The Balance of Silence and Speech

These 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”.

 

547 “Philoxenos said that peoples’ ears get worn out by a tongue for they are eager to tell people what they don’t know before listening well.”

Φιλόξενος ἔφησε τῶν ἀνθρώπων τὰς ἀκοὰς τῇ γλώσσῃ συντετρῆσθαι· πρὶν γὰρ ἢ καλῶς ἀκοῦσαι, σπουδάζειν αὐτοὺς ἅπερ οὐκ ἐπίστανται πρὸς ἄλλους λέγειν.

 

456 “Pittakos asked Bias “what is hardest in life?” And when he answered “to know yourself”, he asked again, “what is easiest?” And Bias said in response “to criticize someone else.”

῾Ο αὐτὸς Βίαντα ἠρώτησε· „τί δυσχερέστερον ἐν τῷ βίῳ”; τοῦ δὲ εἰπόντος· „τὸ ἑαυτὸν γνῶναι” πάλιν ἤρετο· „τί δὲ ῥᾴδιον”; καὶ πάλιν Βίας φησί· „τὸ ἕτερον ψέξαι”.

 

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.

 

219 “When Demosthenes was asked what kind of thing is the greatest weapon, he said “speech”.

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἐρωτηθεὶς ποῖον μέγιστον ὅπλον εἶπε· „λόγος”.

 

Image result for ancient greek speech

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)

et:
… ποῖόν σε ἔπος φύγεν ἕρκος ὀδόντων; (4.350)

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When Silence Is Better Than Speech (Plutarch on Odysseus)

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 wehave 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

A Free Tongue is as Useless as a Loose Rudder: Aulus Gellius on Ungoverned Speech

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)

et:
… ποῖόν σε ἔπος φύγεν ἕρκος ὀδόντων; (4.350)

This topic is covered in other authors like Plutarch. It seems obvious to say but still merits saying that in our modern world where everyone has a platform and is encouraged to speak, the choice not to speak becomes ever so rarer and precious.

Knowing How to Be Silent is as Important as Knowing When to Speak (Plutarch, On the Education of Children, 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.