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A History of Silence: From the Renaissance to the Present Day

ISBN: 978-1-5095-1735-0
160 pages
June 2018, Polity
A History of Silence: From the Renaissance to the Present Day (1509517359) cover image


Silence is not simply the absence of noise. It is within us, in that inner citadel which great writers, thinkers, scholars and people of faith have cultivated over the centuries. Today, when noise is everywhere, distinguished historian Alain Corbin goes back to a time when speech was rare and precious.

Silence, prerequisite for contemplation, reverie and prayer, is that private space out of which speech emerges. It characterises our most intimate and sacred spaces, from private bedrooms to grand cathedrals – those vast reservoirs of silence. Philosophers and novelists have long sought solitude and inspiration in mountains and forests. Yet despite the centrality of silence to some of our most intense experiences, the transformations of the twentieth century have gradually diminished its value. Today, raucous urban spaces and a continual bombardment from different media pressure us into constant activity. We are losing a sense of our inner selves, a process which is changing the very nature of the individual.

The aim of this book is to rediscover the wonder of silence, and with this a richer experience of life. Drawing on works by writers, artists and thinkers who treasured silence over the centuries, it is an invitation to meditation and to introspection. With his predilection for the elusive, Corbin calls us to listen to another history.

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Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgements
  • Prelude
  • Chapter 1. Silence and the intimacy of places
  • Chapter 2. The silences of nature
  • Chapter 3. The search for silence
  • Chapter 4. The educations and disciplines of silence
  • Chapter 5. Interlude: Joseph and Nazareth, or absolute silence
  • Chapter 6. The speech of silence
  • Chapter 7. The tactics of silence
  • Chapter 8. From the silences of love to the silence of hate
  • Chapter 9. Postlude: The tragedy of silence
  • Notes
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Author Information

Alain Corbin is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Paris I, Sorbonne.
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"Terrific. ... a mischievous historian of the senses, Alain Corbin dares to devote these eloquent pages to silence, a subject hitherto neglected by his colleagues. Far more than the 'mere absence of noise,' his book makes us feel the thousand and one precious qualities of silence that have enchanted writers and poets over the centuries."
Le Point
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