Knowing When to Be Silent

Plutarch, On the Education of Childen 10-11

“Ruling your tongue, then, remains of the subjects about which I have set out to speak. If anyone thinks that this is a small or foolish matter, than he has strayed very far from the truth. For silence at the right time is a skill and stronger than all speech. For this reason it seems to me that the ancients established the mystery rights as they did, that, in becoming accustomed to silence during them, we may translate that fear from the gods to the safekeeping of human secrets. For, in turn, no one who was silent ever felt remorse about it; but countless chattering men felt regret. The word unsaid, moreover, is easy to speak out; but a spoken word cannot be taken back. I have heard of ten thousand men who have suffered the greatest misfortunes thanks to a loose tongue…”

Τὸ τοίνυν τῆς γλώττης κρατεῖν (περὶ τούτου γάρ, ὧνπερ ὑπεθέμην, εἰπεῖν λοιπόν) εἴ τις μικρὸν καὶ φαῦλον ὑπείληφε, πλεῖστον διαμαρτάνει τῆς ἀληθείας. σοφὸν γὰρ εὔκαιρος σιγὴ καὶ παντὸς λόγου κρεῖττον. καὶ διὰ τοῦτό μοι δοκεῖ τὰς μυστηριώδεις τελετὰς οἱ παλαιοὶ κατέδειξαν, ἵν’ ἐν ταύταις σιωπᾶν ἐθισθέντες ἐπὶ τὴν τῶν ἀνθρωπίνων μυστηρίων πίστιν τὸν ἀπὸ τῶν θείων μεταφέρωμεν φόβον. καὶ γὰρ αὖ σιωπήσας μὲν οὐδεὶς μετενόησε, λαλήσαντες δὲ παμπληθεῖς. καὶ τὸ μὲν σιγηθὲν ἐξειπεῖν ῥᾴδιον, τὸ δὲ ῥηθὲν ἀναλαβεῖν ἀδύνατον. μυρίους δ’ ἔγωγ’ οἶδ’ ἀκούσας ταῖς μεγίσταις συμφοραῖς περιπεσόντας διὰ τὴν τῆς γλώττης ἀκρασίαν.

Today Plutarch might say that not sending an email or a tweet is often better than sending one. My mother used to say “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say something at all”. It is not difficult to imagine Plutarch’s reactions to our constant invitations to commentary in the modern world. I do not think he would want people to be silent about corruption and injustice–this is a ‘manual’ for the raising of children–but instead that they learn the value of well-applied and strategic speech.

Not that Plutarch is necessarily a master of this. He left us enough words that “timeliness” of speech seems to have been his universal condition.

Compare this to

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)

… ποῖόν σε ἔπος φύγεν ἕρκος ὀδόντων; (4.350)

Continue reading “Knowing When to Be Silent”

Wisdom is the Offspring of Experience and Memory

from Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 13.8

The poet Afranius wisely and elegantly said that Wisdom is the daughter of Experience and Memory

The poet Afranius expressed himself exceptionally and most truthfully concerning the creation and cultivation of wisdom, that it is the daughter of Experience and Memory. For, with that claim, he shows that whoever wishes to be wise in human matters does not need merely books and training in rhetoric and philosophy, but must also become familiar with and practiced in understanding and facing the rest of life as well—to remember with conviction all of its actions and outcomes and from that to learn and take counsel from what the actual dangers of life teach, not just what books and teachers have attempted to represent through their empty words and fictions, like those in farces or dreams. The lines are from a Roman comedy by Afranius, called the Chair: “Experience fathered me; Memory gave birth to me; the Greeks call me Sophia, I am wisdom in Rome.”

There is a similar sentiment from Pacuvius which the philosopher Macedo, a good man and a close friend, used to think should be written above the entries of all the temples: “I hate men of base work and philosophical sentiment”. He said this because nothing was more shameful or intolerable than the fact that lazy and useless people veiled in beard and cloak should turn the basic foundations of philosophy into games of the tongue and words and then, even as they were dripping with faults, loudly renounce others’ vices.”


“Whooooo needs some wisdom?”

Quod Afranius poeta prudenter et lepide Sapientiam filiam esse Vsus et Memoriae dixit.

