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An essay by Plutarch

On Talkativeness

Title:     On Talkativeness
Author: Plutarch [More Titles by Plutarch]

On Talkativeness.[541]

Sec. I. Philosophy finds talkativeness a disease very difficult and hard to cure. For its remedy, conversation, requires hearers: but talkative people hear nobody, for they are ever prating. And the first evil this inability to keep silence produces is an inability to listen. It is a self-chosen deafness of people who, I take it, blame nature for giving us one tongue and two ears. If then the following advice of Euripides to a foolish hearer was good,

"I cannot fill one that can nought retain,
Pumping up wise words for an unwise man;"

one might more justly say to a talkative man, or rather about a talkative man,

"I cannot fill one that will nothing take,
Pumping up wise words for an unwise man;"

or rather deluging with words one that talks to those who don't listen, and listens not to those who talk. Even if he does listen for a short time, talkativeness hurries off what is said like the retiring sea, and anon brings it up again multiplied with the approaching tide. The portico at Olympia that returns many echoes to one utterance is called seven-voiced,[542] and if the slightest utterance catches the ear of talkativeness, it at once echoes it all round,

"Moving the mind's chords all unmoved before."[543]

For their ears can certainly have no passages leading to the brain but only to the tongue. And so while other people retain what they hear, talkative people lose it altogether, and, being empty-headed, they resemble empty vessels, and go about making much noise.[544]

Sec. II. If however it seems that no attempt at cure has been left untried, let us say to the talkative person,

"Be silent, boy; silence has great advantages;"

two of the first and foremost of which are hearing and being heard, neither of which can happen to talkative people, for however they desire either so unhappy are they that they must desist from it. For in all other diseases of the soul, as love of money, love of glory, or love of pleasure, people at any rate attain the desired object: but it is the cruel fate of talkative people to desire hearers but not to get them, for everyone flees from them with headlong speed; and if people are sitting or walking about in any public place,[545] and see one coming they quickly pass the word to one another to shift quarters. And as when there is dead silence in any assembly they say Hermes has joined the company, so when any prater joins some drinking party or social gathering of friends, all are silent, not wishing to give him a chance to break in, and if he uninvited begin to open his mouth, they all, "like before a storm at sea, when Boreas is blowing a gale round some headland," foreseeing tossing about and nausea, disperse. And so it is their destiny to find neither willing table-companions, nor messmates when they are travelling by land or by sea, but only such as cannot help themselves; for such a fellow is always at you, plucking hold of your clothes or chin, or giving you a dig in the ribs with his elbow. "Most valuable are the feet in such a conjuncture," according to Archilochus, nay according to the wise Aristotle himself. For he being bothered with a talkative fellow, and wearied out with his absurd tales, and his frequent question, "Is not this wonderful, Aristotle?" "Not at all," said he, "but it is wonderful that anyone with a pair of legs stops here to listen to you." And to another such fellow, who said after a long rigmarole, "Did I weary you, philosopher, by my chatter?" "Not you, by Zeus," said he, "for I paid no attention to you." For even if talkative people force you to listen,[546] the mind can give them only its outward ears to deluge, while it unfolds and pursues some other thoughts within; so they find neither hearers to attend to them, nor credit them. They say those that are prone to Venus are commonly barren: so the prating of talkative people is ineffectual and fruitless.

Sec. III. And yet nature has fenced and barricaded in us nothing so much as the tongue, having put the teeth before it as a barrier, so that if, when reason holds tight her "glossy reins,"[547] it hearken not, nor keep within bounds, we may check its intemperance, biting it till the blood comes. For Euripides tells us that, not from unbolted houses or store-rooms, but "from unbridled mouths the end is misfortune."[548] But those persons who think that houses without doors and open purses are no good to their possessors, and yet keep their mouths open and unshut, and allow their speech to flow continually like the waves of the Euxine,[549] seem to regard speech as of less value than anything. And so they never get believed, though credit is the aim of every speech; for to inspire belief in one's hearers is the proper end of speech, but praters are disbelieved even when they tell the truth. For as corn stowed away in a granary is found to be larger in quantity but inferior in quality, so the speech of a talkative man is increased by a large addition of falsehood, which destroys his credit.

