Hello all. In the spirit of more spontaneous posts on PEA Soup, I'd like to share some thoughts and ask some questions about virtue ethics, an area in which I have little expertise but which I've been wanting to get to know better, and ancient philosophy, also not an area of specialization but one which I've just now dabbled in (but not in the way or in the area most would expect).

I recently published an article in the British Journal for the History of Philosophy called "Embodying Justice in Ancient Egypt: The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant as a Classic of Political Philosophy." I had not expected to be writing and publishing on ancient Egyptian thought (it's certainly not a topic in my dissertation, for example) but I had long loved the text I study in the article and had long found it unfortunate how little curiosity most professional philosophers have about the intellectual traditions of Kemet, as the ancient Egyptians themselves called their land. Then I was invited to present a paper in a seminar series run by the Classics department at my university, which gave me the idea to write the now-published paper. 

This connects to my interest in thinking more about virtue because I now feel like it would be a shame if I did not some day follow up the piece just published with more work on ancient Egyptian philosophical thought. A friend from the aforementioned Classics department has even given me his copy of this and, while I don't expect to make much progress very fast, it'd be nice to gain some level of capacity with the original texts (I have relied thus far on careful comparisons of multiple translations). Anyway, one thing that has been intriguing me as a possible next stop, so to speak, is the way the ethical tradition in ancient Egyptian thought made much out of the importance of silence.

I want to share a striking example from The Instruction of Ptahhotep, a work I discuss briefly in "Embodying Justice." The passage makes an argument for seeing silence as a key virtue by attempting to show that silence makes one a better person and helps one better attain one's ends no matter which of a finite set of sharply divergent circumstances one happens to find oneself in. Specifically, whatever social rank one holds in relation to another with whom one finds oneself in a dispute, silence is the best approach to dealing with the situation:

"If you meet a disputant in action,                                                                                                    

A powerful man, superior to you,                                                                                                   

Fold your arms, bend your back,                                                                                                       

To flout him will not make him agree with you.                                                                             

Make little of the evil speech                                                                                                            

By not opposing him while he’s in action;                                                                                         

He will be called an ignoramus,                                                                                                     

Your self-control will match his pile (of words).*


If you meet a disputant in action                                                                                                   

Who is your equal, on your level,                                                                                                    

You will make your worth exceed his by silence,                                                                            

While he is speaking evilly,                                                                                                         

There will be much talk by the hearers,                                                                                          

Your name will be good in the mind of the magistrates.


If you meet a disputant in action,                                                                                                      

A poor man, not your equal,                                                                                                             

Do not attack him because he is weak,                                                                                            

Let him alone, he will confute himself.                                                                                             

Do not answer him to relieve your heart,                                                                                          

Do not vent yourself against your opponent,                                                                           

Wretched is he who injures a poor man,                                                                                         

One will wish to do what you desire,**                                                                                             

You will beat him through the magistrates’ reproof."


(from Miriam Lichtheim's Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 1)

*alt trans. "your self-restraint having matched his riches" (Parkinson)

**alt trans. "Things will turn out in accordance with your will" (Tobin)

Here are some of the things I'm pondering or wondering:

1. What might consideration of the idea of silence as a virtue bring to discussions of the virtues?

I wonder, for example, whether there is already discussion of the possibility of a distinctive class of virtues based on non-action* rather than action. I picked up Julia Driver's Uneasy Virtue recently and plan to look at her controversial conception of modesty as a virtue that requires ignorance… Could it be that whatever is plausible in her view can be drawn on to make sense out of the general idea of virtues that require that we refrain from using our faculties well because they require that we do not use those faculties at all? Or is it wrong to approach silence as a matter of not using the faculty of speech?

*I can imagine, by the way, such a discussion making interesting to connections to the Daoist notion of wuwei, although I don't know what those connections would look like.

2. Does the presupposition of hierarchy in a passage like this necessarily diminish the usefulness of the text from the point of view of contemporary virtue theorizing?

I wonder, for example, how those invested in particularly Aristotelian approaches to virtue ethics address this issue, given the forms of ancient Greek hierarchy in the background of his account of the virtuous person. I think here of Amy Gutmann's criticism of Alasdair MacIntyre, according to which the dependence of the virtues on social context in his theory means that liberals need not feel threatened by his critiques of liberalism… the social context of Western liberal democracy makes holding liberal values make good sense, while it correspondingly makes it weird to think about pursuing the good through inheriting social roles in a pre-modern way as MacIntyre seems to want us to do. On the other hand, as those who read my piece on the Eloquent Peasant will know, I'm very interested in the ways that ancient Egyptian texts grapple with and sometimes subtly subvert social hierarchy. I think this passage from The Instruction of Ptahhotep may in its own way be doing just that (i.e., by suggesting that the virtue of silence is in fact a great equalizer), and I can't help but think that there might therefore be interesting lessons here for thinking about the connection between virtue and the navigation of social hierarchy today.