  1. Eximie hoc atque verissime Afranius poeta de gignenda conparandaque sapientia opinatus est, quod eam filiam esse Vsus et Memoriae dixit. II. Eo namque argumento demonstrat, qui sapiens rerum esse humanarum velit, non libris solis neque disciplinis rhetoricis dialecticisque opus esse, sed oportere cum versari quoque exercerique in rebus comminus noscendis periclitandisque eaque omnia acta et eventa firmiter meminisse et proinde sapere atque consulere ex his, quae pericula ipsa rerum docuerint, non quae libri tantum aut magistri per quasdam inanitates verborum et imaginum tamquam in mimo aut in somnio deblateraverint. III. Versus Afranii sunt in togata, cui Sellae nomen est:

Vsus me genuit, mater peperit Memoria,

Sophiam vocant me Grai, vos Sapientiam.

Item versus est in eandem ferme sententiam Pacuvii, quem Macedo philosophus, vir bonus, familiaris meus, scribi debere censebat pro foribus omnium templorum: ego odi homines ignava opera et philosopha sententia. V. Nihil enim fieri posse indignius neque intolerantius dicebat, quam quod homines ignavi ac desides operti barba et pallio mores et emolumenta philosophiae in linguae verborumque artes converterent et vitia facundissime accusarent intercutibus ipsi vitiis madentes.

Why Didn’t Socrates Seek a Divorce?

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 1.17:

XVII. With what equanimity Socrates endured the intractable spirit of his wife; and also, what Marcus Varro wrote about the duty of a husband in a certain satire.

Xanthippe, the wife of the philosopher Socrates, is said to have been so given to distemper and quarreling, and to have poured out her wifely irritations upon him both day and night. Alcibiades marveled at these fits against the husband, and asked Socrates why he did not drive such a bitter woman from his house. ‘Because,’ said Socrates, ‘when I put up with her at home, I become accustomed to and exercised in the art of bearing more readily the insolence and injustice of others when I am out of the house.’

In accordance with this sentiment, even Marcus Varro wrote in a Menippean Satire about the duty of a husband, ‘The faults of a wife are either to be removed or endured. He who removes his wife’s faults makes her more pleasant; but he who bears them, makes himself better.’ These words of Varro, ‘remove’ and ‘bear’ are well-turned, but it appears that he wrote ‘to remove’ in the sense of ‘to correct.’ It even appears that Varro would think that the faults of this same wife, should they not admit of correction, should simply be born, if a husband can bear them honestly; for our faults are at any rate not as serious as crimes.

XVII. Quanta cum animi aequitate toleraverit Socrates uxoris ingenium intractabile; atque inibi quid M. Varro in quadam satura de officio mariti scripserit.

1Xanthippe, Socratis philosophi uxor, morosa admodum fuisse fertur et iurgiosa irarumque et molestiarum muliebrium per diem perque noctem scatebat. 2 Has eius intemperies in maritum Alcibiades demiratus interrogavit Socraten, quaenam ratio esset, cur mulierem tam acerbam domo non exigeret. 3 “Quoniam,” inquit Socrates “cum illam domi talem perpetior, insuesco et exerceor, ut ceterorum quoque foris petulantiam et iniuriam facilius feram.” 4 Secundum hanc sententiam M. quoque Varro in satura Menippea, quam de officio mariti scripsit: “Vitium” inquit “uxoris aut tollendum aut ferendum est. Qui tollit vitium, uxorem commodiorem praestat; qui fert, sese meliorem facit.” 5 Haec verba Varronis “tollere” et “ferre” lepide quidem composita sunt, sed “tollere” apparet dictum pro “corrigere”. 6 Id etiam apparet eiusmodi vitium uxoris, si corrigi non possit, ferendum esse Varronem censuisse, quod ferri scilicet a viro honeste potest; vitia enim flagitiis leviora sunt.

For even more on Socrates’ wife, see earlier posts on Xanthippe in Plutarch and Diogenes. There are also accounts that Socrates had two wives!

All Words Are Ambiguous; Or No Words Are

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, 11.12

  1. On the fact that the philosopher Chrysippus claimsthat every word was ambiguous and unclear and that Diorous thinks on the contrary that no word is ambiguous.

Chrysippus says that every word is ambiguous by nature since two or more things can be understood from the same thing. Diodorus, however, the one who had the name Cronus, says: “No word is ambiguous nor may anyone say or understand a word in an ambiguous sense; and it ought not to seem to be anything other than what the person who says it believes he is saying.  But when I,” he continues, “mean something different from what you interpret, it may seem that the word has been spoken unclearly rather than ambiguously: for the nature of an ambiguous word ought to be that the person who speaks it has two or more meanings. No one, however, says two or more things when he has meant only one.”

What Would Diodorus Make of This Classic?


XII. Quod Chrysippus philosophus omne verbum ambiguum dubiumque esse dicit, Diodorus contra nullum verbum ambiguum esse putat.