Sec. IV. Then again every man of modesty and propriety would avoid drunkenness, for anger is next door neighbour to madness as some think,[550] but drunkenness lives in the same house: or rather drunkenness is madness, more short-lived indeed, but more potent also through volition, for it is self-chosen. Nor is drunkenness censured for anything so much as its intemperate and endless talk.

"Wine makes a prudent man begin to sing,
And gently laugh, and even makes him dance."[551]

And yet there is no harm in all this, in singing and laughing and dancing. But the poet adds--

"And it compels to say what's best unsaid."[552]

This is indeed dreadful and dangerous. And perhaps the poet in this passage has solved that problem of the philosophers, and stated the difference between being under the influence of wine and being drunk, mirth being the condition of the former, foolish talk of the latter. For as the proverb tells us, "What is in the heart of the sober is on the tongue of the drunken."[553] And so Bias, being silent at a drinking bout, and jeered at by some young man in the company as stupid, replied, "What fool could hold his tongue in liquor?" And at Athens a certain person gave an entertainment to the king's ambassadors, and at their desire contrived to get the philosophers there too, and as they were all talking together and comparing ideas, and Zeno alone was silent, the strangers greeted him and pledged him, and said, "What are we to tell the king about you, Zeno?" And he replied, "Nothing, but that there is an old man at Athens that can hold his tongue at a drinking bout." So profound and mysterious and sober is silence, while drunkenness is talkative: for it is void of sense and understanding, and so is loquacious. And so the philosophers define drunkenness to be silly talk in wine. Drinking therefore is not censured, if silence go with it, but foolish prating turns being under the influence of wine into drunkenness. And the drunken man prates only in his cups; but the talkative man prates everywhere, in the market-place, in the theatre, out walking, by night and by day. If he is your doctor, he is more trouble to you than your disease: if he is on board ship with you, he disgusts you more than sea-sickness; if he praises you, he is more fulsome than blame. It is more pleasure associating with bad men who have tact than with good men who prate. Nestor indeed in Sophocles' Play, trying by his words to soothe exasperated Ajax, said to him mildly,

"I blame you not, for though your words are bad,
Your acts are good:"

but we cannot feel so to the talkative man, for his want of tact in words destroys and undoes all the grace of his actions.

Sec. V. Lysias wrote a defence for some accused person, and gave it him, and he read it several times, and came to Lysias in great dejection and said, "When I first perused this defence, it seemed to me wonderful, but when I read it a second and third time, it seemed altogether dull and ineffective. Then Lysias laughed, and said, "What then? Are you going to read it more than once to the jury?" And yet do but consider the persuasiveness and grace of Lysias' style;[554] for he "I say was a great favourite with the dark-haired Muses."[555] And of the things which have been said of Homer the truest is that he alone of all poets has survived the fastidiousness of mankind, as being ever new and still at his acme as regards giving pleasure, and yet saying and proclaiming about himself, "I hate to spin out a plain tale over and over again,"[556] he avoids and fears that satiety which lies in ambush for every narrative, and takes the hearer from one subject to another, and relieves by novelty the possibility of being surfeited. But the talkative worry one's ears to death with their tautologies, as people scribble the same things over and over again on palimpsests.[557]

Sec. VI. Let us remind them then first of this, that just as in the case of wine, which was intended for pleasure and mirth, those who compel people to drink it neat and in large quantities bring some into a disgusting condition of drunkenness, so with speech, which is the pleasantest social tie amongst mankind, those who make a bad and ill-advised use of it render it unpleasing and unfit for company, paining those whom they think to gratify, and become a laughing-stock to those who they think admire them, and objectionable to those who they think love them. As then he cannot be a favourite of the goddess who with Aphrodite's charmed girdle[558] repels and drives away those who associate with him, so he who with his speech bores and disgusts one is without either taste or refinement.

