The Deafening Silence of Those Who Know Nothing
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In one form or another, the most enlightened traditions enjoin people:
To Dare, To Know, and To Be Silent.
One must assume that many have followed these precepts. They have dared,
and through their daring they must surely have acquired insights and wisdom
into the challenges of our society, our relationships and the appropriate
responses to them. An aspect of this knowledge is apparently the necessity
to be silent - as the most appropriate approach to living and acting with
the wisdom they have acquired. Their insights have therefore presumably
not been communicated in ways that we would recognize.
It is claimed that the wise are those who know less and less about more
and more - in contrast to the tendency of specialists to know more and
more about less and less. Can it then be truly said of the wise that they
know "nothing"? In many traditions it is indeed "nothing" that they
learn to encounter - coming to terms with a cognitive "emptiness" beyond
our normal ken. What are the learnings they acquire that sustain and justify
them in this kind of knowing and being?
Their knowing of "nothing" must of course be contrasted with those
who may otherwise be said to "know nothing" because of their less noble
form of ignorance. But how is the distinction between the two to be made?
In fact the very specialized knowing of specialists is also in its own
way a form of knowing nothing, since they would not claim to know anything
of consequence outside their narrow speciality. So there are then three
forms of knowing nothing to be distinguished, without any effective means
of doing so.
Fortunately, there is the final injunction to "Be Silent". Those
who are ignorant in the simplest sense, tend to be reasonably vocal on
the topics with which they feel comfortable or about which they feel concerned
-- but otherwise remain silent. Specialists tend to be extremely vocal
about their area of interest - whilst also remaining relatively silent
on other matters. Does this suggest that others who tend anyway to remain
silent are manifesting the form of wisdom that cannot be appropriately
Who is it that remains silent in this way? The Silent Majority tends
to be vocal at the grassroots level. Their "silence" lies only in a failure,
or lack of desire, to speak loudly at national or other levels. This can
be considered a matter of political apathy or lack of concern. Is it that
most people, whether ignorant or highly educated, tend to remain silent
on more weighty or fundamental matters - if these indeed have the importance
that some attach to them? Etiquette has even enjoined gentlefolk to avoid
discussion of religion and money as being inappropriate to civilized discourse.
People are also enjoined not to "speak out of turn". When is it the turn
of the wise?
In assemblies of people, even of the electronic variety, the majority
usually remains silent and makes no effort to express views or raise issues
or questions. Is this an indication of their wisdom? Or is it rather an
indication that they are consumers of communication - as with the standard
couch potato? Are they merely intimidated by the vocal, who are often highly
competitive and quite undignified in the process? Is it a mix of several
Clearly those who successfully follow the precepts (To Dare, To Know
and To Be Silent) are well-disguised by their choice of silence. For they
may also choose to behave like the purely ignorant or the highly educated
specialist. Who is to tell whether the "ignorant peasant" is not a fount
of wisdom? Who is to say whether a Nobel Prize winner does not have a measure
of wisdom, despite the narrow specialized published knowledge for which
the reward was received? Who is to say whether the non-communicator in
any meeting is not a person of wisdom?
Perhaps it is less a question of silence, and more a question of avoiding
verbal communication on matters of consequence. Communication ceases, or
is withheld, "beyond" a certain stage of understanding - or else shifts
into another mode. The exchange is taken to a certain point - and then
it is prevented in some way from going any further. Are distractions deliberately
introduced by the wise at that point - a change of subject, a joke, or
something of that ilk?
Various traditions would have it that "initiates" of one form or another
speak amongst themselves in "secret" languages. The devious profit by the
opportunities for mystification and obfuscation concerning such exchange.
Are these secret languages any more than jargons, like those of specialists?
Secret societies tend to cultivate the notion that appropriate communications
are only possible between people of equivalent levels of understanding
- people who have undergone similar experiences? Do initiates then "break"
their vow of silence to engage in more meaningful exchange? How does this
differ from the choice of children or adolescents not to speak together
in the presence of those of other age groups -- and especially adults?
And what of lovers, the nature of whose communication is impossible to
share - however readily it may be trivialized?
In the world of governance and intelligence agencies, there are those
who have been "cleared" to view and exchange information of various levels
of "classification", up to the highest level of secrecy. They too are enjoined
to "Be Silent". How does their knowledge relate to that of wisdom?
They are indeed wise in the ways of the world and are party to "dangerous"
knowledge to which few have access. What are the limitations of their insights
in relation to the more elusive forms of wisdom that are the subject of
the afore-mentioned precepts? Who would "know" the difference?
Implied in some of the above queries is the possibility that the wisdom
in question precludes any form of communication. It cannot be expressed
in the languages to which any eager questioner has access. This too is
part of the tradition - whether or not there is any truth in the matter.
More interesting is the possibility that such wisdom reframes the relation
between questioner and questioned, between knower and known. Such wisdom
is then not something that can be "acquired" or "possessed" -- although
that wisdom may well "acquire" or "possess" the person in ways that are
The fundamental question that remains is the nature and purpose of the
silence of the wise. In the face of the current challenges to society,
it is truly deafening. One group acknowledged as the "Wisdom Keepers" can
truly be said to be more than skilled at "keeping" the wisdom that they
purportedly "possess". Is it that they cannot give it, or that others cannot
receive it? Is it that the sound they make is beyond our range of hearing?
Or is the wisdom "decibel level" so high that we are truly deafened by
Is it that the wise act in other ways? Is it through their very silence
that they act? Is their silence an indication of their action? The taoist
tradition of governance holds that the superior emperor rules by doing
"nothing" -- through non-action. Indeed it is only when he does "nothing"
that he manifests his superiority as a governor. But then the international
community has demonstrated amazing capacity for doing "nothing" in response
to a number of recent crises. Is this a manifestation of the wisdom in
question, or rather evidence of those who would falsely lay claim to such
For the traditional warrior in some Eastern martial arts traditions,
it is in the time before anything is "done" that the result of any encounter
with an opponent is determined. The superior warrior does not need to attack
or defend in any conventional way. Is it of that silence that the wise
One would hope that their wisdom is then being appropriately applied
to present crises - despite our incapacity to "know" whether this is so.
One would also hope that the initiatives of those who would claim such
wisdom, in order to use its semblance to disguise their incapacity and
exploitation of it, are well contained by the wise.
It would seem that a lot of hope is demanded of the unwise at a time
of eroding confidence in the skills of leadership ! If, in biblical terms,
silence is a characteristic of the meek scheduled to "inherit the Earth",
an intriguing insight is offered by the bumper sticker: "The meek are getting
ready". In Internet terms, this might be expressed as "Lurkers of the World