Chrysippus ait omne verbum ambiguum natura esse, quoniam ex eodem duo vel plura accipi possunt. II. Diodorus autem, cui Crono cognomentum fuit: “nullum” inquit “verbum est ambiguum, nec quisquam ambiguum dicit aut sentit, nec aliud dici videri debet, quam quod se dicere sentit is, qui dicit. III. At cum ego” inquit “aliud sensi, tu aliud accepisti, obscure magis dictum videri potest quam ambigue; ambigui enim verbi natura illa esse debuit, ut, qui id diceret, duo vel plura diceret. Nemo autem duo vel plura dicit, qui se sensit unum dicere”.

The Difficulty of Translating From Greek to Latin

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, 11.16.1-6

“We have frequently noted more than a few words or expressions which we cannot say in a few words, as in Greek, and which, even if we use as many words as possible to say them, cannot be articulated as clearly or pointedly in Latin as the Greeks can convey in a few words. For recently, when a book of Plutarch came my way and I was reading the title, which was “Peri polypragmosunes”, a man who didn’t know Greek asked me whose book it was and what it was written about. I spoke the name of the writer immediately, but the subject of the book was something I hesitated on.

At first, since I did not believe that it would be an elegant translation if I said that the book was De Negotiositate (about busyness), I began to search my mind for some other description which, as the saying goes, would express it “word for word”. But there was nothing which I could remember that I read nor anything I could invent that would not in some way be harsh or silly—if I made a new word out of multitude and negotium, in the same way we say “multifaceted” or “multicolored” or “multiform”. But it would be said no less awkwardly than if one were to translate into a single world polyphilia (having many friends), polytropia (of many ways) or polysarkia (with much flesh). Therefore, after I spent a while thinking silently, I responded that it did not seem possible to me to communicate the subject in a single word and that, as a result, I was considering how to convey the meaning of that Greek word with a phrase.”

Adiecimus saepe animum ad vocabula rerum non paucissima, quae neque singulis verbis, ut a Graecis, neque, si maxime pluribus eas res verbis dicamus, tam dilucide tamque apte demonstrari Latina oratione possunt, quam Graeci ea dicunt privis vocibus. 2 Nuper etiam cum adlatus esset ad nos Plutarchi liber et eius libri indicem legissemus, qui erat peri polypragmosynes, percontanti cuipiam, qui et litterarum et vocum Graecarum expers fuit, cuiusnam liber et qua de re scriptus esset, nomen quidem scriptoris statim diximus, rem, de qua scriptum fuit, dicturi haesimus. 3 Ac tum quidem primo, quia non satis commode opinabar interpretaturum me esse, si dicerem librum scriptum “de negotiositate”, aliud institui aput me exquirere, quod, ut dicitur, verbum de verbo expressum esset. 4 Nihil erat prorsus, quod aut meminissem legere me aut, si etiam vellem fingere, quod non insigniter asperum absurdumque esset, si ex multitudine et negotio verbum unum compingerem, sicuti “multiiuga” dicimus et “multicolora” et “multiformia”. 5 Sed non minus inlepide ita diceretur, quam si interpretari voce una velis polyphilian aut polytropian aut polysarkian. Quamobrem, cum diutule tacitus in cogitando fuissem, respondi tandem non videri mihi significari eam rem posse uno nomine et idcirco iuncta oratione, quid ucliet Graecum id verbum, pararam dicere.

Euclides, a real Lover of Philosophy, Risked Death to Hear Socrates Speak


Taurus is a figure who appears elsewhere in Aulus Gellius’ anecdotes, also complaining about contemporary students…

Gellius, Attic Nights, 7.11

“An account of Euclides, a socratic, whose example the philosopher Taurus used to offer to students to encourage them to pursue philosophy doggedly.

The philosopher Taurus, a man praised in recent memory in Platonic studies, when he was encouraging students to apply themselves to philosophy with many wholesome and useful examples, especially used to stimulate young minds with an anecdote about what Euclides the Socratic used to do. He said “the Athenians had warned with a decree that if anyone who was a citizen of Megara set foot in Athens he should be arrested and that the punishment would be death. That is how great,” he continued, “a hatred was burning among the Athenians for their neighbors the Megarians. Then Euclides, who was in fact from Megara also, and who, before that decree, was in the habit of traveling to Athens to hear Socrates, after the decree, at night, when darkness was falling, would don the long tunic of a woman, and wrapped in a multicolor cloak with a veil across his face, he would travel from his own home in Megara to see Socrates so that he might spent at least some of the night present for his teaching and conversations. Again, before dawn, he used to return again from a distance a little more than twenty miles, clothed in the same way. But now,” Taurus continued,” it is more likely to see philosophers running to the doors of rich young men to teach them, only to set and wait until midday at their doors, until their students sleep off the last night’s wine.”