Sec. VII. Of all other passions and disorders some are dangerous, some hateful, some ridiculous, but in talkativeness all these elements are combined. For praters are jeered at for their commonplaces, and hated when they bring bad news, and run into danger when they reveal secrets. And so Anacharsis, when he was feasted by Solon and lay down to sleep, and was observed with his left hand on his private parts, and his right hand on his mouth, for he thought his tongue needed the stronger restraint, was right in his opinion. For it would be difficult to find as many men who have been ruined by venereal excesses as cities and leading states that have been undone by the utterance of a secret. When Sulla was besieging Athens, and had no time to waste there, "for he had other fish to fry,"[559] as Mithridates was ravaging Asia, and the party of Marius was again in power at Rome, some old men in a barber's shop happened to observe to one another that the Heptachalcon was not well guarded, and that their city ran a great risk of being captured at that point, and some spies who overheard this conversation reported it to Sulla. And he at once marched up his forces, and about midnight entered the city with his army, and all but rased it to the ground, and filled it with slaughter and dead bodies, insomuch that the Ceramicus ran with blood: and he was thus savage against the Athenians for their words rather than their deeds, for they had spoken ill of him and his wife Metella, jumping on to the walls and calling out in a jeering way,

"Sulla is a mulberry bestrewn with barley meal,"
and much similar banter. Thus they drew down upon themselves for words, which, as Plato[560] says, are a very small matter, a very heavy punishment.[561] The prating of one man also prevented Rome from becoming free by the removal of Nero. For it was only the night before the tyrant was to be murdered, and all preparations had been made, when he that was to do the deed going to the theatre, and seeing someone in chains near the doors who was about to be taken before Nero, and was bewailing his sad fortune, went up close to him and whispered, "Pray only, good sir, that to-day may pass by, to-morrow you will owe me many thanks." He guessing the meaning of the riddle, and thinking, I take it, "he is a fool who gives up what is in his hand for a remote contingency,"[562] preferred certain to honourable safety. For he informed Nero of what the man had said, and he was immediately arrested, and torture, and fire, and scourging were applied to him, who denied now in his necessity what before he had divulged without necessity.

Sec. VIII. Zeno the philosopher,[563] that he might not against his will divulge any secrets when put to the torture, bit off his tongue, and spit it at the tyrant. Famous also was the reward which Leaena had for her taciturnity.[564] She was the mistress of Harmodius and Aristogiton, and, although a woman, participated in their hopes of success in the conspiracy against the tyrants: for she had revelled in the glorious cup of love, and had been initiated in their secrets through the god. When then they had failed in their attempt and been put to death, and she was examined and bidden to reveal the names of the other conspirators, she refused to do so, and held out to the end, showing that those famous men in loving such a one as her had done nothing unworthy of them. And the Athenians erected to her memory a bronze lioness without a tongue, and placed it near the entrance to the Acropolis, signifying her dauntless courage by the nobleness of that animal, and by its being without a tongue her silence and fidelity. For no spoken word has done as much good as many unspoken ones. For at some future day we can give utterance if we like to what has been not said, but a word once spoken cannot be recalled, but flies about and runs all round the world. And this is the reason, I take it, why men teach us to speak, but the gods teach us to be silent, silence being enjoined on us in the mysteries and in all religious rites. Thus Homer has described the most eloquent Odysseus, and Telemachus, and Penelope, and the nurse, as all remarkable for their taciturnity. You remember the nurse saying,

"I'll keep it close as heart of oak or steel."[565]
And Odysseus sitting by Penelope,

"Though in his heart he pitied her sad grief,
His eyes like horn or steel impassive stood
Within their lids, and craft his tears repressed."[566]

So great control had he over all his body, and so much were all his members under the sway and rule of reason, that he commanded his eyes not to weep, his tongue not to speak, and his heart not to tremble or quake.[567]

"So calm and passive did his heart remain,"[568]
reason penetrating even to the irrational instincts, and making spirit and blood obedient and docile to it. Such also were most of his companions, for though they were dashed to the ground and dragged along by the Cyclops, they said not a word about Odysseus, nor did they show the stake of wood that had been put into the fire and prepared to put out Polyphemus' eye, but they would rather have been eaten alive than divulge secrets, such wonderful self-control and fidelity had they.[569] And so it was not amiss of Pittacus, when the king of Egypt sent him a victim, and bade him take from it the best and worst piece of it, to pull out the tongue and send that to the king, as being the instrument of the greatest blessings and withal the greatest mischiefs.

