It’s the Silence

A beautiful article from Aeon reminding us why we need the Parkway, why we need to be able to safely access it at anytime and anywhere.

An excerpt.

“I walk from south to north on the peripatos, the path encircling the Acropolis of Athens – as I did one golden morning in December last year – takes you past the boisterous crowds swarming the stone seats of the Theatre of Dionysus. The path then threads just below the partially restored colonnades of the monumental Propylaea, which was thronged that morning with visitors pausing to chat and take photographs before they clambered past that monumental gateway up to the Parthenon. Proceed further along the curved trail and, like an epiphany, you will find yourself in the wilder north-facing precincts of that ancient outcrop. In the section known as the Long Rocks there are a series of alcoves of varying sizes, named ingloriously by the archaeologists as caves A, B, C and D. In its unanticipated tranquility, this stretch of rock still seems to host the older gods.

“I sat below these caves that morning appreciating a respite from the tumult and, for a few minutes, I just listened. The pursuit of quietness, especially in urban areas has become a preoccupation of mine in recent years. However, the quiet I experienced below the caves of Zeus Astrapaios, of Apollo and of Pan was not precisely an encounter with silence, for it was punctuated by many sounds. A family of cats mewled; the wind gusted playfully across the limestone and the schist, and sent the leaves scuttering along the pavement. A murmur of voices rose up occasionally from the cafes of the Plaka neighbourhood; someone, somewhere, played a melancholy air on the klarino. All of these sounds were pleasant to my ears. This form of quietness, one that is not precisely silence, is characterised rather by an absence of noise or βοή (voe) in Greek, a word that might also translate as clamour, or din. I call the sort of auditory lull that, at the same time, asserts a benevolent presence, ‘avoesis’ (that is, the absence of voe or noise).

“After a short time, I moved farther east along the peripatos and the susurrus of idle chatter picked up once more; a car horn sounded in the distance, and then I discerned the pronounced hum of traffic. A sharp whistle blew from the top of the Acropolis – I assume a visitor had breached a cordon and had placed a profane foot upon a protected antiquity. I had now left the quiet behind; my time with the gods was over.

“This was my first visit back to Athens in a few decades. The city has always been appealing to me with its bustling market places; its vendors outside the garrulous cafes cajoling passersby to stop in; the gloaming sanctuary of its low-domed churches, the hardware merchants outside their stalls immersed in voluble dialogue (will there be fisticuffs or embraces? … One can never tell, for the arguments never end); the curious specificity of its engrossing museums; the indefatigability of its derelict buses honking their way through the snarling streets; the ubiquity of its adventitious feral cats; the sense that poetry has always been possible here; the lute players and the buskers on the street corners and in the squares; its burdensome heat in summer; its catastrophic and attention-demanding pavements; its promiscuous mix of wealthy and impoverished streets; the affability of its “winter temperatures; its graffiti: political, amusing and occasionally inane or obscene; the chestnut vendors on the sidewalks absorbed with their roasting pans; the scattering of its monumental debris; the alternating mood of despair and vivacity suggestive that both revolution and equanimity are ever-present possibilities; the dark unkempt verdure of its botanic garden; the reverence Athens has for its past; the sense that the past should not determine its future.

“And then there is the noise, the glorious polyglottic, polyphonic commotion of Athens arising from its people, vehicles and its infernal construction machinery. I had wondered, at first, if enduring the tumult of the city was a young person’s game, and perhaps it is, but returning to Athens seemed like an assignation with an old lover, whose whispers remain electrifying and whose harsh words are astringent but still exciting. Even so, I longed for some relief from the city and its din. I left, after a few days, for the mountainous Peloponnese.

