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The Power of Political Silence: Achilles, Antigone and Ignatius

The non-Being of Speech

In researching and thinking on political/philosophical application of the ideal of Achilles (written about here) I’ve run into a provocative quotation from the early Christian Bishop Ignatius:

It’s better to be silent and to be rather than speak and not to be. Teaching is a fine thing provided that he who speaks also does; there is “one Teacher” who “spoke and it was done”, and what he has done in silence is worthy of the Father. He who possesses the word of Jesus can in truth also hear his silence, so as to be perfect, and so that through what he speaks, he may act, and through what he keeps silent, he may be judged. (ad Ephesios 4. 1.2)

[Found in Language in the Confessions of Augustine, Burton]

Immediately came to mind the withdrawal of Achilles from the Hellenic contingent, and his self-imposed silence on the matter because he had no proper “being” in the speech that was available to him. Eventually, in the ninth book, he will address the hall, and speak in a unique what that defies and re-defines the language game before him. Here in Ignatius’s appeal to the being of silence and the non-being of speech, the coherence of speech and action we find the very values of integrity speech that Achilles scolds Odysseus as failing to hold. Any Achillean, thymotic economy of political power must employ silence one would think.

Also recalled for me is the silence of Antigone, her withdrawal from the social order. There are many comparisons to be made between Achilles and Antigone, and I believe that Sophocles had the hero of the Iliadin mind when writing his tragedy. She completes her act of burial silently, and in her initial interaction with Kreon is nearly mute. And, like Achilles, when she does speak, she speaks in a way that uttterly torques the language game custom into which she has entered, speaking as if “the man”.

There is something worth contemplating here, “It is better to be silent and to be rather than speak and not to be,” as Ignatius advises. He is thinking of a particular political situation in this context (the Bishop of Ephesus), but I think his words can be extrapolated out to the very corners of what “being” is. In an illustration I often return to Tommaso Campanella compares existence with the very terminus of a line, wherein we reach the capacity of ourselves, coming right up against our non-being (all of what we are not). Speaking can threaten our capacities to be if we do not fully deploy ourselves within it. Teachers must speak fully. And silence is often a power that can be drawn on.

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