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)