How Silent Reading Invented the Soul

Most people read silently. Many schools have Sustained Silent Reading programs which encourage students to read freely, frequently, and silently. Silent reading is common, and highly valued for its cultivation of our inner lives.

Most of history followed an oral tradition. Knowledge, law and stories were communicated out loud, with speech and song. Chatting with my brother-in-law and Bible scholar, AJ DeGelder (BA MDiv) I was reminded of the oral tradition of the Old Testament. The Bible’s creation myth begins with sound, “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” AJ continued:

You can see the oral tradition in the Old Testament by the way the stories are shared For example you can see a Jewish family, in your mind, sitting around a campfire in the middle of a desert. The father has the children clinging to the edge of their seats as the father tells them how this skinny little runt of a boy, called David, goes out to fight the giant Goliath. David brings the giant down with a slingshot. Takes the giant’s sword and cuts off his head and then runs and buries it in his tent. You can almost hear the children asking, “Why did he bury the sword in his tent, Dad?” “Tomorrow night I will tell you why,” says the father. This was the oral tradition passed on from father to children.”

The modern religious Jew is a person of the book. Daniel Saunders is a young Jewish man in the novel, The Chosen, by Chaim Potok, set in Brooklyn New York in the 1940s. Danny’s father, a respected Rebbe, only speaks to him during their regular religious readings. Danny is being brought up in silence. The reader learns how Reb Saunders worried that his son’s intelligence was outstripping his compassion for others. To teach Danny the meaning of pain, he shut him out emotionally by silence. It seems a cruel method, but the story illustrates how silence can be used deliberately to cultivate inner qualities, such as compassion.

The New Testament is bookish. Set aside that Jesus never wrote a word, Christianity was developed by Christ’s disciples and followers. The codex was on the rise at the time. The codex is a collection of pages, bound and covered, a book. The book was adopted by Christians for the Bible (Manguel, A History of Reading). Compared to scrolls, the book was easier to carry and hide in a time of religious persecution, and easier to read alone in silence.

Aurelius Ambrosius is the first silent reader on record. Ambrosius, aka Saint Ambrose (c. 340-347) was an archbishop of Milan. In his Confessions, Augustine observed that Ambrose read in silence. The practice was relatively rare. Alexander Lucie-Smith is a Catholic priest, doctor of moral theology and consulting editor of The Catholic Herald. Lucie-Smith says that Ambrose was the first of a great tradition, using silent reading and looking within for salvation.

It took centuries for silent reading to be adopted widely. Ferenstein explains how the Catholic church encouraged it. The Christian Bible popularized the idea that morality was not just about evil deeds, but also included the intent to cause harm. Monks segregated themselves from society to battle inner demons free from the distractions of civilization. In 1215 the church mandated confessions for the masses, extending the concept of internal morality to much of Europe. The Gutenberg press was invented in the fifteenth century, and by the eighteenth century, personal reading was common.

The book is central to the rise of Christianity, to the practice of silent reading, and to the idea of an inner life. Silent reading can be credited with the very invention of soul. It facilitated private religion, the creation of an inner truth. The New Testament says it outright. “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the spirit of the living God, not on tables of stone but on tables of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:2-3, NRSV).

In religion the soul is special, the immortal essence of a person. The soul is universal, transcending time and space. It survives death. If silent reading invented the soul, its universality is called into question. Was there a time when people did not have souls? Also, if the soul transcends earthly life its truth should be singular. In practice, silent reading created trouble for Christians, generating multiple interpretations of the Bible and stoking a fight against heresy. Martin Luther, the original Protestant, observed how silent reading caused anxiety for Christians and preferred the old practice of reading the Bible aloud in groups. In the 21st century, the codex is declining in favor of digital technology. People still read silently but not so privately. Reading online is a a social experience, tearing down traditions of privacy. One has to wonder how notions of inner life and soul will change with it.

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