13 Replies to “Silence as a virtue?

  1. a virtue is by definition a disposition to acting in a certain way. Non-action therefor can only be a virtue if we see non-action as a form of action- and silence may actually fit this description in certain contexts. As for your second question, whether or not the social relativity of your description of the virtue of silence has any contemporary relevance has to do with whether or not you can comment on the description in such a way as to generate a narrative wherein the disposition to silence connects with value. The egyptian context may likely remain anachronistic at best, but it may be quite possible to explicate the virtue in another way.

  2. Hi Leslie,
    you say, in response to Chike’s very interesting post, that “a virtue is by definition a disposition to acting in a certain way.” You then premise your comment on this assumption. I want to note here that that is but one way of thinking about virtue, especially popular among those interested in neo-Aristotelianism, but not the only way of thinking about virtue. It may indeed be the most popular way of introducing or talking about the idea of a virtue in contemporary discussions. But look to the past, and you will find that philosophers have also thought about virtues in other ways. Hume is one example, as he seems to simply define or rather understand virtue as any personal quality that is either agreeable to ourselves or others, or that is useful to ourselves or others. Others – and this includes writers as different as Kant and Bentham (!) – understand virtues as effortful ways of exercising certain modes of self-control. So when we ask, as Chike does, whether silence is a virtue, we should not assume that the only possible way in which it could be a virtue is if silence is a disposition to act in certain ways. It could also, to use the two other possible definitions or views above, be a personal property agreeable to ourselves/others or useful to ourselves/others, or a type of effort-involving self-control (which, say, allows us to realize some ideal or achieve some goal).

  3. Leslie and Sven, thank you for the very helpful comments!
    Leslie, if silence is a form of non-action but we wish to consider it a virtue, are we forced to paradoxically see non-action as a form of action? Or is it open to us to revise the definition of virtue, calling it either a disposition to act or a disposition not to act in certain ways? I’m open to the possibility that this can soon turn into quibbling, but I’m also conscious of my lack of knowledge of philosophy of action, where I imagine questions about whether conscious efforts not to act should count as actions must be something that has been discussed. Think also of this: from a virtue-theoretic standpoint, vices would also be dispositions to act in certain ways, correct? But then they would be dispositions we wish to avoid cultivating or ending up with. Is that avoidance a form of action? A set of variously describable actions that constitute a certain kind of effort? I wonder whether clearing that up might help clarify whether something like a disposition to avoid speaking is best thought of as a disposition toward a form of action, toward a form of non-action, or both (because non-action, in this sense, is action).
    Sven, that’s an enormously helpful overview. Perhaps Hume might be useful, but Kant and Bentham especially now seem very relevant to pursuing the silence question! Thanks again.

  4. And if it wasn’t clear to me before that pursuing this project requires finally getting to know more about philosophy of action, it’s clear now. Virtue ethicists out there, have you found that getting to know the one field necessitates getting to know the other? Of the prominent virtue ethicists out there, who are those who most clearly link the two fields?

  5. Hi Chike,
    Interesting stuff!
    Off the cuff, I have two thoughts. First, I think Aristotelians can get on board with these cases just as easily as others by pointing to virtues of self-restraint and equanimity. I suppose that in many cases the fully virtuous would not need to exercise self-restraint because they would not be tempted to retaliate, etc. so equanimity (and wisdom, I guess) would be more pervasive.
    Second, the context of social inequality does raise worries about a lack of self-respect or selflessness of the sorts discussed by feminists and critical race theorists (e.g. Boxhill and Hampton). Is this what you are thinking of?
    Finally, if you are interested in the idea of “non-intentional” or “unselfconscious” virtue, I have some recommendations. First, there is an interesting exchange between Bronwyn Finnigan and Jay Garfield in Philosophy East and West.
    This mentions the relevant papers: http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/philosophy_east_and_west/v061/61.1.garfield.html
    You might also find some interesting related stuff in this piece by Velleman:
    Finally, if you want some on the general idea of non-action in China, this book is very thought-provoking: http://www.amazon.com/Effortless-Action-Conceptual-Metaphor-Spiritual/dp/0195314875

  6. Thanks very much, Brad! Lots of great leads here!
    On the worry created by the context of social inequality: prior to any worry about whether cultivating this or that virtue might result in a situation where one lacks self-respect is the worry that it just doesn’t make sense to look back to ancient thought for help in thinking about virtue if they approached the topic with inegalitarian presuppositions that most theorists today would reject.

