Last weekend I reached out over twitter to Paul Holdengräber about his seven-word autobiography from Brainpickings.org‘s “The 7-Word Autobiographies of Famous Writers, Artists, Musicians and Philosophers”. It had been in my head for a few days: “Mother always said: Two ears, one mouth.”
I started out by having some fun putting the saying into Greek and enjoining others to do this in Latin and Greek verse. Once we started mentioning this more online, wefound the saying in Danish, Latin (Apuleius), and Greek (Zeno). Oh, now Arabic too:
[Update: The Arabic version of this is dated to the 7th century CE and attributed to a companion of the Prophet Muhammad named Abū ad-Dardā. Thanks to ReemK10 for this]
When I saw this, I had to try out a dreaded google search. If you do a google search for the saying “Nature has given us two ears, two eyes, and one tongue” and Socrates, you will come up with pages and pages of websites and books that attribute this to Socrates or Epictetus.
I did similar searches with the quote matched with “Plato”, “Platonic Dialogue” and the numbers decreased rapidly. In addition, every site I checked failed to credit the ‘famous Socratic saying’ to any text. (This kind of thing drives me a little batty—there are countless fake Plato and Socrates quotes out there. One of the things that was in our mind when we started this blog was to make sure we always provided the original language and the passage numbers to allow readers to investigate the context.)
I was not satisfied, so I searched all of Plato’s work (using the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae) for the word for “ears”. It occurs 30 times in the form I would expect (ôta, ὦτα). None of these instances present a version of this proverb.
I think I have tracked down one source for the attribution to Epictetus. According to Perseus, the English translation of George Long (London, 1890) presented the following as a fragment of Epictetus: “Nature has given to men one tongue, but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak.” But the accompanying Greek text has nothing even remotely close to this.
The reason for this, though it took a bit to discover, is simple. Perseus uses public domain texts; its Greek text appears to come from the Leipzig Teubner of 1916 (edited by Schenkl) where the translation by Long was based on Schweighaeuser’s six volume edition (1799). In his introduction, Long concedes “Some of the Fragments contained in the edition of Schweighaeuser are certainly not from Epictetus” .
This note most likely applies to the quote in question How did this proverb manage to enter the corpus of Epictetus’s sayings? I think the answer is probably rather mundane. A good deal of the proverbs attributed to Epictetus come from Stobaeus. So, naturally, I checked out Stobaeus and it seems this attribution to Epictetus is ‘borrowed’ erroneously from a passage where Stobaeus is discussing Zeno (Anthologus, 3.36.19)
Ζήνων πρὸς τὸν πλείω λαλεῖν θέλοντα ἢ ἀκούειν ‘νεανίσκε’ εἶπεν ‘ἡ φύσις ἡμῖν γλῶτταν μὲν μίαν, δύο δὲ ὦτα παρέσχεν, ἵνα διπλασίονα ὧν λέγομεν ἀκούωμεν’.
“Zeno said to a man who wanted to chatter more than listen “Young man, Nature gave us one tongue but two ears so that we may listen twice as much as we speak.”
To disentangle this knot a bit, it is useful to compare the version we have in Diogenes:
“To a youth talking nonsense, he said “We have two ears, but one mouth so that we may hear more but speak less.”
πρὸς τὸ φλυαροῦν μειράκιον, “διὰ τοῦτο,” εἶπε, “δύο ὦτα ἔχομεν, στόμα δὲ ἕν, ἵνα πλείονα μὲν ἀκούωμεν, ἥττονα δὲ λέγωμεν.”
Stobaeus uses a different word for chatty speech (λαλεῖν vs. φλυαροῦν), uses “a single tongue” (γλῶτταν μὲν μίαν; different body-part, adjective instead of numeral) instead of “one mouth” (στόμα δὲ ἕν), the same “twice as much” language as we find in the German version of the Danish proverb (διπλασίονα; cf. Der Mensch hat zwei Ohren und nur einen Mund. Wir sollten also doppelt so viel zuhören, wie wir sprechen) and somewhat different grammar and concept in having “nature provide” (φύσις… παρέσχεν) these attributes.
At the very least, I think we can argue that the Danish proverb likely has its origins in Stobaeus or in the attribution of Stobaeus’ version to Epictetus. To draw another comparison, the Latin version attributed to Apuleius (quemadmodum natura os unicum, aures vero duas cuilibet ministravit, ita nos et loqui pauca et audire plurima debemus fr. 18, published in 1624) combines features of both versions: like Stobaeus’s account, “nature provides” (natura ministravit), but similar to Diogenes’s, “we speak less and hear more” (loqui pauca et audire plurima).
The similarity in content but not in articulation (somewhat different grammar and diction) implies to me that the anecdote was extant prior to Apuleius and may have had multiple forms in (lost) oral and written traditions. Stobaeus is somewhat later than Diogenes (the former is from the fifth century CE, the latter the 3rd) If we can trust the attribution of the Latin fragment to Apuleius (2nd Century CE), we can suppose the saying had some kind of a proverbial status in both Latin and Greek during the Roman Imperial period.
When it comes to the distribution among modern languages, I can imagine a two-fold existence. First, we can suppose that the saying retained an oral life in the Mediterranean (thus appearing in Arabic as well as Northern European languages—it would be nice to have some versions in Romance languages). It is equally likely that the saying re-emerged from Diogenes Laertius and Stobaeus after the Renaissance. The editions of Barth 1625 of Apuleius and Schweighaueser (1799) point to possible points of re-entry.
The English language translation of George Long indicates an additional popularizing moment. In this re-emergence from an ancient text through quasi-academic means, the saying garnered new authority and was regularly mis-attributed to more famous philosophers (Socrates and Epictetus). In some cases (e.g. Denmark), it lost any attribution and became a popular proverb.
I await any and all additional information to fill this sketch out or to dismantle it! I keep wanting to complain “Damn it Paul, I’m a Homerist not a paremiologist, ” in my best bad Deforest Kelly impersonation. But I am having too much fun…
And, as always, thanks to Paul and his mother.