“Two Ears, One Mouth”: Some Greek Composition (in Prose and Verse and Latin Too!)

After seeing it tweeted more than once (and by some people I respect, some I don’t know), I have had Paul Holdengräber’s seven-word autobiography from Brainpickings.org‘s “The 7-Word Autobiographies of Famous Writers, Artists, Musicians and Philosophers” in my head for a few days: “Mother always said: Two ears, one mouth.” 

(The article features autobiographies of David Byrne, Don Delillo and Joan Didion too)..

I chewed its meaning over for a while and as I did, it seemed to me like the type of short, close-kept contrast a presocratic philosopher might employ. Without much rigor, I decided Heraclitus could say this.  I said as much to Paul over twitter, and his excitement at the prospect fed my own.

So I tried something deceptively simple, as follows

[Ἡράκλειτος γὰρ φησί] ὦτα μὲν δύο, ἕν δὲ στόμα

Of course, if we wanted to credit Holdengräber’s mother, we could always just write: μήτηρ ἀεὶ ἔφη ὦτα μὲν δύο, ἕν δὲ στόμα

I made these choices based on (1) brevity; (2) style (separating the two nouns with the numbers in between, you know, chiasmus and all); and (3) antithesis. But I couldn’t help thinking I could do better. Or, more probably, that someone else could do better. I sent some emails, and put some open calls on twitter.

Our champion, the Fantastic Festus argues that Heraclitus or Hesiod would not use use μὲν and δὲ so, so he suggested losing them for something like this:

μήτηρ ἀεὶ ἔφη ὦτα δύο, ἕν στόμα

This gets us back to Paul’s seven words, but I am really uncomfortable with so few particles, so I put one back:

μήτηρ ἀεὶ ἔφη ὦτα δύο, ἕν δὲ στόμα

Some initial conversation regarded the interpretation of the English meaning and then moved to concern about the formal aspect of the translation

PIE Lexicon ‏@PIELexicon  1m1 minute ago

@sentantiq @ArmandDAngour How about reading out an idea that “(There) are two ears, but only one mouth” (i.e. much of said is not heard)?

Armand D’Angour ‏@ArmandDAngour  2m2 minutes ago

@sentantiq We have two ears for hearing, but only one mouth for speaking?

10:28 AM – 26 Sep 2015 · Details

Daniel Mendelsohn ‏@DMendelsohn1960  47s47 seconds ago

@sentantiq hexameters, perhaps?

10:28 AM – 26 Sep 2015 · Details

I must admit that one of the reasons I picked Heraclitus is that, unlike Empedocles or Parmenides, he is known for verse-like, ambiguous phrasing.  This means that I didn’t have to worry about meter. But Master Mendelsohn’s two simple words made me feel I was missing a real opportunity.

So I appealed to man I know has the ear for music and the proper training to do this up right. (Oh, he also loves limericks)–Armand D’Angour

Armand D’Angour ‏@ArmandDAngour  4m4 minutes ago

@sentantiq @DMendelsohn1960 ah I see! sorry to be slow – let’s see if we can do that in Latin, Greek, and English!

Armand, of course, came back with some English verse first that made me laugh aloud.

Armand D’Angour ‏@ArmandDAngour  18s19 seconds ago

@sentantiq ‘To grasp the Logos is not far to seek:/ We have two ears to hear, one mouth to speak’.

And, soon enough, Armand did not disappoint with his Greek elegiac couplet:

Armand D’Angour ‏@ArmandDAngour  28m28 minutes ago

@sentantiq @PIELexicon @holdengraber ῥᾴδιόν ἐστι Λόγον τε νοεῖν ξυνετόν τε ποιῆσαι· / τοῦτο γάρ ἐστι βροτῶν, ἓν στόμα τ᾽, ὦτα δύο.

ῥᾴδιόν ἐστι Λόγον τε νοεῖν ξυνετόν τε ποιῆσαι·
τοῦτο γάρ ἐστι βροτῶν, ἓν στόμα τ᾽, ὦτα δύο.

Literally, this is “it is easy to know the Logos and make it understood: Mortals have this [character]: one mouth and two ears”. The Greek elegiac couplet has six ‘feet’ in the first line and five in the second with a heavy pause in the middle.  The effect of the pause in this composition is to make us wait for the “one mouth, two ears” pronouncement. This is really well done.

I also like choice of Elegiac couplet–early in Greece, the couplet was used in what we today call epitaphs (whence the origin of the English adjective ‘elegiac’). I suspect that Paul will like the touch, given that he was eager to have his late mother’s words known. At the very least, I have taken these words to heart.

Note, as well, that he reverses the order of my ὦτα μὲν δύο, ἕν δὲ στόμα and eschews the men/de antithesis (which is something I read into the original lines). I don’t know if this is how Heraclitus would have done it, but this sounds almost like part of the Theognidea to me.

Any other suggestions? Any daring souls want to try this in the style of Demosthenes or Thucydides?

Of course, the inimitable Armand was not yet finished: he gave us a Latin Elegiac couplet too!

en clarum est rerum ratio, nam invenimus aures
esse homini geminas, os tamen unicum adest.

Since we have tweeted some of these lines, others have wanted to get in on the fun. Here is a tweet we received with a different attempt at the Latin:

illud (vera patet ratio) tibi mente tenendum:
auribus est geminis, unius oris homo

This version doesn’t have any elision and uses some fun grammar (for those learning Latin–passive periphrastic, genitive of characteristic…). Both Gerrit and Armand use the elegiac couplet in Latin too.

Any prose suggestions?

Coda: Twitter tales

So I put one version from above on twitter, and it received some positive feedback:

A strange and amazing thing happened later–the tweet was picked up by a writer of some eminence:

I have no idea where the ‘novel’ part came from, but if Salman Rushdie wants to consider this quote real, who am I to dispute it?

In reality, I considered this a tribute more to Paul’s mother than our poor forgeries, until twitter disclosed this bit:

διὰ τοῦτο … δύο ὦτα ἔχομεν, στόμα δὲ ἕν, ἵνα πλείω μὲν ἀκούωμεν, ἥττονα δὲ λέγωμεν

“For this reason, we have two ears, but one mouth: so that we can hear more and say less.”

According to Diogenes Laertius, Zeno said something powerfully similar so many generations ago.

And, I suspect, the circle will only get larger:

10 thoughts on ““Two Ears, One Mouth”: Some Greek Composition (in Prose and Verse and Latin Too!)

  1. Dear J – my pentameter ended ‘unicum adest’ not ‘unicum est’ – one needs the extra syllable because ‘unic(um) est’ would elide unmetrically, whereas ‘unic(um) adest’ allows the double short.
    best wishes

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