7 Ways of Reading Philosophy: #4 Reading Out Loud

When the going gets tough, it‘s good to read philosophy out loud.

Will Buckingham
9 min readMar 24, 2022

Portrait of the poet Jan Lechoń. 1919. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.


This is the fourth in a seven-part series on how to read philosophy. Read the earlier pieces on reading Napoleonically, reading haphazardly, and reading self-interestedly.

The Silent Reader

There’s a story that Saint Augustine (354–430 CE) tells about his meeting with Ambrose, the bishop of Milan. When Augustine turned up in Milan, it was in search of a teacher of rhetoric. And Ambrose was considered one of the best.

At the time, Augustine’s philosophical and religious commitments were to the doctrines of Manichaeanism. He was unimpressed by Ambrose’s Catholic teachings, even while he was impressed by his new mentor’s kindness and rhetorical skill. And at first, he managed to keep the two apart: the medium and the message, the teachings of Ambrose, and his skill in delivering them.

But as time went on, the lines between the two became blurred. The more Augustine enjoyed Ambrose’s rhetoric, the more the content of what Ambrose was saying entered into his mind. Before long, Augustine had gone through an existential and philosophical transformation. Rhetoric, the power of the spoken voice, can do that to you sometimes.

But there was something else odd about Ambrose as well, something that fascinated Augustine. When Ambrose read, he did so in silence. This is how Augustine puts it in his Confessions. It’s such a beautiful passage, it is worth quoting in full.

When he was reading, his eyes ran over the page and his heart perceived the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent. He did not restrict access to anyone coming in, nor was it customary even for a visitor to be announced. Very often when we were there, we saw him silently reading and never otherwise. After sitting for a long time in silence (for who would dare to burden him in such intent concentration?) we used to go away. We supposed that in the brief time he could find for his mind’s refreshment, free from the hubbub of other people’s troubles, he would not want to be invited to consider another problem. We wondered if he read silently perhaps to protect himself in case he had a…

Will Buckingham

Writer & philosopher. PhD. Stories & ideas to make the world a better place. HELLO, STRANGER (Granta 2021): BBC R4 Book of the Week. Twitter @willbuckingham