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The Virtue of Silence

My week started off with a measure of excitement for me. I was able to meet (in a virtual sort of way) an author whose works I’ve long admired. The meeting occurred during a Zoom meeting (a technology that I’ve come to appreciated during this time of enforced isolation) of the “scribes” for the Coolidge Foundation with its board chairman, historian Amity Shlaes.

I logged in early to ensure that nothing went wrong with the new (to me) technology and in the hope that I might be able to express to Shlaes my appreciation for her books The Forgotten Man, a history of the Great Depression, and Coolidge, her biography of the man whose foundation she directs. Both goals were successful.

The ensuing conference got me to thinking more of the man Coolidge. One of the things for which he is most remembered is his reticence. He was a study of purposeful silence. And that thought led me to contemplate the importance and value (could we even call it, in this day when so many voices are haranguing us from all sides?) and virtue of silence.

I recalled my great grandfather (we called him Poppa Graybeal). I remember him as a quiet, slow-moving man who exuded an unspoken wisdom. I don’t remember his saying much, just sitting and listening and occasionally chuckling. But when he did speak, people listened because he was soft-spoken, not easily heard, and it was such a rarity for him to speak.

Those memories and thoughts brought to mind several quotations about that quality that was so much a natural part of both Poppa Graybeal and Calvin Coolidge.

One such quotation comes from a contemporary of Coolidge, humorist Will Rogers. He quipped, “Never miss a good chance to shut up.” Too many people today miss a great opportunity and rattle on far too long.

George Eliot said, “Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, abstains from giving us wordy evidence of the fact.” I’ve met quite a few unblessed people in my lifetime, haven’t you?

“Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence,” Leonardo da Vinci said. Too often, people do the opposite, trying to establish their authority with an avalanche of words.

Like Nature, which abhors a vacuum, some people abhor silence. As William S. Burroughs declared, “Silence is only frightening to people who are compulsively verbalizing.”

In my freshman speech class in college I had to deliver a short speech on this quotation by Abraham Lincoln, and I’ve never forgotten it: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

I recall from my childhood reading every Sunday morning the Bible verse that hung on the wall behind the pulpit: “The Lord is in His holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before Him.” It certainly kept me quiet during the sermon (that and the knowledge that I would face my parents’ wrath if I didn’t)!

And finally, the further, less threatening promise from God’s Word, “In quietness and confidence shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15).

Yes, “Silent Cal” Coolidge was known more for what he didn’t say than for what he did. He demonstrated the value and wisdom of studied silence. On the other hand, that silence should encourage us to pay closer attention to what he did say.

The Coolidge Foundation is trying to do its part to make his words readily available to us for that very purpose. Coolidge is the last president NOT to have a presidential library. That’s the way he wanted it. But the Foundation is attempting to digitize his speeches (and he did make quite a few of them, for a quiet person). You can find them at the Foundation’s web site at in case you’re interested in reading some of them.

Coolidge’s reticence makes his utterances all the more important today, and recently I’ve found myself asking, “What would Coolidge think of our current situation?” I think he would have quite a lot to say about it!

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