“It might have been unrealistic to expect Athens to offer silence. It is, after all, a sprawling and kinetic metropolis with a population of more than 3 million souls. I began to wonder if those quiet moments on the north face of the Acropolis were a figurative residue of a more ancient silence. It is tempting to regard the relicts of the ancient Athenian polis – cordoned off as these are from the modern city – as geological eruptions intruding into very modern urban strata. Yet there are important continuities between the old and the new. Certainly it is hard to imagine from reading accounts of the Athenian Golden Age that it was ever an age of silence. Despite its small size in the classical era – in The Greeks (1951), the scholar H D F Kitto gives the entire population of the Attic peninsula, which the city dominated, as a mere 350,000 – Athens, it seems, has always been a garrulous town.

“The polis of ancient Athens was not just noisy in a quotidian way but rather it was grounded in a type of philosophical volubility. As the classical historian Jean-Pierre Vernant wrote in Les origines de la pensée grecque (1962), or The Origins of Greek Thought (1982): ‘the system of the polis implied, first of all, the extraordinary preeminence of speech over all other instruments of power … Speech was no longer the ritual word, the precise formula, but open debate, discussion, argument.’ In the philosophical and political writings of the Ancient Greeks, there are, unsurprisingly, slim pickings for the student of avoesis or attentive silence.

“Admittedly, a small smattering of silence punctuates the Socratic dialogues. Commenting on these silences, my colleague Sean Kirkland (an Aristotelian, for the most part) observes: ‘Plato marks them with real emphasis.’ In Phaedo, for example, which takes place on the day of Socrates’ death, there is a notable instance of silence. Plato reports that when ‘Socrates had done speaking, for a considerable time, there was silence; he himself appeared to be meditating.’ But even as he endures the countdown to his execution, Socrates – that most disputative of the Greeks – cannot long remain silent. After his contemplative pause, the debate simply resumes. These important instances of silence notwithstanding, Kirkland concedes my point, observing that ‘the Greeks were pretty gabby (logophilic).’

“If the Greek philosophical tradition is gabby and noisy, stillness flourishes in Greek spiritual practice. In her book Silence in the Land of Logos (2000), the classicist Silvia Montiglio excavates the complicated history of silence in Ancient Greek religious practice. Montiglio concedes: ‘Experiences that are normally silent for us were normally vocal for a Greek, at least in the archaic and classical period.’ Although the dead are notoriously silent, nonetheless Montiglio cajoles a range of texts relevant to understanding religious practice ‘to talk to one another about silence’. By doing so, she reveals that Ancient Greek silence often has the character of an interdiction: speech must be kept under control before the gods. One never knows what incautious words might offend them.
‘If you cannot attain stillness where you now live, consider living in exile, and try and make up your mind to go’

“Whereas the silence of the Ancient Greek religious practice needs some careful academic sleuthing to declare itself, silence in the Christian tradition is loquacious. The Greek tradition of hesychasm (from the Greek hēsychia meaning ‘tranquility’, ‘silence’ and ‘stillness’) put silence on its most positive footing. The supplicant should be silent before an ineffable God because silence is a desirable form of prayer. The hesychasm of 14th-century Athonite monasticism builds upon the literature of the Desert Fathers – the 3rd- and 4th-century ascetics of Egypt and Palestine. These writings were collated by Saint Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain of Athos (1749-1809) and Saint Markarios of Corinth (1731-1805), and can be found in The Philokalia – the Complete Text (publication of English translations started in five volumes in 1979). Even those of us who don’t insist upon cultivating an intimate, contemplative relationship with God will find these readings immersive and instructive. They provide the most complete encyclopaedia we have in the Western tradition on the merits of stillness, silence and solitude. The writings bristle with striking aphorisms. For example, Saint Diadochos of Photiki (400-486) tells us that ‘where there is richness of spirit no speech is possible. At such times the soul is drunk with the love of God and with silent voice, delights in glory.’ The 7th-century Saint Theodoros the Great Ascetic states: ‘A silent man is a throne of perceptiveness.’ Theodoros then continues in a cautionary spirit: ‘The Lord has said that we shall have to give an account of every idle word.’ This might be awkward, at least for some of us.”

Retrieved February 24, 2020 from

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
This entry was posted in Environmentalism, Parks. Bookmark the permalink.