the unspeakable.” As with Emerson, Thoreau’s solitude filled his soul with spiritual satisfaction. “Silence is the communing of a conscious soul with itself,” he avowed. “If the soul attend for a moment to its own infinity, then there is silence. She is audible to all men, at all times, in all places.”
Dissatisfied with an increasingly disenchanted, mechanistic world, Thoreau lamented the clamor and claptrap of an increasingly industrializing America. As he so forcefully put it in Walden (1854):
Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. Either is in such a predicament as the man who was earnest to be introduced to a distinguished deaf woman, but when he was presented, and one end of her ear trumpet was put into his hand, had nothing to say. As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly.
In silence and solitude, then, Thoreau recovered a realm that was still enchanted, where he could bear witness to the muted mysteries of the cosmos and to the conscious, contemplative nature of man. He understood that deliberate contemplation spurred deep thought—the sort of slow, serious thinking that allows us to understand our world, to distinguish truth from falsehood.
To be sure, neither Emerson nor Thoreau shunned speech. Both writers were outspoken political participants, and they provided people with a language of protest—however imperfect and incomplete that language might have been. In their own time, they implored Americans to stand up against the sins of slavery and war; later, their writings would inspire a generation of activists across the world to throw off the chains of colonialism, racism, and sexism, and to attempt to build better systems of government. What they repudiated was not speech as such. It was, rather, the thoughtless repetition of slogans and clichés—the empty, fast talk of the thousands of city slickers who blindly hurdled headlong into the unconscious conformity of the crowd.
In our own culture of hyperactive distraction, we spend hours every day sidetracked, surfing from website to website, impulsively clicking links, skimming more and more text more and more quickly, compulsively sending messages and status updates into the electronic ether, shouting louder and louder in order to be heard. Against this cacophony, we too often forget to pause. We go days, weeks, months—even years—without engaging in silent reflection. We have lost the equilibrium that Emerson and Thoreau struck, that balance between thought and action, between the quiet calm of contemplation and the symphonic movement of society.
Solitary seekers such as Emerson and Thoreau show us that silence can be more than the awful absence of sound. Silence is not always a reflection of the world’s wretchedness, as Melville would have had it. Quiet contemplation can instead become a pathway to our deepest, truest selves. It can lead us beyond ourselves, into the company of others, and toward an appreciation of the many marvels and miracles of the world. In the end, Emerson and Thoreau remind us that, if we dare to dive deeply into the soundless sea of solitary contemplation, we might just discover new islands of thought and meaning. We simply have to sit silently, inhabit the stillness, and listen.
Jennifer Stitt is a historian of modern American thought, culture, and politics who earned a B.A. and M.A. in history from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She’s working on her Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She lives and writes in Birmingham.