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Enjoy the Silence by Depeche Mode
Thomas R. Morgan hears more than silence.
Violator, the seventh studio album by the British band Depeche Mode, was groundbreaking when it was released back in 1990. It’s aptly named, due to its musical style, which combines a somewhat pessimistic outlook with catchy pop-synth tunes, and, more pertinently, due to its subject matter. Indeed, each song (written by Martin Gore) offers a novel take on life, love, and perception.
I’ve noticed that several tracks on the album seem to reflect tenets of two schools of philosophical thought, Stoicism and Buddhism. These songs celebrate what I would interpret as ‘inner satisfaction’, or in more religious terms, a form of enlightenment. But I want to focus on one song in particular, ‘Enjoy The Silence’, which is probably the band’s most popular and enduring hit.
Various explanations of the song have been put forward, including the band’s official music video directed by Anton Corbijn, which compares it with themes from The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupéry, the protagonist ‘having everything, but feeling nothing’. Additional interpretations include that it is about an intense affair where words are surplus to requirement; or, to the effects of drugs. My own interpretation follows a philosophical theme. Some of what can be said about this track philosophically could also be applied to other tracks on the album, such as ‘World In My Eyes’.
Despite some popular modern perceptions of Stoicism, in its purest form it is a disciplined way of life. Epictetus’s version of Stoicism, which I want to focus on here, certainly is. Having said this, Stoicism is also extremely practical and provides clear advice about how to deal with the challenges of life.
Relatively little is known about the life of Epictetus, who lived from about 50 AD to 135 AD, save that he was a slave for around twenty years, after which he gained fame for his aptitude for philosophy. Thanks to a collection of his writings, The Discourses, put together by his student Arrian, Epictetus has been hugely influential. Having learnt the importance of a disciplined mind and self-responsibility through personal hardship, Epictetus recommended an approach to life that many would find unattractive and demanding. For example, he strongly discourages gossip and small talk, but encourages self-sacrifice and the subjugation of desires.
There is something of this austerity and self-denial, especially regarding words and language, in ‘Enjoy the Silence’. In the chorus the singer asserts his self-sufficiency, but also discourages language and speaking:
“All I ever wanted
All I ever needed
Is here in my arms
Words are very unnecessary
They can only do harm”
The protagonist of ‘Enjoy the Silence’ exhibits confidence in asserting that all he wants ‘is here in my arms’. This relates to Stoic teaching regarding desire. Desire can cause suffering when it is untamed or when its object eludes us. To counter this, Epictetus teaches adherents to realise the difference between what they can control and what they can’t. For example, we can control how we behave towards others, but not how they behave towards us. The natural elements and fortune in general similarly stand outside of our control. If we align our desires with what we can control (namely, our ethical conduct), we can avoid much that is, painful, harmful or unsatisfactory.
Image © Joel Hasemeyer 2023 joelhase.myportfolio.com Instagram: @joel_hase
Buddhism takes a similar stance. Its Four Noble Truths outline a link between suffering and desire, and say how to address it. The first truth acknowledges universal suffering; the second finds suffering’s source in desire; the third logically concludes that if desire is curbed, so will suffering be; while the fourth outlines a path forwards. For a Buddhist, the mastery of desire will ultimately lead to heightened states of awareness. Like Buddhism (but perhaps for different reasons), Epictetus implores followers to eliminate desire, since it makes us ‘unfortunate’. The Buddha illustrates this idea through an analogy involving two arrows. As it hits you the first arrow brings pain which cannot be avoided. However, the second arrow represents our reactions, which reflect our desires, which cause us further pain as we wish to avoid the suffering which cannot be avoided. In Stoic terms, the first arrow is not under our control, but the second is. This teaching is reflected in the Enchiridion of Epictetus, where he asserts that it is our judgements that upset us, as opposed to the events we judge. Or in the song’s terms, our use of words to label and judge the pain of the first arrow brings unnecessary suffering.
Stoicism and to a lesser extent Buddhism have been heavily drawn upon in contemporary psychological approaches such as CBT. For achieving mental wellbeing, avoiding mislabelling events and what happens to us can have surprisingly beneficial results. For example, thinking of an event as ‘disastrous’ adds to its emotional distress, so replacing the adjective with something more realistic can reduce the suffering.
In the Stoic understanding, freedom consists not of resisting nature and imposing our wills on it but in aligning our wills with it. Interestingly, the downbeat, deep vocals of Dave Gahan in the song don’t suggest that the results of ‘silence’ are euphoric happiness, but more a resignation, or perhaps something more profound. This again is more in line with the ancient spirit of Stoicism than with modern therapy. Furthermore, words and language pose the risk of putting us out of sync with nature. This sentiment about the destructiveness of words is seen in the lyrics:
Words, like violence
Break the silence
Come crashing in,
Into my little world
Returning to the chorus, the protagonist does not desire anything outside of himself, since doing so would cause suffering. Also, he does not wish to distort the situation with the use of words. Words will harm and create a false sense of what is, so rather than take this risk, we should enjoy the silence.
© Thomas R. Morgan 2024
Thomas R. Morgan is teacher of religious studies, philosophy and ethics at Westcliff High, England.