An Anthology of Opinions, Commentaries,
Note to the Reader
This book is a compilation of the speeches and other public addresses given by Silo over the course of the better part of three decades. Also included are three explanatory notes. The first precedes Silo’s public address of May 4, 1969. In that note, we attempt to give the reader some feeling for the circumstances surrounding that event, at which Silo for the first time publicly expressed the foundation of his thought. The second note precedes Silo’s talk of September 27, 1981, in Madrid, Spain, and the third note is the introduction of Silo preceding his talk “Religiosity in the Contemporary World,” which was given on June 6, 1986. The use of these prefatory notes in place of footnotes or endnotes comes from a desire to provide a context for Silo’s words that the reader would otherwise lack, while avoiding interruptions in the flow of the discourse.
In this anthology we have not attempted to include the voluminous material comprising interviews of Silo by the news media, as that material requires a different treatment from the one employed in this volume.
The present texts are drawn from transcribed notes as well as audio and video recordings.
1. At the time Silo gave this speech in 1969, the military dictatorship then in power in Argentina had banned all public gatherings in urban areas. Consequently, a bleak spot known as Punta de Vacas, high in the Andes on the border between Argentina and Chile, was chosen as the location for the speech. Early in the morning of May 4, the authorities placed roadblocks on all roads leading to the site. Machine-gun posts, military vehicles, and armed soldiers were stationed along the roads, and everyone was required to show identification papers to pass through the checkpoints, which led to disputes with some members of the international press. Against the magnificent backdrop of the snow-capped Andes, Silo began to speak to an audience of some two hundred people. The day was cold and bright, and by noon the event was over.
2. This is Silo’s first public expression of his ideas. In poetic language, he explains that the most important knowledge for living (“true wisdom”) is not the same as the knowledge found in books—knowledge of universal laws or things of that type—but is a question of inner experience. The most important knowledge for living is related to comprehending suffering and how to surpass it.
In this speech, Silo presents a very simple thesis, which is divided into several parts: (1) It begins by distinguishing between physical pain and its derivations, on the one hand, maintaining that they can be made to recede through progress in science and justice, and mental suffering, on the other, which cannot be eliminated by such means. (2) Suffering comes through three pathways: the pathway of perception, the pathway of memory, and the pathway of imagination. (3) Suffering reveals a state of violence. (4) Violence is rooted in desire. (5) There are various degrees and forms of desire. By attending to these factors (“through inner meditation”), one may advance.
Thus: (6) Desire gives rise to violence (“the more gross the desires”), which does not remain inside people but spreads to others, contaminating the space of relationships. (7) Violence can be seen in various forms besides its primary form of physical violence. (8) We need simple forms of conduct by which to orient our lives (“keep simple commandments”): Learn to be a bearer of peace, joy, and, above all, hope.
Conclusion: To conquer physical pain, science and justice are necessary; to conquer mental suffering, it is indispensable to surpass primitive desires.
If you have come to listen to a man who it is thought transmits wisdom, you have mistaken your way, for true wisdom is not communicated through books or speeches—true wisdom is found in the depths of your consciousness, just as true love is found in the depths of your heart. If you have come at the urging of slanderers and hypocrites to listen to this man so that what you hear today may later be used against him, you have mistaken your way, because this man has not come here to ask anything of you or to use you, because he does not need you.
You are listening to a man who does not know the laws that rule the Universe, who is not privy to the laws of History, who is ignorant of the relationships that govern the peoples of the world. High in these mountains, far from the cities and their sick ambitions, this man addresses himself to your conscience. Over the cities, where each day is a struggle—a hope cut short by death—where love is followed by hate, where forgiveness is followed by revenge; over the cities of the people rich and poor; over the immense fields of humanity, a mantle of suffering and sorrow has fallen. You suffer when pain bites your body. You suffer when hunger seizes your body. But you suffer not only from your body’s immediate pain and hunger, you also suffer from the consequences of the diseases that afflict it.
We must distinguish between two types of suffering. There is the suffering that occurs during illness, which recedes with the advance of science, just as hunger can recede if the empire of justice advances. There is also the suffering that does not depend on the sickness of your body but yet derives from that sickness: If you are disabled, if you cannot see, if you cannot hear, you suffer. But though such suffering derives from your body, or from the diseases of your body, that suffering is of your mind.