Historia super Euclida Socratico, cuius exemplo Taurus philosophus hortari adulescentes suos solitus ad philosophiam naviter sectandam.

1 Philosophus Taurus, vir memoria nostra in disciplina Platonica celebratus, cum aliis bonis multis salubribusque exemplis hortabatur ad philosophiam capessendam, tum vel maxime ista re iuvenum animos expergebat, Euclidem quam dicebat Socraticum factitavisse. 2 “Decreto” inquit “suo Athenienses caverant, ut, qui Megaris civis esset, si intulisse Athenas pedem prensus esset, ut ea res ei homini capitalis esset; 3 tanto Athenienses” inquit “odio flagrabant finitimorum hominum Megarensium. 4 Tum Euclides, qui indidem Megaris erat quique ante id decretum et esse Athenis et audire Socratem consueverat, postquam id decretum sanxerunt, sub noctem, cum advesperasceret, tunica longa muliebri indutus et pallio versicolore amictus et caput rica velatus e domo sua Megaris Athenas ad Socratem commeabat, ut vel noctis aliquo tempore consiliorum sermonumque eius fieret particeps, rursusque sub lucem milia passuum paulo amplius viginti eadem veste illa tectus redibat. 5 At nunc” inquit “videre est philosophos ultro currere, ut doceant, ad fores iuvenum divitum eosque ibi sedere atque opperiri ad meridiem, donec discipuli nocturnum omne vinum edormiant.”

Catullus, 91: Untrustworthy Gellius Fails to Surprise

“I was hoping that you would be true to me, Gellius
in my misery, in this love of sure destruction,
not because I know you well and think you are dependable,
or because you are able of restraining your mind from foul crime,
but because I grasped that she is not your mother or sister,
this girl whose great love has been consuming me.
Yet, even though I was joined with you by much familiarity,
I did not believe that this was enough to attract you.
But you, you thought it enough: you find so much joy
In any fault, in anything with even the smallest part of sin.”

Non ideo, Gelli, sperabam te mihi fidum
in misero hoc nostro, hoc perdito amore fore,
quod te cognossem bene constantemve putarem
aut posse a turpi mentem inhibere probro;
sed neque quod matrem nec germanam esse videbam
hanc tibi, cuius me magnus edebat amor.
et quamvis tecum multo coniungerer usu,
non satis id causae credideram esse tibi.
tu satis id duxti: tantum tibi gaudium in omni
culpa est, in quacumque est aliquid sceleris.

Gellius is one of the recurring addressees in Catullus’ poems. He is infamous across the centuries for his (alleged) incestuous relationships with his mother and his (alleged) novel ‘lip balm’ (to name a few of Catullus’ more ribald jests….)

Dinner for a Dog, and Ancient Wine Criticism (Gellius, Attic Nights 13.31)

EDITORIAL NOTE: I found this passage entirely by chance just hours after Mr. SententiaeAntiquae himself informed me that he would be having a caninum prandium tomorrow (though he did not employ this particular nomenclature at the time).

“The words of the passage, in which we find the proverb caninum prandium (a dog’s dinner) are these: ‘Do you not see that Menestheus lists three types of wine, including the black, white, medium (which they call kirron) as well as new, old, and medium? And further, that the dark one produces virility, the white one is a diuretic, and the medium is a digestive aid? Still more, that the new one cools you down, the old one heats you up, and the middle is a dinner for a dog (caninum prandium)?’

We investigated for a long time just what was meant by ‘dinner for a dog.’ An abstemious dinner – that is, one without wine – is called a ‘dinner for a dog’ because dogs do not drink wine. Therefore Menestheus named it ‘medium wine,’ because it is neither new nor old – and many men speak thus, as though every wine were either new or old – and he indicated that the medium wine had none of the power either of the old or the new wine, and was on that account not to be considered wine at all, because it could neither cool one down nor heat one up.”