Sec. IX. So Ino in Euripides, speaking plainly about herself, says she knows "how to be silent when she should, and to speak when speech is safe."[570] For those who have enjoyed a truly noble and royal education learn first to be silent and then to speak. So the famous king Antigonus, when his son asked him, "When are we going to shift our quarters?" answered, "Are you afraid that you only will not hear the trumpet?" Was he afraid then to entrust a secret to him, to whom he intended one day to leave his kingdom? Nay rather, it was to teach him to be close and guarded on such matters. Metellus[571] also, the well-known veteran, when questioned somewhat similarly about an expedition, said, "If I thought my coat knew the secret, I would strip it off and throw it into the fire." And Eumenes, when he heard that Craterus was marching against him, told none of his friends, but pretended that it was Neoptolemus; for his soldiers despised Neoptolemus, but they admired the glory and loved the virtue of Craterus; and no one but Eumenes knew the truth, and they engaged and were victorious, and unwittingly killed Craterus, and only recognized his dead body. So great a part did silence play in the battle, concealing the name of the enemy's general: so that Eumenes' friends marvelled more than found fault at his not having told them the truth. And if anyone should receive blame in such a case, it is better to be censured when one has done well by keeping one's counsel, rather than to have to accuse others through having come to grief by trusting them.

Sec. X. But, generally speaking, who has the right to blame the person who has not kept his secret? For if it was not to be known, it was not well to tell another person of it at all, and if you divulged your secret yourself and expected another person to keep it, you had more faith in another than in yourself. And so should he be such another as yourself you are deservedly undone, and should he be a better man than yourself, your safety is more than you could have reckoned on, as it involved finding a man more to be trusted than yourself. But you will say, He is my friend. Yes, but he has another friend, whom he reposes confidence in as much as you do in your friend, and that other friend has one of his own, and so on, so that the secret spreads in many quarters from inability to keep it close in one. For as the unit never deviates from its orbit, but (as its name signifies) always remains one, but the number two contains within it the seeds of infinity, for when it departs from itself it becomes plurality at once by doubling, so speech confined in one person's breast is truly secret, but if it be communicated to another it soon gets noised abroad. And so Homer calls words "winged," for as he that lets a bird go from his hands cannot easily get it back again, so he that lets a word go from his mouth cannot catch or stop it, but it is borne along "whirling on swift wings," and dispersed from one person to another. When a ship scuds before the gale the mariners can stop it, or at least check its course with cables and anchors, but when the spoken word once sails out of harbour, so to speak, there is no roadstead or anchorage for it, but borne along with much noise and echo it dashes its utterer on the rocks, and brings him into imminent danger of shipwreck,

"As one might set on fire Ida's woods
With a small torch, so what one tells one person
Is soon the property of all the citizens."[572]

