Silence is a Virtue, says Ben Franklin

Remember when you were a kid (or, if you are a kid, cast your mind back to maybe last week), when your mom told you “silence is a virtue”? Yeah, I remember that, too. I heard it a lot. I was a loud kid.

Ben Franklin, his lips fittingly sealed

These days, for my work, I rent a cubicle in a shared office space catering to writers and academics. Admittedly, the place is an almost windowless, Orwellian range of anonymous grey cubicles called “The Quiet Room.” Step over the threshold and silence isn’t merely a virtue; it’s the law. I’ve tried working in my apartment; in cafes (ugh); in library carrels; I’ve tried taking my notebook to the park; but nothing compares to the intense productivity that comes with rigorously enforced silence.

The more I work in The Quiet Room, the more I’m convinced that the best things in life are produced this way. Even writers who prefer music in the background while they work (not me), surely don’t write while speaking themselves, meaning that although the music is playing, the writers themselves are silent.

Now if that’s true, then a possible corollary crops up: If creation requires a form a silence, then while you’re talking, you aren’t creating something truly great / new / inspired / challenging / et cetera. This might be good advice for the more loquacious among us—myself included.

As far as I can tell, it was Ben Franklin who is most famous for calling silence a virtue, which he did in his famous autobiography. In his world, there were thirteen virtues in all, among them Order, Resolution, Cleanliness, and Tranquility. Silence made it to number two on his list, second only to Temperance (such were the times). Franklin described the virtue like this: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation. Sounds like he would’ve got along with the Trappists.

I don’t know for certain if my mom was cribbing from Ben Franklin, but thirty or so years on, I’ve come to agree with her. At least when it comes to getting things done, silence really is a virtue.


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