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The Ethics Of Silence

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As I was sitting on a hill one shiny afternoon, it began to drizzle. Facing north, my eyes caught two majestically risen breast-like peaks of a mountain. I was filled with wonder as the drizzles, the thin mist and the fading sunrays put me before a blurred yet colored transparent glass of nature to enjoy nature’s own silent beauty. Still dumbfounded, I turned west and enveloped in an awe-stricken spectacle of extra-terrasterial colors. The rainbows - seen through the misty twilight - were magnificent. Below, the winding courses of rivers passing through the white sand seemed like intricately woven Chinese silk adorning the entrance of Indian King Ashoka’s court. As the day began to darken, the choir of frogs from their swampy kingdom nearby welcoming the dusk. As I stepped down the hill, nature’s silent beauty offered me nothing but surrender and ineffability.

Since then I can not bear frequenting this hill gazing experience. Every time I frequent this height gazing, my horizon of seeing broadens and becomes more and more refined. There is a transformation of consciousness: my old way of navel gazing is elevated to “chin up” gazing. The call to come to the height for chin up gazing goes hand in hand with the call to plunge into the depth. Deep down inside me there’s an inner sanctuary where silence finds its home.

As respect for silence grows, I realize that silence has its own unique ethics. It’s an “I” ethics, not a “we”. It’s not about norms and values that regulate a society, but it’s about one’s awareness of one’s layers of consciousness. Putting it in Jungian terminology, it’s the descending awareness of one’s superego, ego, id and deep down to one’s collective consciousness. Thus, the ethics of silence regulates the movements of the interior space, the inner world.

Counter Ethics

By way of comparison, the ethics of silence can be a counter ethics to the “we” ethics. “We” ethics in general, whether Nichomachean or Epicurean, Augustinian or Kantian, micro or macro, local or global – all deal with norms as means in order to attain certain desired state of well being (values as end). Since these “we” ethics are operative in communities and societies, the concerns are about rights and obligations, being legal or illegal. In sum, it’s about reciprocal respect for the dignity and value of the other.

By contrast, the ethics of silence is operative in the layers of consciousness of the individual. It has no history, classes or branches. It is the locus – the space where consciousness learns to open up its layers in its intermingling and interaction with “the other”. Neither norms nor values, rights nor obligations, legality nor illegality have their permanent existence in it. The locus is a vast expanse of hermeneutical field where ideologies fight with each other, values collide, norms battle for a new synthesis, yet a different kind from Hegel’s self-centered dialectic. It is the “synthesis in the middle” or an inbetweeness – the all embracing agapeic synthesis (William Desmond) or fusion of horizons (Gadammer).

Before going further into the nature of the ethics of silence that is the code of silence, it is appropriate to pause for a moment and consider some pitfalls one may encounter in “the silence”.

Beware of pitfalls!

Being a locus of hermeneutical field, or more precisely, hermeneutical “battlefield”, silence is pregnant with terror for many. The supposed to be moment of silence becomes unbearable. The noise inside becomes wilder and wilder. The inner turmoil at work set a deadly trap: escape, that is the running away from the self with the risk of letting the self be ignorant of itself. Thus, the first pitfall is that of terror which leads to escape.

Secondly, some dare to endure for some moments, but then run away because the longer you swim and the deeper you dive into the ocean of silence, the darker the ground becomes. There is fear of being vulnerable. Yet the stake is paramount: the self rejects itself and closes itself for growth.

Thirdly, silence becomes repressive and depressive because time is experienced as chronos: series of events, most often unrelated to each other. The common complaint is that of boredom and the solution is “killing the time”. The escapist way returns and the price is high: self is deprived of en-joy-ment.

It’s only trough experiencing time as kairos (moment, opportunity for growth), one can partake fully, joy-fully, care-fully in the code of silence.

The Code of Silence

Conscious observation of the self

It’s pure observation and examination. No moral assessment and judgement allowed. It’s like letting the self lay naked before the mirror of the consciousness. There might be psychological scars, traumas from the family and society, past wounds inherited from the repressive tradition, hidden yet normal and dormant desires, as well as taboos coiled in the dark corners of the id. Before the mirror of the consciousness, they are neither good nor bad, legal nor illegal. The aim is to bring up the hidden wounded self to be treated and to be healed.

Moment of conscious observation is in fact an elethea, a revelatory event which in turn generates growth. This moment of conscious examination has a transforming effect because there’s an acceptance of the self as what it is. It’s a moment of great worth because through it, life is made worthwhile. Thus, Socrates was right when saying, “An unexamined life is not worth living”.

Conscious imagination

In the silence where there is no talking, imagination is busiest. Strictly speaking, there’s no taboo at all. One is compelled to believe Peter Abelard’s ethics: “Nothing is sinful so far as it is still in the imagination.” But, do not be misled! Illusion is roaring and roaming around if the imagination is let wildest. The real and most free, most disillusioned imagination is a conscious one. One knows what is being imagined and be aware of the process. It’s like a guided missile hitting the right target.

The aim of conscious imagination is a creative imagination. It’s a conscious search for innovations and difference. Truly enough, “Imagination is much more important than knowledge”, said Einstein after he was struck in awe before the complexities and mystery of the universe.
Wonder-filled surrender

The underlying force is desire soaked in wonder for there’s no effort to know and then to master. This moment of silence is the moment of letting go. This moment is most passionate yet most detached. The more consciously submissive one is, the more wonder one has. It is of surrender, a highly recommended attitude before The Mysterious.

The purpose is to learn true humility and true freedom. What is put at stake is the very self itself. However, the reward is beyond counting: a spirited life, that is, the capability to see things beyond their biological, physiological, social and cultural conditionings. In other words, it’s a moment of retreat in order to let “the other” be as it is. Simone Weil puts it beautifully, “I have to retreat –making an empty space- in order to let the Creator and its creatures exchange their secrets.”

Questioning and loving the questions

The moment of silence is a moment of discernment. Ready-made answer is not allowed. It’s the moment to love one’s questions and embracing new questions. Before The Ineffable, no answer is ever complete. Thomas Aquinas’ silentium magnum after being tired of writing so many volumes in attempt to give answers to the questions about God, The Ineffable can serve as a perfect example.

The aim is not to know but to inspire. For the more and the deeper questions one asks, the more inspiring one becomes to oneself as well as to the other. This, in turn leads one to new uncharted paths, new search, new horizons, new fusion of horizons. Most importantly, questioning is both the point of departure of philosophy and philosophy’s point of arrival. Thus, Augustine’s dubio ergo sum – I doubt therefore I exist - is ever perennial.


For the moment, it is appropriate to propose a definition of the ethics of silence although any attempt to define it is never a final one. As far as the ethics of silence as locus is concerned, it is the ‘interior lab’ where the consciousness sets itself in motion, ever changing and dynamic. In this “interior lab”, the process of deconstructing and fusing horizons is never ending. Why? Because the evolution of consciousness of human race is still very far away from being complete.

I still frequent the hill gazing but the focus has changed now. The gaze is turning inwardly, digging deeper into the ground of my being. There, in silence I dwell like a baby serenely and silently float on acid fluid in its mother’s womb yet with an urging desire to transcend, to be free, to go out from the womb’s save protection.

(Copy right: Gusty Tukan)
Published: 2007-04-09
Author: Gusty Tukan

About the author or the publisher
Graduated cum laude from the Faculty of Philosphy, Parahngan University, Bandung, Indonesia, Agustinus Mau Tukan is a writter and translator.

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