We Have Two Ears, One Mouth (And Many More Ascriptions…)

In a recent New Yorker piece, the author quotes:

“We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak,” the stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote, two thousand years ago.”

Alasthis fine sentiment in an otherwise fine piece is probably not something Epictetus said. Or, at least something he did not say alone

The first version of the post below emerged from a conversation Paul Holdengraber and I had on twitter.  Since then, Paul has been sharing similar ideas with me:

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Let’s do it again, right Paul?

A few years ago now 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]

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Continue reading “We Have Two Ears, One Mouth (And Many More Ascriptions…)”

Forget Wealth, I Know About Foxes

Aelian, Animalia Epilogue

“However much my work, thought, and toil has added to learning and as much as the progressive consensus in those matters has sketched out and uncovered while men of repute and philosophers compete with each other in these fields, I have now articulated as much as I was able. I did not leave out anything which I knew because I was lazy, as if I looked down on or dishonored some wild beast without reason or speech.

No, here too that lust for knowledge which lives deep within me and is native there has set me afire. I am not ignorant of the fact that some of those who look keenly for money and are bewitched by honors, and power, and everything which gains a reputation may attack me if I spent my free time on these projects when I could have been primping myself and frequenting courtyards and courting wealth.

Instead, I have concerned myself with foxes and lizards and bugs and snakes and lions, with what a leopard does, how affectionate storks are to their young, how the nightingale singles sweetly, how wise an elephant is, the shapes of fishes, the migrations of cranes, the natures of serpents and the rest of the things which this carefully written composition contains and preserves.

It is not at all dear to me to be numbered among these wealthy men and to be compared to them. But if, instead, I would try and desire to join that crowd among whom wise poets and men clever at seeking out and examining the secrets of nature and the writers who approach the most extensive experience think it right to join, it is clear that I am a far better judge of the difference than these other people are. Or I would prefer to excel in a single school of knowledge than to gain the praised riches and possessions of your most wealthy people. Well, that’s enough about these things for now.”

Ὅσα μὲν οὖν σπουδή τε ἐμὴ καὶ φροντὶς καὶ πόνος καὶ ἐς τὸ πλέον μαθεῖν καὶ ἐν τοῖσδε ἡ γνώμη προχωροῦσα ἀνίχνευσέ τε καὶ ἀνεῦρε, δοκίμων τε ἀνδρῶν καὶ φιλοσόφων ἀγώνισμα θεμένων τὴν ἐπ᾿ αὐτοῖς ἐμπειρίαν, καὶ δὴ λέλεκταί μοι, ὡς οἷόν τε ἦν εἰπεῖν, μὴ παραλείποντι ἅπερ ἔγνων μηδὲ βλακεύοντι, ὡς ἀλόγου τε καὶ ἀφώνου ἀγέλης ὑπεριδόντι καὶ ἀτιμάσαντι, ἀλλὰ κἀνταῦθα ἔρως με σοφίας ὁ σύνοικός τε καὶ ὁ συμφυὴς ἐξέκαυσεν. οὐκ ἀγνοῶ δὲ ὅτι ἄρα καὶ τῶν ἐς χρήματα ὁρώντων ὀξὺ καὶ τεθηγμένων ἐς τιμάς τε καὶ δυνάμεις τινὲς καὶ πᾶν τὸ φιλόδοξον δι᾿ αἰτίας ἕξουσιν, εἰ τὴν ἐμαυτοῦ σχολὴν κατεθέμην ἐς ταῦτα, ἐξὸν καὶ ὠφρυῶσθαι καὶ ἐν ταῖς αὐλαῖς ἐξετάζεσθαι καὶ ἐπὶ μέγα προήκειν πλούτου. ἐγὼ δὲ ὑπέρ τε ἀλωπέκων καὶ σαυρῶν καὶ κανθάρων καὶ ὄφεων καὶ λεόντων καὶ τί δρᾷ πάρδαλις καὶ ὅπως πελαργὸς φιλόστοργον καὶ ὅτι ἀηδὼν εὔστομον καὶ πῶς φιλόσοφον ἐλέφας καὶ εἴδη ἰχθύων καὶ γεράνων ἀποδημίας καὶ δρακόντων φύσεις καὶ τὰ λοιπὰ ὅσα ἥδε ἡ συγγραφὴ πεπονημένως ἔχει καὶ φυλάττει, περιέρχομαι· ἀλλὰ οὔ μοι φίλον σὺν τοῖσδε τοῖς πλουσίοις ἀρίθμεῖσθαι καὶ πρὸς ἐκείνους ἐζετάζεσθαι, εἰ δὲ ὧν καὶ ποιηταὶ σοφοὶ καὶ ἄνδρες φύσεως ἀπόρρητα ἰδεῖν τε ἅμα καὶ κατασκέψασθαι δεινοὶ καὶ συγγραφεῖς τῆς πείρας ἐς τὸ μήκιστον προελθόντες ἑαυτοὺς ἠξίωσαν, τούτων τοι καὶ ἐμαυτὸν ἁμωσγέπως ἕνα πειρῶμαι ἀριθμεῖν καὶ ἐθέλω, δῆλον ὡς ἀμείνων ἐμαυτῷ σύμβουλός εἰμι τῆς ἐξ ἐκείνων κρίσεως. βουλοίμην γὰρ ἂν μάθημα ἓν γοῦν πεπαιδευμένον περιγενέσθαι μοι ἢ τὰ ᾀδόμενα τῶν πάνυ πλουσίων χρήματά τε ἅμα καὶ κτήματα. καὶ ὑπὲρ μὲν τούτων ἱκανὰ νῦν.

