Greene, Alice Borchard. The Philosophy of Silence.
New York: Richard R. Smith, 1940.

The concept of silence is fundamental to all religious and philosophical traditions, and author Greene offers a survey touching upon nearly all of the world views. But unfortunately this book is now too old and too general to be serviceable to those who are prepared to fully understand and practice this virtue.

Not that the book has no merit. But no comparable work surveying this essential concept comprehensively has appeared. We fall back on books and articles making partial forays or upon reflective classics like Max Picard's "The World of Silence," while awaiting a history and proper psychology of silence.

Although the work does not say so, Greene's book was probably a reworking of her 1938 dissertation entitled "The Religious Uses of Silence," which accounts for the slight extension of the notion of religion to include philosophies, and for the technical, even mechanical, structure of the book. The general nature of the presentation is revealed in the introduction, which sounds a popular and antiquarian tone:

The deliberate use of silence is no longer the concern of the few odd ones, if ever it was. Frankly or covertly it has taken its place in the lives of thousands, for better or worse. And as it may be a far more potent force either way than a superficial acquaintance might suggest, it is worthy of unbiased scrutiny, and invites to deeper study. ... That deeper study will not be carried very far in this inquiry. ...

This cursory treatment means that names and traditions dominate over analysis. Greene ranges widely, scouring the literature for references to silence, but the effect is anecdotal. Perhaps organizing the chapters by traditions rather than topics would have created a better discipline for the researcher and a better structure for the reader. But the absence of predecessors dictated the tentative exploration of what was a relatively new subject at the time.

Of course, no one can quarrel with one of Greene's conclusions:

I make bold to say that nothing is more conducive to inward peace and quiet -- yes, even in a torn and distracted world -- than to know that conditions altogether transcending those of the environment and its worldly routine are discoverable to him who seeks, and who does what is necessary to attain.

The book is still a useful assembly of original sources for the persistent. Old stand-bys like Evelyn Underhill and  T. D. Suzuki will be cited as contemporaries. But Trappists before Merton, Hindu silence before Ramana, perennial philosophy before Huxley's classic, and Annie Besant as a source on Eastern religion reveal the book's age. Comments on Therapeuts, Sufis, and Quakers are welcome, however, and I was reminded of some good Walt Whitman sayings from Democratic Vistas. But, alas, a true philosophy of silence still awaits us.


CHAPTERS (and our italicized notes on their content)

  1. Introduction
  2. The Different Kinds of Silence
    religious uses of silence and reflective thought as two kinds
  3. Group Uses of Silence
    secular uses (oratory, drama); mystery religions, Catholicism, Quakerism; individualism versus institutionalism
  4. Silence as a Self-Discipline
    Western aversion to asceticism; ancient views; Eastern uses in Zen, Hindu munis, Sufism; Western uses in Trappists and the retreat movement
  5. Silence as a Source of Healing, Power and Refreshment
    Therapeuts, Zen, Taoism, Christian mysticism
  6. The Growing Retreat Movement
    Catholic and Protestant retreat movement
  7. Mystical Experience Through Silence
    Plato, yoga, monasticism, Trappists, mysticism proper
  8. Silence as a Challenge to Authority
    representative conflict of mysticism and Catholic Church authority; Quakerism; philosophy; Eastern approaches
  9. Silence as a Source of Knowledge
    silence and epistemology; consciousness; Berdyaev, William James,  Bergson
  10. A Few Practical Suggestions
    physiology, psychology, philosophy