  7. I’d like to add to a comment I made in the last paragraph of the post. I spoke about seeing the passage as suggesting that the virtue of silence is a great equalizer. If taken as a summary of the entire passage, this seems incorrect. It is, rather, only the first of the three parts of the passage that communicates this message.
    The second part, by contrast, can be seen as subverting social hierarchy in a very different way: the virtue of silence is positioned here not as an equalizer but rather as a producer of meritocratic hierarchy.
    How then should we see the third and last part? Does it too subvert social hierarchy? Well, one might think that if the main message is that the mistreatment of the poor is wrong, that seems anti-hierarchical enough. But, ironically, it may be that this is precisely where the passage is most affirmative of the hierarchical structure of ancient Egyptian society: the message, one might say, is that it is not befitting of one in a higher class to mistreat someone in a lower class and so you show your proper inhabitance of your higher rank in being good to the poor (but it is not that being good in this way is what makes you of that social rank to begin with).
    If we choose to read the third part in that way, though, does that undercut the subversive elements of the previous parts? Or do those elements themselves suggest that we should be wary of reading the third part as so accepting of hierarchy?

  8. To follow up on my earlier post and respond to sven and chike I want to ask more about what is meant by virtue when applied to silence: in what way is silence a virtue?
    As for sven’s comment, I hadn’t been thinking of aristotle, but I think you are probably correct that this view [virtue connected with action] is why there has been a return to aristotle in recent decades. I do think the question can be formulated without getting caught up in historical origins. This being so, even your references to kant and bentham’s view of “virtues as effortful ways of exercising certain modes of self-control” [I do not recall this exactly from kant, but can see how it might fit] would I believe, if explicated, lead back to dispositions to act in those self-controlled ways, albeit cultivated by effort [connecting for them with reason or consciousness perhaps, rather than a natural disposition]. Your point about hume would be an exception to my view, but I wonder if this could be further clarified. I am wondering if we would lose the meaning of virtue of we left it at the definition of ‘agreeableness’ or ‘usefulness’? especially if we including the perceptions of others as defining what is a virtue or not. virtue then becomes simply another term for valued or liked.
    So, i return to the question of what we mean by virtue when we apply it to silence? Are we speaking of it as a ‘state of mind’, or as a quality of action, or a disposition for a type of action, or as the effort of cultivating certain states or qualities, and so on… ? One can find types of value in each of these, but i think it important not to confuse them.
    Now, silence seems to me to be possibly valued in two senses: either as a ‘state of mind’, consciously entertained, and needing to be consciously cultivated, wherein one perhaps experiences a sort of contemplative or meditative peace or clarity, and/or as a cultivated disposition to avoid unnecessary, or idle, or dishonest, or malicious speech, for the sake of remaining self-conscious in one’s behavior, remaining authentic in some way, or in order to cultivate some practical or social ends. The ‘state’ is valuable in part because it’s cultivation is the cultivation of a disposition or habit to act in those ‘silent’ ways. Those forms of ‘silent’ speech in part have value because they are ways of cultivating those states of peace and clarity. a third possibility: that one’s silence is not valued in and of itself but is a virtue because other’s don’t like it when one talks too much is in my view derivative, however true, and probably shouldn’t be referred to a a virtue proper.

  9. Hi Chike!
    This is a fun and fascinating passage, thanks!
    I’m a bit skeptical about reading anything about a *virtue* of silence into or out of the passage though.
    It’s interesting to me that this advice about silence seems to have as its context some sort of juridical proceedings (“disputants” and “magistrates”). Also the assumption seems to be that the disputant (the counterparty of the person to whom the advice is addressed) is talking nonsense or evil.
    Strategically the advice seems to take silence as an action against an adversary. In the juridical context not saying anything is not the same as not saying anything to your partner when you get home from a hard day at work. The advice seems to be along the lines, “when your enemy is drowning, don’t throw him a life jacket, throw him an anvil…” That is, your act of remaining silent is an invitation for him to go further and further. (If a military unit stays in its position and “does nothing” this could easily be an action meant to provoke an enemy response.) Non-strategically, that is, independent of the goal of winning the dispute, the main issue seems to be the avoidance of doing something shameful, in the sense of avoiding opprobium in the eyes of others. I think the ‘wretchedness’ of venting against the poor and disadvantaged can be read this way–if you do this, then you look like the powerful, superior disputant who talks evil and nonsense at the beginning of the passage. (So it goes nicely full circle, I think.)
    In the end though, I don’t see how this can connect in any direct way with virtue ethics in Aristotle or among contemporaries, because so little about the state and dispositions of the soul of the advisee seems to be assumed. There is the reference to self-control, presumably something to be cultivated, but it is contrasted with superior’s worthless words–so its value may be construed as wholly contextual.
    Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to read Chike’s paper, so perhaps issues like these are addressed there.
    Thanks again!