Eius autem loci, in quo id proverbium est, verba haec sunt: “Non vides apud Mnesitheum scribi tria genera esse vini, nigrum, album, medium, quod vocant kirron, et novum, vetus, medium? et efficere nigrum viris, album urinam, medium pepsin? novum refrigerare, vetus calefacere, medium esse prandium caninum?” XV. Quid significet “prandium caninum”, rem leviculam diu et anxie quaesivimus. XVI. Prandium autem abstemium, in quo nihil vini potatur, caninum dicitur, quoniam canis vino caret. XVII. Cum igitur “medium vinum” appellasset, quod neque novum esset neque vetus, et plerumque homines ita loquantur, ut omne vinum aut novum esse dicant aut vetus, nullam vim habere significavit neque novi neque veteris, quod medium esset, et idcirco pro vino non habendum, quia neque refrigeraret neque calefaceret.


For any readers engaging (engorging) in non-canine dinners tomorrow, I hope that you avoid the fate of the earliest wine drinkers (depicted in this 3rd century mosaic from Cyprus), particularly the guy in the bottom right!


Theories of Vision and a “Little Taste” of Philosophy

Aulus Gellius, V.XVI:

On the Power of the Eye and the Mechanics of Vision

“We note that there are many diverse opinions held by philosophers concerning the mechanics of vision and the nature of discerning things. The Stoics say that sight is caused by an emission of rays from the eyes unto those things which are seen, in conjunction with an expansion of the air. Epicurus says that certain likenesses of the material objects themselves flow out from those objects, and that they bring themselves into the eyes and thus vision occurs. Plato thinks that there is a certain type of fire and light which comes from the eyes and that this combines with the light from the sun or some other fire, and this conjunction of its own and the external force makes it so that we see whatever it comes upon and illuminates. But we shouldn’t dilly-dally here any longer; we should make use of the precept of that same Neoptolemus of Ennius whom I wrote earlier, who thought that philosophy should be enjoyed in a tiny little taste, and not one big swill.”


De vi oculorum deque videndi rationibus.

1 De videndi ratione deque cernendi natura diversas esse opiniones philosophorum animadvertimus. 2Stoici causas esse videndi dicunt radiorum ex oculis in ea, quae videri queunt, emissionem aerisque simul intentionem. 3 Epicurus afluere semper ex omnibus corporibus simulacra quaedam corporum ipsorum eaque sese in oculos inferre atque ita fieri sensum videndi putat. 4 Plato existimat genus quoddam ignis lucisque de oculis exire idque coniunctum continuatumque vel cum luce solis vel cum alterius ignis lumine sua vi et externa nixum efficere, ut, quaecumque offenderit inlustraveritque, cernamus. 5 Sed hic aeque non diutius muginandum, eiusdemque illius Enniani Neoptolemi, de quo supra scripsimus, consilio utendum est, qui degustandum ex philosophia censet, non in eam ingurgitandum.

Ancient Greek Method Acting: Aulus Gellius, 6.5

A story about the actor Polus, which is worth relating:

There was once a very famous actor in Greece, who was preeminent among his peers due to the distinctness and delight of his manner and voice. They say that his name was Polus, and he acted many of the tragedies of the great poets very seriously and with great skill. This Polus lost his most preciously cherished son to death. Once he seemed to have sufficiently worked through his grief, he returned to the pursuit of his art.

At that time in Athens, he was about to perform Sophocles’ Electra, in which he was required to carry an urn as though the bones of Orestes were inside. The argument of the play was so composed that Electra, as though she were bearing the remains of her brother, should bewail and lament his supposed death. Therefore Polus put on a mourning habit and took the urn from the tomb of his son, and as though he were grasping the bones of Orestes, he choked up everything not with representations and imitation, but with real grief and truly breathing lamentation. And so, though a play seemed to be under performance, it was the actual performance of grief.


Historia de Polo histrione memoratu digna. 1 Histrio in terra Graecia fuit fama celebri, qui gestus et vocis claritudine et venustate ceteris antistabat: 2nomen fuisse aiunt Polum, tragoedias poetarum nobilium scite atque asseverate actitavit. 3 Is Polus unice amatum filium morte amisit. 4 Eum luctum quoniam satis visus est eluxisse, rediit ad quaestum artis. 5 In eo tempore Athenis Electram Sophoclis acturus gestare urnam quasi cum Oresti ossibus debebat. 6 Ita compositum fabulae argumentum est, ut veluti fratris reliquias ferens Electra comploret commisereaturque interitum eius existimatum.7 Igitur Polus lugubri habitu Electrae indutus ossa atque urnam e sepulcro tulit filii et quasi Oresti amplexus opplevit omnia non simulacris neque imitamentis, sed luctu atque lamentis veris et spirantibus. 8 Itaque cum agi fabula videretur, dolor actus est.