On Having Something To Say

For the thinking individual, the paradox of writing or speaking for public consumption is that the moment you realize you have been “discovered,” which is to say that you have found some kind of audience, you will be tempted every hour by the devil who has devoured the soul of almost everyone who has ever been in this position. Why are people of this sort such easy prey for the devil? Because he cunningly begins his devil’s bargain with the ultimate soft sell, namely with whispering in one’s ear: “Nearly everyone who comes to this crossroads relinquishes his soul to me willingly, with barely a moment’s hesitation; but you, as I can see, are different. I suspect my normal methods, so effective with lesser types, will not work with you — too much of a head on your shoulders, too sincere in your purpose and motives. I’ll have to come up with something more ingenious, less pedestrian, to tempt one of your sort.” By the end of that opening salvo, of course, the victim’s soul is all but lost. I say “of course,” because I know that you already know this. After all, you yourself have watched it happen to a hundred people of that vulnerable sort. “There but for the grace of God…” you muse with a perfect blend of condescension and pity. Yes, of course.

Socrates said: You played your part well, Eryximachus; but if you were as I am now, or rather as I shall be when Agathon has spoken, you would, indeed, be in a great strait.

You want to cast a spell over me, Socrates, said Agathon, in the hope that I may be disconcerted at the expectation raised among the audience that I shall speak well.

I should be strangely forgetful, Agathon, replied Socrates, of the courage and magnanimity which you showed when your own compositions were about to be exhibited, and you came upon the stage with the actors and faced the vast theatre altogether undismayed, if I thought that your nerves could be fluttered at a small party of friends.

Do you think, Socrates, said Agathon, that my head is so full of the theatre as not to know how much more formidable to a man of sense a few good judges are than many fools?

Nay, replied Socrates, I should be very wrong in attributing to you, Agathon, that or any other want of refinement. And I am quite aware that if you happened to meet with any whom you thought wise, you would care for their opinion much more than for that of the many. But then we, having been a part of the foolish many in the theatre, cannot be regarded as the select wise; though I know that if you chanced to be in the presence, not of one of ourselves, but of some really wise man, you would be ashamed of disgracing yourself before him — would you not?

Yes, said Agathon.

But before the many you would not be ashamed, if you thought that you were doing something disgraceful in their presence?

— Plato, Symposium (Benjamin Jowett translation)

Pythagoras said that it was either requisite to be silent, or to say something better than silence. 

— from Stobaeus (Thomas Taylor translation) 

Say something better than the silence, or do not speak. Perfect advice for a species fatally prone to filling spaces as though spaces had no other purpose than to be filled. To prove the ultimate beauty and wisdom of this maxim, consider that if it were followed sincerely by everyone, all politics would end immediately, along with all flattery, all vainglory, all rabble-rousing, all gossip. Consider, further, the chief implication of this maxim, namely that silence is not merely golden, but is in fact the default condition of life (each individual life as well as life itself), against which all other aural conditions — that is, all interruptions of the natural silence, the soundscape of thought — are to be judged, and judged harshly, mercilessly. Judged by whom? By oneself, the would-be speaker.

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