Silence, not applause

The other day, I read the chapter on Gaius Musonius Rufus from Ryan Holiday’s most recent masterpiece, “Lives of the Stoics”, and came across this passage. It gave me shudders because as a person, a coach, and a stoic practitioner, I know it’s the ultimate truth nobody wants to hear.

Enter Ryan Holiday:

He believed that praise and applause were wastes of time — for both the audience and the philosopher. “When a philosopher,” he said, “is exhorting, persuading, rebuking, or discussing some aspect of philosophy, if the audience pours forth trite and commonplace words of praise in their enthusiasm and unrestraint, if they even shout, if they gesticulate, if they are moved and aroused, and swayed by the charm of his words, by the rhythm of his phrases, and by certain rhetorical reputations, then you may know that both speaker and his audience are wasting their time, and they are not hearing a philosopher speaking, but a flute player performing.”

To Musonius, the sign of a successful philosopher was not the loud cheering of supporters. It was silence. The audience was wrestling with the complex ideas that the speaker was getting across.

Can this be practised in 2021 and beyond? It can be. But people won’t because it’s hard to not talk about yourself. We’ve been brought up to believe that getting “exposure” is the way to success. The more “out there” you are, the higher the chances of getting noticed.

That may well be as many of the Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter “influencers” make their livelihood by showing and telling people what they’re up to with all the fancy quotes, pictures, videos of them doing “something interesting.” All for applause and validation. Besides a few exceptions, I think most influencers live and breathe for this external stimulus.

And yes, like Musonius, I believe seeking applause and validation is an utter waste of time. One’s better served by doing and saying things that are true to them, even at the expense of sounding different or unconventional. Our most tremendous success as humans is to have made our fellow humans think for themselves and the people around them. If you can do that, you’re successful.

What’s applause compared to a life transformed for good in silence?

Can we aim to be that person?


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