There is yet another kind of suffering that does not recede even with the advance of science or with the advance of justice. This type of suffering, which belongs strictly to your mind, retreats before faith, before joy in life, before love. You must understand that this suffering is always rooted in the violence that exists in your own consciousness. You suffer because you fear losing what you have, or because of what you have already lost, or because of what you desperately long to reach. You suffer because of what you lack, or because you fear in general.
These, then, are the great enemies of humanity: fear of sickness, fear of poverty, fear of death, fear of loneliness. All these forms of suffering pertain to your mind, and all of them reveal your inner violence, the violence that is in your mind. Notice how that violence always stems from desire. The more violent a person is, the more gross are that person’s desires.
I would like to tell you a story that took place long ago.
There was once a traveler who had to undertake a long journey. He yoked his animal to a cart and began the journey to his faraway destination, a journey he had to complete within a certain length of time. He called the animal Necessity and the cart Desire; one wheel of the cart he called Pleasure, and the other he called Pain. Our traveler turned his cart sometimes to the right and sometimes to the left, yet he never ceased moving toward his destiny. The faster the cart traveled, the faster turned the wheels of Pleasure and Pain, carrying as they did the cart of Desire and connected as they were by the same axle.
But the journey was very long, and after a time our traveler grew bored. So he decided to decorate his cart, and he began to adorn it with all manner of beautiful things. But the more he embellished the cart of Desire with these ornaments, the heavier became the load for Necessity to pull. On the curves and steep hills of the road, the poor animal grew too exhausted to pull the cart of Desire. And where the road was soft, the wheels of Pleasure and Suffering became mired in the earth.
One day, because the road was long and he was still very far from his destination, our traveler grew desperate. That night he decided to meditate on the problem, and in the midst of his meditation he heard the neighing of his old friend, Necessity. Comprehending the message, he arose very early the next morning and began to lighten the cart of its burden, stripping it of all its fine adornments. Then he set off once more toward his destination, with the animal Necessity pulling the cart at a brisk trot. Still, our traveler had already lost much time—time that was now irrecoverable. The next night he sat down again to meditate, and he realized, thanks to another message from his old friend, that now he had to undertake a task that was doubly difficult because it involved his letting go. At daybreak he sacrificed the cart of Desire. It is true that when he did so he lost the wheel of Pleasure, but then he also lost the wheel of Suffering. And so, abandoning the cart of Desire, he mounted the animal called Necessity and galloped on its back across the green fields until he reached his destiny.
See how desire can trap you.But notice that there are desires of different qualities. There are cruder desires, and there are more elevated desires. Elevate desire, purify desire, surpass desire! In doing so, surely you will have to sacrifice the wheel of Pleasure—but you will also become free of the wheel of Suffering.
Spurred by desire, the violence in a person does not simply remain like a sickness in the consciousness of that person—it acts in the world of other people and is exercised upon them. And do not think that when I talk of violence I am speaking only about the armed act of war, where some men destroy others. That is only one form of physical violence.
There is also economic violence. Economic violence is the violence through which you exploit other people; economic violence occurs when you steal from another, when you are no longer a brother or sister to others but a bird of prey feeding upon them.
There is also racial violence. Or do you think that you are not being violent when you persecute someone because that person is not of your own race? Do you think that you are not engaging in violence when you malign that person for being of a race different from your own?
And there is religious violence: Do you think that you are not engaging in violence when you refuse work to, close your doors to, or dismiss a person, because that person does not share your religious beliefs? Do you believe that it is not violence when you use words of hate to build walls around other people, excluding them from your society, because they do not share your religious beliefs—isolating them within their families, segregating them and their loved ones, because they do not share your religion?
There are other forms of violence that are imposed by the Philistine morality. You wish to impose your way of life upon another; you wish to impose your vocation upon another. But who has told you that you are an example that must be followed? Who has told you that you can impose a way of life because it pleases you? What makes your way of life a model, a pattern that you have the right to impose on others? This, then, is another form of violence.
Only inner faith and inner meditation can end the violence in you, in others, and in the world around you. All the other doors are false and do not lead away from this violence. This world is on the verge of exploding with no way to end the violence! Do not choose false doors. There are no politics that can solve this mad urge for violence. There is no political party or movement on the planet that can end the violence. Do not choose false doors that promise to lead away from the violence in the world… I have heard that all over the world young people are turning to false doors to try to escape the violence and inner suffering. They turn to drugs as a solution. Do not choose false doors to try to end the violence.