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 6838B, Folio 10v (from The Medieval Bestiary)

Writing Biography is Like Being In Love

Eunapius, Live of the Philosophers 2.2.4

“Even though I have recorded these things faithfully, I do recognize that some things have probably escaped me. And if, although I have applied great thought and effort trying to compose a continuous and clear history of the lives of the best philosophers and rhetoricians, I did not obtain my goal, I have suffered much the same kind of thing as those who love madly and obsessively. For they, when they see the one they love and witness her overwhelming beauty in real life, they look down, too weak and dazed to gaze upon the one they desire.”

Καὶ ταῦτά γε εἰς μνήμην ἐγὼ τίθεμαι, τοῦτο συνορῶν, ὅτι τὰ μὲν ἔλαθεν ἴσως ἡμᾶς, τὰ δὲ οὐκ ἔλαθεν. ἐκείνου δὲ καίπερ πολλὴν ποιούμενος φροντίδα καὶ σπουδήν, τοῦ συνεχῆ καὶ περιγεγραμμένην εἰς ἀκρίβειαν ἱστορίαν τινὰ λαβεῖν τοῦ φιλοσόφου καὶ ῥητορικοῦ βίου τῶν ἀρίστων ἀνδρῶν, εἶτα οὐ τυγχάνων τῆς ἐπιθυμίας, ταὐτόν τι τοῖς ἐρῶσιν ἐμμανῶς καὶ περιφλέκτως ἔπαθον. καὶ γὰρ ἐκεῖνοι, τὴν μὲν ἐρωμένην αὐτὴν ὁρῶντες καὶ τὸ περίψυκτον ἐν τῷ φαινομένῳ κάλλος, κάτω νεύουσιν, ὃ ζητοῦσιν ἰδεῖν ἐξασθενοῦντες, καὶ περιλαμπόμενοι•

Eunapius? A 5th century (CE) intellectual who wrote about sophists, picking up from Philostratus.

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Don’t Mix a Fire With a Knife: Some Pythagorean Sayings

Diogenes Laertius, Pythagoras 17–18

“These are the sayings attributed to Pythagoras: don’t mix a fire with a knife; don’t step over a balance beam; don’t sit on a bushel; don’t eat your heart; don’t help with a burden but put it on; always make your bed; don’t put a god’s image on a ring; don’t leave the outline of a pan in ashes; don’t wipe up a mess with a torch; don’t piss towards the sun; don’t walk on the highway; don’t offer your right hand too easily; don’t share your roof with swallows; don’t keep clawed birds; don’t piss or stand on your cut nails and hair; turn sharp blades away from you; when abroad, don’t turn back at the border

This is what these sayings mean: “don’t mix a fire with a knife” means not inciting the rage or swollen anger of people in power. “Don’t step over a balance beam” means don’t transgress equality and justice. “Don’t sit on a bushel” means keep both today and the future in mind since a bushel is a daily ration. “Don’t eat your heart” clearly means not wearing away your mind with troubles and grief. By saying “Don’t turn around when going abroad” Pythagoras advises people when they are leaving life not to cling to it desperately nor to be overcome by its pleasures. The logic of the rest of the sayings are similar to this and would take a while to go through.”

Ἦν δ᾿ αὐτῷ τὰ σύμβολα τάδε· πῦρ μαχαίρᾳ μὴ σκαλεύειν, ζυγὸν μὴ ὑπερβαίνειν, ἐπὶ χοίνικος μὴ καθίζειν, καρδίην μὴ ἐσθίειν, φορτίον μὴ συγκαθαιρεῖν, ουνεπιτιθέναι δέ, τὰ στρώματα ἀεὶ συνδεδεμένα ἔχειν, ἐν δακτυλίῳ εἰκόνα θεοῦ μὴ περιφέρειν, χύτρας ἴχνος συγχεῖν ἐν τῇ τέφρᾳ, δᾳδίῳ θᾶκον μὴ ὀμόργνυσθαι, πρὸς ἥλιον τετραμμένον μὴ ὀμίχειν, τὰς λεωφόρους μὴ βαδίζειν, μὴ ῥᾳδίως δεξιὰν ἐμβάλλειν, ὁμωροφίους χελιδόνας μὴ ἔχειν, γαμψώνυχα μὴ τρέφειν, ἀπονυχίσμασι καὶ κουραῖς μὴ ἐπουρεῖν μηδὲ ἐφίστασθαι, ὀξεῖαν μάχαιραν ἀποστρέφειν, ἀποδημοῦντα ἐπὶ τοῖς ὅροις ἀνεπιστρεπτεῖν.

