Some of the Smartest People Agree–Sometimes Being Silent is Far Superior to Speech

A reminder that oftentimes silence is better than speech.

Two sayings come from the Gnomologium Vaticanum

58 “When Aristotle was asked what the most burdensome thing in life is he said “staying silent.”

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἐρωτηθείς, τί δυσκολώτατόν ἐστιν ἐν βίῳ, εἶπε· „τὸ σιωπᾶν”.

382 “[Kratês] the Cynic used to say that it is better to slip with your foot than your tongue.”

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἔφη κρεῖττον εἶναι τῷ ποδὶ ὀλισθῆσαι ἢ τῇ γλώττῃ.

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 we have 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

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 1.15.1

“Those light-weight, annoying and pointless talkers who, though they cannot rely on any strong foundation, pour out lolling, liquid words, are correctly believed to draw only as deep as the lips and not the heart. Indeed, most people say that the tongue should not be free but should be guided by lines tied to the deepest part of the chest and the heart, as if by a ship’s captain. But still you may see certain men who toss around words without any semblance of judgment, but instead with a certainty so great and profound that even while they are speaking they do not seem to understand that they speak.

Homer has his Ulysses, however,–a man suffused with wise eloquence–move his voice not from his mouth but from his chest. This depiction is not so much about the sound and style of his voice as it is indicative of the considerable weight of the thoughts conceived within. And Homer also said quite appropriately that teeth are a wall built to contain immature and dangerous words—not just so that the watchful guardian of the heart could restrain them, but that they may be stopped by a guardhouse of sorts positioned at the mouth. The Homeric lines which I mentioned above are: “But when he released the great voice from his chest” (Il.3.221) and “What kind of word has escaped the bulwark of your teeth”? (Il. 4.350)

1 Qui sunt leves et futtiles et inportuni locutores quique nullo rerum pondere innixi verbis uvidis et lapsantibus diffluunt, eorum orationem bene existimatum est in ore nasci, non in pectore; linguam autem debere aiunt non esse liberam nec vagam, sed vinclis de pectore imo ac de corde aptis moveri et quasi gubernari. 2 Sed enim videas quosdam scatere verbis sine ullo iudicii negotio cum securitate multa et profunda, ut loquentes plerumque videantur loqui sese nescire.

3 Ulixen contra Homerus, virum sapienti facundia praeditum, vocem mittere ait non ex ore, sed ex pectore, quod scilicet non ad sonum magis habitumque vocis quam ad sententiarum penitus conceptarum altitudinem pertineret, petulantiaeque verborum coercendae vallum esse oppositum dentium luculente dixit, ut loquendi temeritas non cordis tantum custodia atque vigilia cohibeatur, sed et quibusdam quasi excubiis in ore positis saepiatur. 4 Homerica, de quibus supra dixi, haec sunt:
ἀλλ’ ὅτε δὴ ὄπα τε μεγάλην ἐκ στήθεος εἵη (Il.3.221)

 

Vergerio, de ingenuis moribus et liberalibus adulescentiae studiis, XIII:

“They should be deterred from this vain mendacity as much as possible. First, because men who became accustomed to lying in youth tend to maintain the habit, and nothing could be more shameful. Second, because almost nothing offends elders more, than the mendacity of youths who try, though just born yesterday, to ensnare old men with deceit. It would be well if our youth were advised to speak little and rarely, unless bid to do so. For, in excessive speech there is always something which can be criticized, and if one is to make a mistake in either direction, it is much safer to be silent than to speak. Indeed, he who is silent at the wrong time, makes only this one mistake, that he is silent: but in speaking, one may make many mistakes. Therefore, we ought to see to it that youths do not become accustomed to base and dishonest talk. For, as was said by a Greek poet and repeated by the Apostle Paul,

                “Bad conversations will corrupt good characters.”

Ab hac autem mentiendi vanitate deterrendi sunt maxime. Primum, quod assueti in iuventute mentiri morem hunc viri servant, quo nihil est turpius; deinde, quod prope nihil aeque maiores offendit quam mendacia adulescentium, qui studeant, pridie nati, senes fallaciis circumvenire. Proderit autem si admoneantur parum loqui et raro, nisi iussos, dicere. In multo namque sermone est aliquid semper quod reprehendi possit. Quod si alterutro est peccandum, multo sane tutius est tacere quam loqui. Nam qui intempestive tacet, hoc in unum peccat, quod tacet; loquendo autem, in multis errare contingit. Providendum etiam ne foedis atque inhonestis sermonibus assuescant. Nam, ut est a graeco poeta dictum et ab apostolo Paolo repetitum,

                corrumpunt bonos mores colloquia mala.

Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, de Educatione Liberorum XXXV

“What then should we say, considering that there is great utility in both silence and in speaking? We would have you hold to the middle course, and find yourself neither always speaking nor always quit. I do not demand a five-years silence in the Pythagorean fashion, nor would I recommend the loquacity of a Thersites. The ancients used to say that the tongue should not always be free and wandering, but moved and perhaps even governed by chains rooted deep in the heart and soul. The words of those who speak freely, lightly, aimlessly, and with no sense of timing ought to be considered as springing not from the heart, but from the mouth itself. Homer, however, says that Ulysses – a man endowed with wisdom and eloquence – would speak not from his mouth, but from his heart. Certainly, the ‘bulwark of the teeth’ is placed as a restraint on inconsiderate speech, so that temerity in speaking would not be checked only by the heart’s guardianship, but also be hedged in by guards placed in the mouth. One should take care not to deserve that charge of Epicharmus, of being a man ‘who, although he was unable to speak, yet could not be silent,’ or even that of Sallust, who speaks of one who ‘when he spoke was talkative rather than eloquent.’”

Quid ergo dicemus, cum et silentii et orationis magna utilitas sit? Tenere te medium volumus, neque tacere semper neque loqui semper. Non exigimus Pythagoreum illud quinquennale silentium neque Thersitis loquacitatem. Linguam dicebant veteres debere non esse liberam nec vagam sed vinculis de pectore imo ac de corde aptis moveri et quasi gubernari. Nam qui sunt faciles, leves, futiles et importuni locutores, horum orationem bene aestimatum in ore nasci, non in pectore. Ulixem contra Homerus sapienti facundia praeditum vocem mittere ait non ex ore, sed ex pectore. Nempe verborum coercendae petulantiae vallum positum est dentium, ut loquendi temeritas non cordis tantum custodia cohibeatur, sed et quibusdam quasi excubiis in ore positis saepiatur. Cavendum est, ne obiici possit illud Epicharmi, ‘<qui> cum loqui non posset, tacere non potuit,’ aut Sallustianum: ‘loquax inquit magis quam facundus.’

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