“Two Ears, One Mouth” (Forever): From Zeno to Seven-Word Autobiographies

Over the 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.” 

(And for an interview with the master of eclecticism, Paul, himself, check out the most recent Believer Magazine)

He has two ears and one mouth...
He has two ears and one mouth…

The phrase echoed in my head and it seemed to me like the type of gnomic utterance one might find from the fragments of a Greek philosopher. Without much rigor, I decided Heraclitus could say this.  I said as much to Paul over twitter, and he encouraged me to put it into ancient Greek:

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

My friend, the Fantastic Festus, suggested 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

And for a bit things got hot and heavy over particles:

I settled on this: μήτηρ ἀεὶ ἔφη ὦτα δύο, ἕν δὲ στόμα

Armand D’Angour gave us a nice version in elegiac couplet:

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

Armand added a Latin Elegiac couplet too!

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

But not to be completely left out, Gerrit Kloss joined in with his own version:

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

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

This was picked up with a ‘novel’ attribution by Salman Rushdie:

At first I joked to my wife that Salman Rushdie had bought a forgery! (In truth, I was pretty excited to get retweeted by him no matter what the context.)  But the story was not over.

In reality, I considered this a tribute more to Paul’s mother than our poor forgeries, until Gerrit Kloss struck again!

So, the quote I thought sounded Greek, turns out to have a parallel in Greek (if not an antecedent!). According to Diogenes Laertius, Zeno said something powerfully similar (the full text is available on Perseus). And, honestly, without preening too much, I was happy that the version I settled on (μήτηρ ἀεὶ ἔφη ὦτα δύο, ἕν στόμα) wasn’t too different from the words attributed to Zeno: δύο ὦτα ἔχομεν, στόμα δὲ ἕν). But, to be more honest, this is not the most complicated composition.  Armand’s efforts are far more impressive.

But the discussion engaged more people, and we received this information:

As Gerrit discovered for us, the life of this proverbial statement is pretty interesting:

Of course, here we have a German testimony to a Danish proverb–and I have no idea what kind of authority this has.

Ein dänisches Sprichwort sagt: “Der Mensch hat zwei Ohren und nur einen Mund. Wir sollten also doppelt so viel zuhören, wie wir sprechen.”

(“A Danish saying goes: “Man has two ears and only one mouth. Therefore, we should listen twice as much as we speak.”)

And I couldn’t settle on this alone.  I needed Danish to add to the mix. (Twitter is an amazing drug):

Before I go on and get dizzy, I want to include the original source and a translation.  Note Diogenes is separated from Zeno (founder of Stoicism) by five centuries or so..

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers Book 7, 23.6-24.3 (3rd Century CE)

“When Dionysus the rebel asked Zeno why he failed to correct only him, Zeno replied “Because I do not trust you.” To a youth talking nonsense, he said “We have two ears, but one mouth so that we may hear more but speak less.” When he was asked the reason he was reclining at the symposium in silence, he told the man asking to inform the king that someone present knew how to be quiet.”

“Those who questioned him were envoys from Ptolemy and they wished to know what they should say from Zeno when they returned to the king. When he was asked how he feels about slander, he said “The way an envoy does when he returns without an answer.” Apollonius of Tyre recounts that when Krates tried to drag him by the cloak from Stipo, Zeno said, “Crates, the best way to grab philosophers is by the ears. Move them by persuasion. If you force me, my body will be yours, but my soul will be with Stilpo.”

Διονυσίου  δὲ τοῦ Μεταθεμένου εἰπόντος αὐτῷ διὰ τί αὐτὸν μόνον οὐ διορθοῖ, ἔφη, “οὐ γάρ σοι πιστεύω.” πρὸς τὸ φλυαροῦν μειράκιον, “διὰ τοῦτο,” εἶπε, “δύο ὦτα ἔχομεν, στόμα δὲ ἕν, ἵνα πλείονα μὲν ἀκούωμεν, ἥττονα δὲ λέγωμεν.” ἐν συμποσίῳ κατακείμενος σιγῇ τὴν αἰτίαν ἠρωτήθη· ἔφη οὖν τῷ ἐγκαλέσαντι ἀπαγγεῖλαι πρὸς τὸν βασιλέα ὅτι παρῆν τις σιωπᾶν ἐπιστάμενος·

ἦσαν δὲ οἱ ἐρωτήσαντες παρὰ Πτολεμαίου πρέσβεις ἀφικόμενοι καὶ βουλόμενοι μαθεῖν τί εἴποιεν παρ’ αὐτοῦ πρὸς τὸν βασιλέα. ἐρωτηθεὶς πῶς ἔχει πρὸς λοιδορίαν, “καθάπερ,” εἶπεν, “εἰ πρεσβευτὴς ἀναπόκριτος ἀποστέλλοιτο.” φησὶ δ’ ᾿Απολλώνιος ὁ Τύριος, ἕλκοντος αὐτὸν Κράτητος τοῦ ἱματίου ἀπὸ Στίλπωνος, εἰπεῖν, “ὦ Κράτης, λαβὴ φιλοσόφων ἐστὶν ἐπιδέξιος ἡ διὰ τῶν ὤτων· πείσας οὖν ἕλκε τούτων· εἰ δέ με βιάζῃ, τὸ μὲν σῶμα παρὰ σοὶ ἔσται, ἡ δὲ ψυχὴ παρὰ Στίλπωνι.”

Note how listening and silence (alternating with speech) are recurring motifs in this section…

But the ancients weren’t done with us yet. Now it seems that during the Roman Imperial period, the saying “two ears, one mouth” had gained  proverbial status. Gerrit  shared this:

Apuleius too!

Now, some “conclusions”:

  1. Rushdie is smarter than me (but I knew that)
  2. Zeno might be Paul’s Mother (or not)
  3. Paul’s mother may or may not have read Zeno
  4. The sentiment is meaningful enough to have been (a) repeated in different cultural contexts; (b) be generated multiple times; or (c) both.
  5. Armand, again a font of wisdom, waved any existential worry away with Goethe:

To Paul, his mother, and Zeno: I have now started saying this to my children (who look at me and then promptly turn away).

To Armand, Gerrit, Robert and everyone else who helped pull all this together: thanks for some fun and distraction on the internet.

16 thoughts on ““Two Ears, One Mouth” (Forever): From Zeno to Seven-Word Autobiographies

  1. Pulchre! Euge! Recte! This is undoubtedly one of the most exciting intellectual adventures on the site!

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