Sec. XI. The Roman Senate had been discussing for several days a secret matter, and there was much doubt and suspicion about it. And one of the senator's wives, discreet in other matters but a very woman in curiosity, pressed her husband close, and entreated him to tell her what the secret was; she vowed and swore she would not divulge it, and did not refrain from shedding tears at her not being trusted. And he, nothing loth to convince her of her folly, said, "Your importunity, wife, has prevailed, listen to a dreadful and portentous matter. It has been told us by the priests that a lark has been seen flying in the air with a golden helmet and spear: it is this portent that we are considering and discussing with the augurs, as to whether it be a good or bad omen. But say nothing about it." Having said these words he went into the Forum. But his wife seized on the very first of her maids that entered the room, and smote her breast, and tore her hair, and said, "Alas! for my husband and country! What will become of us?" wishing and teaching her maid to say, "Whatever's up?" So when she inquired she told her all about it, adding that refrain common to all praters, "Tell no one a word about it." The maid however had scarce left her mistress when she told one of her fellow-servants who was doing little or nothing, and she told her lover who happened to call at that moment. So the news spread to the Forum so quickly that it got the start of its original author, and one of his friends meeting him said, "Have you only just left your house?" "Only just," he replied. "Didn't you hear the news?" said his friend. "What news?" said he. "Why, that a lark has been seen flying in the air with a golden helmet and spear, and the Senate are met to discuss the portent." And he smiled and said to himself, "You are quick, wife, for the tale to get before me to the Forum!" Then meeting some of the Senators he disabused them of their panic. But to punish his wife, he said when he got home, "You have undone me, wife: for the secret has got abroad from my house, so that I must be an exile from my country for your inability to keep a secret." And on her trying to deny it, and saying, "Were there not three hundred Senators that heard of it as well as you? Might not one of them have divulged it?" he replied, "Stuff o' your three hundred! It was at your importunity that I invented the story, to put you to the test!" This fellow tested his wife warily and cunningly, as one pours water, and not wine or oil, into a leaky vessel. And Fabius,[573] the friend of Augustus, hearing the Emperor in his old age mourning over the extinction of his family, how two of his daughter Julia's sons were dead, and how Posthumus Agrippa, the only remaining one, was in exile through false accusation,[574] and how he was compelled to put his wife's son[575] into the succession to the Empire, though he pitied Agrippa and had half a mind to recall him from banishment, repeated the Emperor's words to his wife, and she to Livia.[576] And Livia bitterly upbraided Augustus, if he meant recalling his grandson, for not having done so long ago, instead of bringing her into hatred and hostility with the heir to the Empire. When Fabius came in the morning as usual into the Emperor's presence, and said, "Hail, Caesar!" the Emperor replied, "Farewell,[577] Fabius." And he understanding the meaning of this straightway went home, and sent for his wife, and said, "The Emperor knows that I have not kept his secret, so I shall kill myself." And his wife replied, "You have deserved your fate, since having been married to me so long you did not remember and guard against my incontinence of speech, but suffer me to kill myself first." So saying she took his sword, and slew herself first.

Sec. XII. That was a good answer therefore that the comic poet Philippides made to king Lysimachus, who greeted him kindly, and said to him,[578] "What shall I give you of all my possessions?" "Whatever you like, O king, except your secrets." And talkativeness has another plague attached to it, even curiosity: for praters wish to hear much that they may have much to say, and most of all do they gad about to investigate and pry into secrets and hidden things, providing as it were an antiquated stock of rubbish[579] for their twaddle, in fine like children who cannot[580] hold ice in their hands, and yet are unwilling to let it go,[581] or rather taking secrets to their bosoms and embracing them as if they were so many serpents, that they cannot control, but are sure to be gnawed to death by. They say that garfish and vipers burst in giving life to their young, so secrets by coming out ruin and destroy those who cannot keep them. Seleucus Callinicus having lost his army and all his forces in a battle against the Galati, threw off his diadem, and fled on a swift horse with an escort of three or four of his men a long day's journey by bypaths and out-of-the-way tracks, till faint and famishing for want of food he drew rein at a small farmhouse, where by chance he found the master at home, and asked for some bread and water. And he supplied him liberally and courteously not only with what he asked for but with whatever else was on the farm, and recognized the king, and being very joyful at this opportunity of ministering to the king's necessities, he could not contain himself, nor dissemble like the king who wished to be incognito, but he accompanied him to the road, and on parting from him, said, "Farewell, king Seleucus." And he stretching out his right hand, and drawing the man to him as if he was going to kiss him, gave a sign to one of his escort to draw his sword and cut the man's head off;

"And at his word the head roll'd in the dust."[582]
Whereas if he had been silent then, and kept his counsel for a time, as the king afterwards became prosperous and great, he would have received, I take it, greater favour for his silence than for his hospitality. And yet he had I admit some excuse for his want of reticence, namely hope and joy.