My brother, my sister, keep these simple commandments, as simple as these rocks, this snow, and this sun that bless us. Carry peace within you, and carry it to others. My brother, my sister—if you look back in history, you will see the human being bearing the face of suffering. Remember, even as you gaze at that suffering face, that it is necessary to move forward, and it is necessary to learn to laugh, and it is necessary to learn to love.
To you, my brother and sister, I cast this hope—this hope of joy, this hope of love—so that you elevate your heart and elevate your spirit, and so that you do not forget to elevate your body.
Las Palmas, Grand Canary Island, September 29, 1978
Talk in a Study Group
What actions are valid? This is a question that people have answered, or attempted to answer, in many different ways. They have tried, almost always on the basis of the goodness or the badness of an action, to discover what it is that makes an action valid. In other words, since antiquity people have attempted to answer what has been known as the question of ethics or morality. For many years we have been concerned with consulting others about what is moral and what it is immoral, what is good and what is bad. But fundamentally, our interest has been to discover what it is that makes an action valid.
People have given us a variety of answers. Some have given us religious answers, some have given legal answers, and others ideological answers. In all these answers, what we have been told is that there are certain ways in which people ought to do things, and other ways of doing things that they ought to avoid.
It has been very important for us to obtain a clear answer to this question, because a person’s whole way of life follows from whether his or her actions go in one direction or another. All the varied elements that make up our lives find their place according to the direction that we take—my present situation corresponds to the direction that I take toward the future. So this question about which actions are valid and which are invalid, what is good and what is bad, affects not only the individual’s future but his or her present as well. And it doesn’t affect only the individual—it affects groups and even entire peoples.
The various religious positions have offered their solutions. So it is that if one is a believer in a certain religion, one must obey certain religious laws; one must follow certain precepts inspired by God. And that is valid for believers in that religion. But we find that different religions cite different precepts. Some religions say that one ought not to perform given actions so as to avoid a certain turn of events; others say it is to avoid a particular hell.Sometimes these religions, which in principle are universal, do not agree among themselves; they agree neither in their precepts nor in their commandments.
But what is most troubling in all of this is the situation of so many throughout the world who, though they may in good faith want to obey these precepts, these commandments, cannot do so because they do not feel them. And so for nonbelievers, who are unable to keep these commandments—and who, according to the religions, are also the children of God—it is as though they have been forsaken by God. It is not because a religion occupies the whole of the world geographically that it is a universal religion, however, but rather because it occupies the hearts of human beings, independent of the condition in which they live, independent of the latitude at which they live. And so religions present us with certain difficulties in regard to their answers about ethics.
This has led us to consult the judicial systems, inasmuch as they, too, are shapers of human conduct. These legal systems form our conduct and shape our behavior by laying down certain rules about what one ought to do or ought not to do in one’s relationships, in one’s social behavior. There are codes of many kinds to regulate relationships, extending even to penal codes that establish punishments for various crimes, for behavior considered unsocial, or asocial, or antisocial. Legal systems, too, have tried to give their answer to the question of human conduct, in terms of what is good behavior and what is bad behavior. And like religions, they have given us their answer, and that is fine—fine for those who believe in a given legal system. Each legal system gives its own answer, and that is fine for that historical moment, fine for a given type of social organization—but none of this speaks to the individual who is having to follow one of these systems of conduct.
Although reasonable people will undoubtedly agree that it is interesting for social behavior to be regulated as a means of avoiding total chaos, such regulation is a technique of social organization, not a justification for any particular morality. And in fact, depending upon their development and depending upon the way they view their world, various human communities have regulated behavior legally or judicially in ways that are sometimes in striking contrast to one another. So it is clear that legal systems have no universal validity. They serve for a period of time, for a particular type of social structure, but they do not serve for all human beings or for all times and all places. And most important of all, they say nothing to the individual about what is good and what is bad.
We have also consulted various ideologies. These ideologies are more development-friendly, so to speak, providing explanations that are quite a bit more colorful than either the somewhat dry legal systems or those precepts and laws handed down from above. Some of these doctrines characterize the human being as a kind of rapacious animal, a being that develops at the expense of everything else, that will proceed without regard for anything else, even without regard for other human beings. A kind of will to power, then, underlies this morality. Having appeared romantic to some, this morality is in fact success-oriented, and it says nothing to the individual about how to handle those times when things go badly in this quest for power.