Ἤθελε δ᾿ αὐτῷ τὸ μὲν πῦρ μαχαίρᾳ μὴ σκαλεύειν δυναστῶν ὀργὴν καὶ οἰδοῦντα θυμὸν μὴ κινεῖν. τὸ δὲ ζυγὸν μὴ ὑπερβαίνειν, τουτέστι τὸ ἴσον καὶ δίκαιον μὴ ὑπερβαίνειν. ἐπί τε χοίνικος μὴ καθίζειν ἐν ἴσῳ τοῦ ἐνεστῶτος φροντίδα ποιεῖσθαι καὶ τοῦ μέλλοντος· ἡ γὰρ χοῖνιξ ἡμερησία τροφή. διὰ δὲ τοῦ καρδίαν μὴ ἐσθίειν ἐδήλου μὴ τὴν ψυχὴν ἀνίαις καὶ λύπαις κατατήκειν. διὰ δὲ τοῦ εἰς ἀποδημίαν βαδίζοντα μὴ ἐπιστρέφεσθαι παρῄνει τοῖς ἀπαλλαττομένοις τοῦ βίου μὴ ἐπιθυμητικῶς ἔχειν τοῦ ζῆν μηδ᾿ ὑπὸ τῶν ἐνταῦθα ἡδονῶν ἐπάγεσθαι. καὶ τὰ ἄλλα πρὸς ταῦτα λοιπόν ἐστιν ἐκλαμβάνειν, ἵνα μὴ παρέλκωμεν.

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From Raphael’s School of Athens

Affirming Beliefs by Using Them

Plutarch, Progress in Virtue 79f

“People report these kinds of stories about Aeschylus too and of similar men. When Aeschylus was watching a boxing match at the Isthmian games, one of the boxers was hit and the crowd shouted out. Aeschylus elbowed Ion the Chian and said, “See how training works: the man says nothing when he is struck, but the spectators yell!”

When Brasidas caught some mouse in dried figs and it bit him, he let it got. Then, he said to himself, “By Herakles, there is nothing small or weak enough that it won’t try to live when it’s brave enough to defend itself.

Diogenes, once he witnessed a man drinking with his hands, threw his cup out of his bag. In this way, paying attention and observation make people ready to perceive anything which helps in the pursuit of virtue. This works better when people mix theories with actions, not merely, as Thucydides used to put it, “trying super hard when in peril” but also when facing pleasures and conflicts, when occupied with lawsuits and politics, in this way providing proof to themselves of their beliefs, or, perhaps, affirming their beliefs by using them.”

οἷα καὶ περὶ Αἰσχύλου λέγουσι καὶ περὶ ἄλλων ὁμοίων. Αἰσχύλος μὲν γὰρ Ἰσθμοῖ θεώμενος ἀγῶνα πυκτῶν, ἐπεὶ πληγέντος τοῦ ἑτέρου τὸ θέατρον ἐξέκραγε, νύξας Ἴωνα τὸν Χῖον “ὁρᾷς,” ἔφη, “οἷον ἡ ἄσκησίς ἐστιν1; ὁ πεπληγὼς σιωπᾷ, οἱ δὲ θεώμενοι βοῶσιν.” Βρασίδας δὲ μῦν τινα συλλαβὼν ἐν ἰσχάσι καὶ δηχθεὶς ἀφῆκεν· εἶτα πρὸς ἑαυτόν “ὦ Ἡράκλεις,” ἔφη, “ὡς οὐδέν ἐστι μικρὸν οὐδ᾿ ἀσθενές, ὃ μὴ ζήσεται τολμῶν ἀμύνεσθαι.” Διογένης δὲ τὸν πίνοντα ταῖς χερσὶ θεασάμενος τῆς πήρας ἐξέβαλε τὸ ποτήριον. οὕτω τὸ προσέχειν καὶ τετάσθαι τὴν ἄσκησιν αἰσθητικοὺς καὶ δεκτικοὺς ποιεῖ τῶν πρὸς ἀρετὴν φερόντων ἁπανταχόθεν. γίγνεται δὲ τοῦτο μᾶλλον ἂν τοὺς λόγους ταῖς πράξεσι μιγνύωσι, μὴ μόνον, ὡς Θουκυδίδης ἔλεγε, “μετὰ κινδύνων ποιούμενοι τὰς μελέτας,” ἀλλὰ καὶ πρὸς ἡδονὰς καὶ πρὸς ἔριδας καὶ περὶ κρίσεις καὶ συνηγορίας καὶ ἀρχάς, οἷον ἀπόδειξιν αὑτοῖς τῶν δογμάτων διδόντες, μᾶλλον δὲ τῷ χρῆσθαι ποιοῦντες τὰ δόγματα.

