Ambrose’s Silent Reading as Zombie Idea


Every field has its ‘zombie ideas’, ideas based on disproved notions (and so are not ‘alive’), but whose influence persists in large part due to their intuitive appeal (and so they aren’t ‘dead’). In the early history of reading, we have the assertion that Augustine’s surprise at seeing Ambrose read silently suggests that silent reading in antiquity was rare. The problems involved in using Augustine’s account in this way have been convincingly argued; indeed it is difficult to read the entire account and reach the conclusion that Augustine is surprised primarily by Ambrose’s silent reading per se.

The Guardian ran a column by James Fenton seven years ago about the evidence against the myth that read aloud was the norm in antiquity. And it cites two articles that had seemingly laid the issue to rest almost a decade before that (Gavrilov and Burnyeat in 1997). Yet both the misreading of Augustine’s account and the misunderstanding about the prevalence of silent reading persist. Both outstanding medievalists and first-year undergraduates frequently have heard that the ancients read aloud (“I heard it as a ‘fun fact’, one student has said) and rather frequently Augustine and Ambrose are recalled as the source.

In Confessiones (6.3), Augustine, then in preparatory study of Catholicism, but not yet baptised, recounts the scene in which he sees Ambrose, the charismatic bishop of Milan to whom Augustine looks for wisdom, reading. Often, a small part of the passage, namely “when he was reading, he drew his eyes along over the leaves, and his heart searched into the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent”, is used to assert that Augustine was surprised. A longer look at the passage perhaps puts the scene in better perspective.

Ambrose himself I esteemed a happy man, as the world counted happiness, because great personages held him in honor. Only his celibacy appeared to me a painful burden. But what hope he cherished, what struggles he had against the temptations that beset his high station, what solace in adversity, and what savory joys thy bread possessed for the hidden mouth of his heart when feeding on it, I could neither conjecture nor experience.

Nor did he know my own frustrations, nor the pit of my danger. For I could not request of him what I wanted as I wanted it, because I was debarred from hearing and speaking to him by crowds of busy people to whose infirmities he devoted himself. And when he was not engaged with them–which was never for long at a time–he was either refreshing his body with necessary food or his mind with reading.

Now, as he read, his eyes glanced over the pages and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent. Often when we came to his room–for no one was forbidden to enter, nor was it his custom that the arrival of visitors should be announced to him–we would see him thus reading to himself. After we had sat for a long time in silence–for who would dare interrupt one so intent?–we would then depart, realizing that he was unwilling to be distracted in the little time he could gain for the recruiting of his mind, free from the clamor of other men’s business. Perhaps he was fearful lest, if the author he was studying should express himself vaguely, some doubtful and attentive hearer would ask him to expound it or discuss some of the more abstruse questions, so that he could not get over as much material as he wished, if his time was occupied with others. And even a truer reason for his reading to himself might have been the care for preserving his voice, which was very easily weakened. Whatever his motive was in so doing, it was doubtless, in such a man, a good one.

Translation from

ipsumque Ambrosium felicem quendam hominem secundum saeculum opinabar, quem sic tantae potestates honorarent: caelibatus tantum eius mihi laboriosus videbatur. quid autem ille spei gereret, adversus ipsius excellentiae temptamenta quid luctaminis haberet, quidve solaminis in adversis, et occultum os eius, quod erat in corde eius, quam sapida gaudia de pane tuo ruminaret, nec conicere noveram nec expertus eram. nec ille sciebat aestus meos, nec foveam periculi mei. non enim quaerere ab eo poteram quod volebam, sicut volebam, secludentibus me ab eius aure atque ore catervis negotiosorum hominum, quorum infirmitatibus serviebat: cum quibus quando non erat, quod perexiguum temporis erat, aut corpus reficiebat necessariis sustentaculis aut lectione animum. sed cum legebat, oculi ducebantur per paginas et cor intellectum rimabatur, vox autem et lingua quiescebant. saepe, cum adessemus — non enim vetabatur quisquam ingredi aut ei venientem nuntiari mos erat — sic eum legentem vidimus tacite et aliter numquam, sedentesque in diuturno silentio — quis enim tam intento esse oneri auderet? — discedebamus; et coniectabamus eum parvo ipso tempore, quod reparandae menti suae nanciscebatur, feriatum ab strepitu causarum alienarum, nolle in aliud avocari; et cavere fortasse, ne auditore suspenso et intento, si qua obscurius posuisset ille quem legeret, etiam exponere esset necesse aut de aliquibus difficilioribus dissertare quaestionibus; atque huic operi temporibus impensis minus quam vellet voluminum evolveret: quamquam et causa servandae vocis, quae illi facillime obtundebatur, poterat esse iustior tacite legendi. quolibet tamen animo id ageret, bono utique ille vir agebat.

(Text from James O’Donnell’s online edition)

If Augustine is surprised, the shock comes not from the very fact that Ambrose is reading silently, rather Augustine seems perplexed, maybe miffed, that his admired teacher ignores the entry of his students and continues to read silently to himself. The mode of reading (silent) does not match Augustine’s expectations of the social scene in which he seems to expect the bishop to share his knowledge and wisdom about what he his reading with those present who congregate to learn from him. But the ever-busy Ambrose does not indulge them.

If anything Augustine seems disappointed that Ambrose won’t share his learning with eager students of Christian thought. If this is the case, Augustine perhaps shows us that reading silently was not uncommon, that it was frequent enough that he could recognize possible reasons for Ambrose’s silence. And perhaps, if we read Augustine’s assurances that Ambrose’s reasons must have been good as not entirely genuine, we might even see Augustine recognizing that reading silently in front of an eager audience could have been something of a snub.

In any case, if we ask what Augustine was thinking when Ambrose was reading silently, it seems more like ‘Man, why is he ignoring us and reading those great books without sharing his awesome learning!’ rather than ‘ZOMG, he’s reading and his lips aren’t moving!!!’

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