When Silence Is Better Than Speech (Plutarch on Odysseus)

Plutarch De Garrulitate (On Talkitiveness), 505f-506e

“No word uttered has helped as much as many held in silence. For it is possible to say later what has been kept silent, but certainly not to render silent what has been said—that has been poured out and has wandered far afield. This is why I think that we have men as teachers of speech, but gods as teachers of silence, since we maintain quiet in their sacrifices and rites.

And the poet has made the most capable speaker Odysseus the most silent, along with his son, wife and nurse. For the nurse says “I will keep it as a strong tree or iron would.” (19.494). And Odysseus is described when he sits next to Penelope as “mourning in his heart as he pities his wife, though his eyes stood strong untrembling beneath his brows like horn or iron” (19.210-212). He was so full of self-control throughout his body and reason kept him completely obedient and ready and ordered his eyes not to weep, his tongue not to speak, and his heart neither to tremble nor yelp since his power of reason extended even to the subconscious movements, mastering and softening even his breath and blood.

Many of Odysseus’ companions were similar in character—for they did not turn against Odysseus or reveal the fire-made too prepared for his eye even as the Cyclops was dragging them and smashing them on the ground. Instead, they were willing to be eaten raw rather than disclose any part of the secret, and a better example of self-control and trust does not exist. This is why, when the king of Egypt sent a sacrificial victim to him and ordered him to cut out the best and worst meat, Pittakos did not do badly when he cut out the tongue because it was the organ of the greatest good and evil.

Just so, Euripides’ Ino, when offering a speech about herself, says she knows “how to be silent when it is right and to speak when it is safe.” (fr. 413.2). For those who obtain a noble and royal education learn first to be silent and then to speak.”

οὐδεὶς γὰρ οὕτω λόγος ὠφέλησε ῥηθεὶς ὡς πολλοὶ σιωπηθέντες· ἔστι γὰρ εἰπεῖν ποτε τὸ σιγηθέν, οὐ μὴν σιωπῆσαί γε τὸ λεχθέν, ἀλλ’ ἐκκέχυται καὶ διαπεφοίτηκεν. ὅθεν οἶμαι τοῦ μὲν λέγειν ἀνθρώπους τοῦ δὲ σιωπᾶν θεοὺς διδασκάλους ἔχομεν, ἐν τελεταῖς καὶ μυστηρίοις σιωπὴν παραλαμβάνοντες. | ὁ δὲ ποιητὴς τὸν λογιώτατον ᾿Οδυσσέα σιωπηλότατον πεποίηκε καὶ τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ καὶ τὴν γυναῖκα καὶ τὴν τροφόν· ἀκούεις γὰρ λεγούσης (τ 494) ‘ἕξω δ’ ἠύτε περ κρατερὴ δρῦς ἠὲ σίδηρος.’
αὐτὸς δὲ τῇ Πηνελόπῃ παρακαθήμενος (τ 210—2)

‘θυμῷ μὲν γοόωσαν ἑὴν ἐλέαιρε γυναῖκα,
ὀφθαλμοὶ δ’ ὡς εἰ κέρα ἕστασαν ἠὲ σίδηρος,
ἀτρέμας ἐν βλεφάροισιν·’

οὕτω τὸ σῶμα μεστὸν ἦν αὐτῷ πανταχόθεν ἐγκρατείας, καὶ πάντ’ ἔχων ὁ λόγος εὐπειθῆ καὶ ὑποχείρια προσέταττε τοῖς ὄμμασι μὴ δακρύειν, τῇ γλώττῃ μὴ φθέγγεσθαι, τῇ καρδίᾳ μὴ τρέμειν μηδ’ ὑλακτεῖν (υ 13). ‘τῷ δ’ αὖτ’ ἐν πείσῃ κραδίη μένε τετληυῖα’ (υ 23), μέχρι τῶν ἀλόγων κινημάτων διήκοντος τοῦ λογισμοῦ καὶ
τὸ πνεῦμα καὶ τὸ αἷμα πεποιημένου κατήκοον ἑαυτῷ καὶ χειρόηθες. τοιοῦτοι δὲ καὶ οἱ πολλοὶ τῶν ἑταίρων·

τοιοῦτοι δὲ καὶ οἱ πολλοὶ τῶν ἑταίρων· τὸ γὰρ ἑλκομένους καὶ προσουδιζομένους (ι 289) ὑπὸ τοῦ Κύκλωπος μὴ κατειπεῖν τοῦ ᾿Οδυσσέως μηδὲ δεῖξαι τὸ πεπυρακτωμένον ἐκεῖνο καὶ παρεσκευασμένον ὄργανον ἐπὶ τὸν ὀφθαλμόν, ἀλλ’ ὠμοὺς ἐσθίεσθαι μᾶλλον ἢ φράσαι τι τῶν ἀπορρήτων ὑπερβολὴν ἐγκρατείας καὶ πίστεως οὐ λέλοιπεν. ὅθεν ὁ Πιττακὸς οὐ κακῶς τοῦ Αἰγυπτίων βασιλέως
πέμψαντος ἱερεῖον αὐτῷ καὶ κελεύσαντος τὸ κάλλιστον καὶ χείριστον ἐξελεῖν κρέας ἔπεμψεν ἐξελὼν τὴν γλῶτταν ὡς ὄργανον μὲν ἀγαθῶν ὄργανον δὲ κακῶν τῶν μεγίστων οὖσαν. ἡ δ’ Εὐριπίδειος ᾿Ινὼ παρρησίαν ἄγουσα περὶ αὑτῆς εἰδέναι φησί (fr. 413, 2)

‘σιγᾶν θ’ ὅπου δεῖ καὶ λέγειν ἵν’ ἀσφαλές.’

οἱ γὰρ εὐγενοῦς καὶ βασιλικῆς τῷ ὄντι παιδείας τυχόντες πρῶτον σιγᾶν εἶτα λαλεῖν μανθάνουσιν

Perhaps Plutarch was inspired by the proverb attributed to Zeno:  “for this reason wehave two ears and one mouth, so that we might hear more and say less…”

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

2 thoughts on “When Silence Is Better Than Speech (Plutarch on Odysseus)

  1. Your arguement sounds rather Odyssean. I am with Achilles? “For hateful in my eyes, even as the gates of Hades, is that man that hideth one thing in his mind and sayeth another. “. Iliad 9.310.

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