  10. I find the third passage particularly interesting. Some of the lines suggest a strategic motivation for silence — the disputant will thereby defeat himself through his poor reasoning, and ‘things will turn out in accordance with your will’. Other lines suggest that virtue and not just expedience is in play — either by implying that there is a duty to avoid the vice of humiliating the disputant and/or by implying some other positive virtue. But not knowing much about the context it’s difficult (for me) to see what would be an apt description of the relevant virtues — self-restraint and equanimity are two possibilities as suggested earlier. But I wonder if there seems to be something more specific suggested by the passage — what does the ‘wretchedness’ of injuring the poor consist in here? What exactly is wretched about it? Wouldn’t we need some thicker understanding of the relevant virtues from the particular social and cultural context to know? Ultimately, I guess, I’m just wondering what the payoff is of considering these passages — and this third one in particular — in terms of a ‘virtue of silence’ specifically, as opposed to as an aspect of some other virtue that requires an act of silence in this particular context?

  11. Leslie, you say silence may be plausibly thought of as a virtue if what we mean is something like a “cultivated disposition to avoid unnecessary, or idle, or dishonest, or malicious speech, for the sake of remaining self-conscious in one’s behavior, remaining authentic in some way, or in order to cultivate some practical or social ends.”
    I think this is a great start to coming up with a first go at what it would mean to think of silence as a virtue… what interests me in going to the Egyptian texts is figuring out whether this is what we find when they praise silence as a virtue and (a) if so, whether they provide interesting ways to deepen the account, but (b) if not – that is, if we find something different – whether what we find offers us something potentially instructive.

  12. Eric, thanks for your thoughts and glad you enjoyed the post. Issues like these are not addressed in my BJHP article, as this is a new direction for my research that I’m exploring.
    While I understand your hesitation and your desire to start with the more concrete themes of the passage, I treat this passage as expressive of silence as a virtue in the larger context of ancient Egyptian literature. For example, a particularly rich text which would be important to any work I do on this topic is The Instruction of Amenemope and, as one introduction to that work says, “the contrast between the intemperate, hot-headed man and the tranquil, truly silent man is one of the main themes of the text” (Simpson’s The Literature of Ancient Egypt)
    Thus, while I think you are right to pay attention to juridical context evoked in the passage from Ptahhotep, I think it is also plausible to connect its advocacy of silence to a larger discourse/theme in ancient Egyptian philosophical thought. I think your worry about needing to hear more about the state of the soul would also be addressed by putting the passage in the wider context not only of those works that touch on silence, but the “instruction” as a genre overall (and, as a matter of fact, I do share some thoughts on that which you might find interesting in the BJHP article).
    With all that being said, though, I think you very nicely and thoughtfully elucidate some of what is being said about the value of silence as a disposition in this particular text and passage!

  13. Kevin, thanks for your reply. I think some of what I said to Eric is relevant to replying to you as well (re: why silence?). That being said, I think you also raise a great question about what the wretchedness of injuring the poor consists in. Here too I think a wider command of the literature is useful, and while I have managed to gain familiarity with a number of texts, there’s more for me to read and certainly more for me to re-read more closely (and with the help of as much Egyptological expertise as possible).
    One thing I will say is that a recurring theme in funerary texts, in The Book of the Dead, in some instructions, and also in the work I study in the published article (The Eloquent Peasant), is the requirement of doing for the unfortunate what they can’t do for themselves. Declaring yourself pure means, among other things, declaring that you gave to those who did not have, you comforted the widow, you sheltered the orphan, etc.
    I think this is relevant here. If goodness very specifically depends on making the lives of those who have been deprived better, then to do injury to the poor is a particularly egregious form of failing in one’s duty.

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