There is another kind of ideology which tells us that, since everything in nature is in evolution, and the human being itself is the product of that evolution, and since the human being is the reflection of the conditions that prevail during a given period, then human behavior will be a reflection of the type of society in which a person lives. Thus, one class will have a certain type of morality, while a different class will have another. According to this point of view, morality is determined by objective conditions, by social relations, and by the mode of production. Then there’s no need to worry, because one does what one is mechanically driven to do, even though for public relations purposes people talk of the morality of one class or another. Being limited to this mechanical development, I act as I do because I’m driven by mechanical forces to do so. But where is good and where is the evil in all of this? There is only the mechanical clash of particles in motion.
Other rather singular ideologies tell us, for instance, that morality is a social pressure that like a kind of super-ego serves to contain the force of impulses. Then, the compression brought about in the cauldron of the consciousness is what allows those basic impulses to be sublimated and gradually channeled in other directions.
So our poor friend, seeing himself variously defined by these often conflicting ideologies, finally sits down by the side of the road and says, “What am I supposed to do, then? On one side I’m constrained by social pressures, and yet at the same time I have impulses that apparently can be sublimated—if I’m an artist. But if I’m not, it’s either lie down on the psychoanalyst’s couch, or wind up neurotic.” So morality appears as a way of controlling those impulses, which sometimes, however, still boil over.
There are other ideologies, also of a psychological nature, that explain good and bad on the basis of adaptation. But a morality of adaptive behavior—behavior that enables one to fit into one’s society or, to the extent that one doesn’t fit in, results in one’s being segregated from it—entails problems of its own. That is, it says that the best thing you can do is just to walk the straight-and-narrow and try to “fit in.” It tells us that what’s good and what’s bad is based on one’s degree of adaptation, one’s conformity to one’s surroundings. And that’s fine—it’s another ideology.
In periods of great cultural exhaustion, as have occurred time and again in past civilizations, there tend to arise short-term, immediate answers to the question of what one should and should not do. I am referring to what could be called the “moral schools of decadence.” As various cultures fell into decline, there arose moralists who tried to adapt their behavior as best they could in order to give some direction to their lives. Some said things like, “Life has no meaning, and since life has no meaning, anything goes—as long as I can get away with it.” Others said, “Since life has little meaning (laughter), I should just do whatever I like, whatever feels good to me, regardless of how it affects anyone or anything else.” And still others said, “Since I’m stuck in this bad situation, since life itself is nothing but suffering, I should just do what I have to do, do my duty and keep a stiff upper lip—I should be stoic.” And that is the name of these schools of decadence, the Stoic schools.
Even though these schools represent what are in effect “emergency” answers to these questions of morality, behind them there is also ideology. The basic ideology appears to be that all meaning has been lost, and there is a corresponding urgent response to that loss of meaning. Today, for example, we find some who try to justify action with a theory of the absurd, into which the idea of “commitment” has been smuggled. But this is like the coercion imposed by the banks—that is, somehow I’m “committed” to something, and therefore I must fulfill my obligation. Yet it is difficult to understand how commitment can be established if the world I live in is absurd and ends in nothingness. Nor can this last position give the person who holds it much assurance.
The various religions, legal systems, ideological systems, and the moralities of decadence have all recognized the importance of the justification or lack of justification for human actions. So it is that they have all endeavored to give answers to this serious question of behavior in order to establish a morality, to define an ethics.
But what is the basis of truly valid action? The basis of valid action is not given by ideologies, or by religious mandates or beliefs, or by laws or social regulations. Even though all of these things have great importance, none of them provides a basis for valid action. Instead, the basis of valid action is given by the inner register that an individual has of that action. There is a fundamental difference between the valuation of an action when that valuation is seen to come from the outside, and when it is based on the internal register that human beings have of the actions they carry out.
And what is the register of an action that is valid? A valid action is experienced as giving one greater unity. At the same time, this action gives one a feeling of inner growth; it is something one desires to repeat because it has the flavor of continuity in time. Let’s examine these aspects separately—the register of internal unity, on the one hand, and continuity in time on the other.
In the face of a difficult situation, I can choose among various ways of responding. If I’m harassed, for example, I can react violently to the irritation produced in me by that external stimulus, seeking in this way to relieve the tension provoked in me. If I react in this violent manner, I can experience relief as that tension is released. Thus, the first condition of valid action has apparently been met—faced with an irritating stimulus, I remove it, and in doing so I un-tense myself, and in relieving myself of tension I have a register of unity.