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St Ambrose – the man who invented silent reading

We should celebrate St Ambrose, whose understated management skills kept the early church together – and who was the first person to read in silence

By on Thursday, 8 December 2011

St Ambrose, at St Peter's Basilica

St Ambrose, at St Peter's Basilica

St Ambrose, whose feast we celebrated yesterday, is one of the great saints of the Western Church; he is one of the two Western doctors holding up the Chair in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome, along with St Augustine. The comparison with Augustine is always unfortunate, because Ambrose’s writings are far less interesting than Augustine’s, but there again, so are most people’s. But there are two things about Ambrose that are of the very greatest interest.

Firstly, Ambrose was elected Bishop of Milan by acclamation. The story is well known; he was the Prefect of Liguria and Emilia, resident in Milan, a Catholic Christian, but still a catechumen, not even baptised. The election for bishop was taking place in a church, and trouble was expected, as the Church was split between Arians and Catholics; Ambrose came along to keep order, and was himself the unanimous choice of the assembly. Despite his reluctance, he was eventually persuaded to accept election and was baptised and ordained within the week. He had at that stage no formal theological training.

Some years ago there was a move by the government to recruit managers from industry, who had no formal teaching qualifications, as Headteachers of schools. Perhaps Ambrose’s case can be seen as a parallel: a secular governor recruited to have oversight over the flock of God. Some Tory politician, I forget who, suggested that Mrs Thatcher might, having finished as Prime Minister, become Archbishop of Canterbury, and do for the Church what she had done for the State. I think that might have been a joke, but you get the idea.

Ambrose’s case interests me, because he was clearly the best man for the job, and everyone saw that. Indeed he was the only man for the job, for there were no rival candidates. Moreover, in those days bishops were elected. It has been suggested that we should return to the ancient way of doing things, but how would that work in practice? Could we acclaim men as bishops? How would this change matters in the contemporary Church?

The second thing about Ambrose has nothing to do with Church government, but will interest everyone reading this. Some have disputed this, but it is claimed that Ambrose invented silent reading. The Romans were in the habit of declaiming a text, even in private, reading aloud to audiences, even an audience consisting only of oneself. But Augustine says of Ambrose, in Book 6, chapter 3 of his Confessions:

When [Ambrose] read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.

It strikes me that Augustine would not have mentioned this if it had not struck him as something completly novel. But why is it important? Silent reading is something interior, which involves listening to the quiet inner voice. Ambrose’s discovery of silent reading marks the beginning of the Western way of doing things, our quite appropriate emphasis on the importance of our inner and interior lives. This is something of which we are in danger of losing sight: what counts is the interior person, and my real life is my inner life: this is the locus of salvation. Because Ambrose is the first to point to this through reading, he stands at the head of a great tradition. Perhaps that is why he deserves to be one of the two Western doctors supporting the Chair of Peter.

  • Anonymous

    If the Latin branch of the Church were to return to the ancient practice of electing bishops I certainly don’t think it would be any worse than the (very recent) method employed today.

    Regarding Margaret Thatcher, I believe it would be more accurate to write what “…she did to the state” rather than “…for the state.”. Her policies helped to usher in a greedy, egotistical and profit-centred era in Britain.

  • runrun

    Where’s the proof that he was the first to read in this manner, or even that Augustine meant in this passage that “silent reading” was what struck him?  I’ve heard this version of the story of the beginning of silent reading a thousand times, yet always accompanied by an anecdotal reference … and that alone.  I appreciate the spiritual insight, but I believe there is more than meets the eye here.

  • Anonymous

    This may be of interest:

    “Augustine’s description of Ambrose’s silent reading (including
    the remark that he never read aloud) is the first definite instance recorded
    in Western literature. Earlier examples are far more uncertain. In the
    fifth century BC, two plays show characters reading on stage: in Euripides’
    Hippolytus, Theseus reads in silence a letter held by his dead wife; in
    Aristophanes’ The Knights, Demosthenes looks at a writing-tablet sent by
    an oracle and, without saying out loud what it contains, seems taken aback
    by what he has read.6 According to Plutarch, Alexander the Great read a
    letter from his mother in silence in the fourth century BC, to the bewilderment
    of his soldiers.7 Claudius Ptolemy, in the second century AD, remarked
    in On the Criterion (a book that Augustine may have known) that sometimes
    people read silently when they are concentrating hard, because voicing
    the words is a distraction to thought.8 And Julius Caesar, standing next
    to his opponent Cato in the Senate in 63 BC, silently read a little billet-doux
    sent to him by Cato’s own sister.9 Almost four centuries later, Saint Cyril
    of Jerusalem, in a catechetical lecture probably delivered at Lent of the
    year 349, entreated the women in church to read, while waiting during the
    ceremonies, “quietly, however, so that, while their lips speak, no
    other ears may hear what they say”10 -a whispered reading, perhaps,
    in which the lips fluttered with muffled sounds.”


  • Philip Cameron

    I came across your post about St. Ambrose’s silent reading as part of my study on prayer.  Reading silently is a more advance skill of reading.  Although reading silently has definite benefits when reading and studying, I am wondering if “silent praying” (which is most typically practiced by modern Christians) is always a benefit.  It clearly reduces the distractions in a worship setting.  The cacophony of a congregation praying out loud (and not in unison) would making praying very hard.  Yet, in almost all instances in the Scriptures, prayer is not done silently but out loud. Also, the Scriptures are more likely to be heard as someone reads aloud the Bible.  I haven’t come to anything definitive but just considering the deeper meaning of prayer.  Thanks for your article and the comments.
    Rev. Philip J. Cameron
    Risen Savior Lutheran Church
    Denver, Colorado, USA