Black-figured ceramic depicting two boxers and a referee, Greek, 7th-5th centuries BCE

For Term Paper Season, Some Random Thoughts on Quotation

Plutarch, Table-Talk 9, (736e)

“Then he included an argument about the apt quotation of poetry, that the one which was most potent was not only charming but also useful.”

ἔπειτα περὶ στίχων εὐκαιρίας ἐνέβαλεν λόγον, ὡς μὴ μόνον χάριν ἀλλὰ καὶ χρείαν ἔστιν ὅτε μεγάλην ἐχούσης. #Plutarch

Athenaeus, 3.107a

“since the whole excerpt is useful for many reasons, but you don’t control it in your memory right now, I will go through the whole thing.”

πᾶσα δ᾿ ἡ ἐκλογὴ χρησίμη οὖσα εἰς πολλά, ἐπεὶ τὰ | νῦν διὰ μνήμης οὐ κρατεῖς, αὐτὸς ἐγὼ διεξελεύσομαι.

Libanius, Letters 3, to Entrechius

“You and I and each man of good intention will quote many passages from tragedy now that this kind of a person has left us.”

ἀλλ᾿ ἐκ τραγῳδίας μὲν πολλὰ μὲν ἐγώ, πολλὰ δὲ σύ, πολλὰ δὲ τῶν εὖ φρονούντων ἕκαστος φθεγξόμεθα τοιαύτης οἰχομένης κεφαλῆς·

Seneca, De Tranquillitate Animi  8

“Quoting the good words of a bad author will never shame me.”

Numquam me in voce bona mali pudebit auctoris

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Ah, the wheel of fortune. British Library Harley MS 4431, f. 129.

Bad Signs, Worse Decisions

Plutarch, Moralia 168f-169a

“Superstitions make many moderate sufferings deadly. That ancient Midas, as it seems, was so disturbed and troubled by some dreams that he became upset enough to kill himself by drinking the blood of a bull. And the king of the Messenian, Aristodêmos, in that war against the Spartans, when the dogs were howling like wolves, the grass began to grow up over his ancestral hearth and some of the seers were frightened by the signs, was completely disheartened and extinguished all hopes when he took his own life.

It might have been best for Nikias the general of the Athenians to free himself of his superstition following Midas and Aristodêmos. Since he was afraid of the shadow of a moon in eclipse, rather than to sit there while he was walled in by the enemy only to get captured by them with forty thousand men who were slaughtered or taken alive and then die in infamy.”

Πολλὰ τῶν μετρίων κακῶν ὀλέθρια ποιοῦσιν αἱ δεισιδαιμονίαι. Μίδας ὁ παλαιός, ὡς ἔοικεν, ἔκ τινων ἐνυπνίων ἀθυμῶν καὶ ταραττόμενος οὕτω κακῶς ἔσχε τὴν ψυχήν, ὥσθ᾿ ἑκουσίως ἀποθανεῖν αἷμα ταύρου πιών. ὁ δὲ τῶν Μεσσηνίων βασιλεὺς Ἀριστόδημος ἐν τῷ πρὸς Λακεδαιμονίους  πολέμῳ, κυνῶν λύκοις ὠρυομένων ὅμοια καὶ περὶ τὴν ἑστίαν αὐτοῦ τὴν πατρῴαν ἀγρώστεως ἀναβλαστανούσης καὶ τῶν μάντεων τὰ σημεῖα φοβουμένων, ἐξαθυμήσας καὶ κατασβεσθεὶς ταῖς ἐλπίσιν αὐτὸς ἑαυτὸν ἀπέσφαξεν. ἦν δ᾿ ἴσως καὶ Νικίᾳ τῷ Ἀθηναίων στρατηγῷ κράτιστον οὕτως ἀπαλλαγῆναι τῆς δεισιδαιμονίας ὡς Μίδας ἢ Ἀριστόδημος ἢ φοβηθέντι τὴν σκιὰν ἐκλιπούσης τῆς σελήνης καθῆσθαι περιτειχιζόμενον ὑπὸ τῶν πολεμίων, εἶθ᾿ ὁμοῦ τέτταρσι μυριάσιν ἀνθρώπων φονευθέντων τε καὶ ζώντων ἁλόντων ὑποχείριον γενέσθαι καὶ δυσκλεῶς ἀποθανεῖν.

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Nicias