“Two Ears, One Mouth”: Hunting a Proverb from Zeno to Paul’s Mom

On using twitter and the internet to trace the history of a cherished proverb; or, on the birth of a t-shirt.

Last fall, I noticed the Paul Holdengraber‘s 7-word autobiography from brainpickings.org.: “Mother always said: Two Ears, One mouth.” The phrase bounced around in my head a bit–it has that aphoristic perfection of brevity and familiarity. So, I reached out to Paul over twitter and told him it sounded like something from a Greek philosopher like Heraclitus.

Proverbs have a special place in language and society cross-culturally–they strike a promise of insight that demands  contemplation or explanation. They also have an air of authority and antiquity, even when they actually possess neither. And, unlike longer, less anonymized forms of language, they are repeated, borrowed, and stolen without end.

My late father was a great aphorist–perhaps missing him is part of why Paul’s tweet stuck with me. Most of my father’s words, however, were far more Archie Bunker than Aristotle. Those I can repeat were likely taken from his own father, a Master Sargent in WW2 who died a decade before I was born. The tendency to inherit and pass down proverbs is something I only really noticed when I had children and found myself ‘quoting’ (or becoming?) my father (“if you take care of your equipment it will take care of you”) or my grandmother (cribbing Oscar Wilde: “Only boring people get bored”).

So, when Paul thought it would be a gas if we actually translated his mother’s words into ancient Greek (and eventually Latin), I was ready. I got help from some great Classicists too. We came up with a few versions.

First, I went with classical rhetoric, a close antithesis: μήτηρ ἀεὶ ἔφη ὦτα μὲν δύο, ἕν δὲ στόμα. But our friend the Fantastic Festus argued 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 [“mother always used to say two ears, one mouth”]

This gave us Paul’s mother’s advice in seven Greek words and his mother’s advice. But this didn’t get us out of trouble. The critic, author and Classicist Daniel Mendelsohn suggested hexameters and from across the Atlantic the extraordinary Armand D’Angour obliged with a composition of his own:

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” Go to the full post for all the compositional glory and an appearance from Salman Rushdie].

At this point, I felt like I had entertained myself on a Saturday morning, involved my internet friends in a silly, though somewhat academic caper, and done a favor for a new friend to please the spirits of parents no longer with us. But the world wide web had a a plot twist I should have thought of.

Ancient Greek and Roman authors and scholars loved proverbs. Writers like Zenobius and Photius made collections and interpretations of them. The Byzantine Encyclopedia, the Suda, uses the word for proverb (in Greek paroimia) over 600 times and presents nearly as many distinct proverbs. (Many of which are wonderful.) And in the modern world, we have an entire academic field dedicated to the study of proverbial sayings: paroemiology. Let me tell you, we could have used en expert last fall.

While we were playing around with translations, one of our ‘players’, the grand Gerrit Kloss, let us know we were, to use a proverbial saying, reinventing the wheel. Zeno, the Cynic philosopher, was credited with this saying over two thousand years ago:

So, the quote I thought sounded Greek, turned out to be Greek. 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).

And yet, the story was not over. Gerrit Floss was far from done with us–he found an even earlier Latin version of the line attributed to Apuleius.

As we began to discuss these versions, other voices chimed in with accounts from even more languages. Gerrit helped us trace the life of this proverbial statement to German and Danish:

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.”)

Oh, and later one, we added some Arabic to the mix too!

[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]

Such a distribution of phrases got me caught up in the genealogy and questions of ‘authority’ and derivation. Had the same idea developed multiple times (entirely possible) or was the one ancient source? So I started my new ‘research’ by googling “Nature has given us two ears, two eyes, and one tongue” and Socrates. Of course, there are numerous websites and books that attribute this to Socrates or Epictetus.(But no ancient sources I could find).

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.)

I got this cartoon here: http://petebrown.blogspot.com/2011/10/someone-is-wrong-on-internet.html

I got this cartoon here: http://xkcd.com/386/

Then I stopped googling and started looking at Ancient Greek.  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 even 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” .

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)

“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.”

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’.

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 misattributed to more famous philosophers (Socrates and Epictetus). In some cases (e.g. Denmark), it lost any attribution and became a popular proverb.

Gentle reader, if you’ve used your two eyes and not your two feet and actually made it this far in my journey, you can probably imagine the conclusion. Zeno may have said this originally, or not. The important point is that the idea of the lesson in “Two Ears, One Mouth” was attractive enough to be attached to cultural authorities, transferred and translated, and reinvigorated when rediscovered. Did Paul’s mom read Zeno? Have author’s changed attribution to Plato or Socrates because they’re more familiar? Does it matter who said it first?

The truth is, I’m a Homerist not a paroemiologist. But I am also a teacher and a father. I consciously think of Zeno’s words in the classroom and it makes me a better teacher because I resist the urge to talk more. As a father, I also practice listening more, but when I talk, sometimes I quote Paul’s mom and Zeno to my kids: “We have two ears and one mouth, to listen twice as much as we speak”.

[And, yes, I turned it into a t-shirt to, using the easy tools on zazzle.com.]

two ears t-shirt


And, as always, thanks to Paul and his mother.


6 thoughts on ““Two Ears, One Mouth”: Hunting a Proverb from Zeno to Paul’s Mom

  1. Seriously deeply learned, and in the best of causes. Whoever thinks classicists are stuffy should read this… tolle lege and all that.

  2. Pingback: Paroimiai: Proverbs from Ancient Greece to Star Trek | Sententiae Antiquae

  3. Pingback: Μικροτής: (Mikrotês) “Smallness”: Ancient Compounds for the Modern World | Sententiae Antiquae

  4. Pingback: Back To School: Unsolicited Thoughts on Teaching | SENTENTIAE ANTIQUAE

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