Sec. XIII. But most talkative people have no excuse for ruining themselves. As for example in a barber's shop one day there was some conversation about the tyranny of Dionysius, that it was as hard as adamant and invincible, and the barber laughed and said, "Fancy your saying this to me, who have my razor at his throat most days!" And Dionysius hearing this had him crucified. Barbers indeed are generally a talkative race, for people fond of prating flock to them and sit in their shops, so that they pick up the habit from their customers. It was a witty answer therefore of king Archelaus,[583] when a talkative barber put the towel round his neck, and asked him, "How shall I shave you, O king?" "Silently," said the monarch. It was a barber that first spread the news of the great reverse of the Athenians in Sicily, having heard of it at the Piraeus from a slave that had escaped from the island. He at once left his shop, and ran into the city at full speed, "that no one else should reap the fame, and he come in the second,"[584] of carrying the news into the town. And an uproar arising, as was only to be expected, the people assembled in the ecclesia, and began to investigate the origin of the rumour. So the barber was dragged up and questioned, but knew not the person's name who had told him, so was obliged to refer its origin to an anonymous and unknown person. Then anger filled the theatre, and the multitude cried out, "Torture the cursed fellow, put him to the rack: he has fabricated and concocted this news: who else heard it? who credits it?" The wheel was brought, the poor fellow stretched on it. Meantime those came up who had brought the news, who had escaped from the carnage in Sicily. Then all the multitude dispersed to weep over their private sorrows, and abandoned the poor barber, who remained fastened to the wheel. And when released late in the evening he actually asked the executioner, if they had heard how Nicias the General was slain. So invincible and incorrigible a vice does habit make talkativeness to be.

Sec. XIV. And yet, as those that drink bitter and strong-smelling physic are disgusted even with the cups they drink it out of, so those that bring evil tidings are disliked and hated by their hearers. Wittily therefore has Sophocles described the conversation between Creon and the guard.

"G. Is't in your ears or in your mind you're grieved?
C. Why do you thus define the seat of grief?
G. The doer pains your mind, but I your ears."[585]

However those that tell the tale grieve us as well as those that did the deed: and yet there is no means of checking or controlling the running tongue. At Lacedaemon the temple of Athene Chalcioecus[586] was broken into, and an empty flagon was observed lying on the ground inside, and a great concourse of people came up and discussed the matter. And one of the company said, "If you will allow me, I will tell you what I think about this flagon. I cannot help being of opinion that these sacrilegious wretches drank hemlock, and brought wine with them, before commencing their nefarious and dangerous work: that so, if they should fail to be detected, they might depart in safety, drinking the wine neat as an antidote to the hemlock: whereas should they be caught in the act, before they were put to the torture they would die of the poison easily and painlessly." When he had uttered these words, the idea seemed so ingenious and farfetched that it looked as if it could not emanate from fancy, but only from knowledge of the real facts. So the crowd surrounded this man, and asked him one after the other, "Who are you? Who knows you? How come you to know all this?" And at last he was convicted in this way, and confessed that he was one of those that had committed the sacrilege. And were not the murderers of Ibycus similarly captured? They were sitting in the theatre, and some cranes flew over their heads, and they laughed and whispered to one another, "Behold the avengers of Ibycus." And this being overheard by some who sat near, as Ibycus had now been some time missing and inquired after, they laid hold of this remark, and reported it to the magistrates. And so they were convicted and dragged off to punishment, being brought to justice not by the cranes but by their own inability to hold their tongues, being compelled by some Fury or Vengeance as it were to divulge the murder.[587] For as in the body there is an attraction to sore and suffering parts from neighbouring parts, so the tongue of talkative persons, ever suffering from inflammation and a throbbing pulse, attracts and draws to it secret and hidden things. And so the tongue ought to be fenced in, and have reason ever before it, as a bulwark, to prevent its tripping: that we may not seem to be more silly than geese, of whom it is said that, when they fly from Cilicia over Mt. Taurus which swarms with eagles, they carry in their mouths a large stone, which they employ as a gag or bridle for their scream, and so they cross over by night unobserved.

Sec. XV. Now if anyone were to ask who is the worst and most abandoned man, no one would pass over the traitor, or mention anyone else. It was as the reward of treason that Euthycrates roofed his house with Macedonian wood, as Demosthenes tells us; and that Philocrates got a large sum of money, and spent it on women and fish; and it was for betraying Eretria that Euphorbus and Philagrus got an estate from king Philip. But the talkative man is an unhired and officious traitor, not of horses[588] or walls, but of secrets which he divulges in the law courts, in factions, in party-strife, no one thanking him for his pains; but should anyone listen to him he thinks he is the obliged party. So that what was said to a man who rashly and indiscriminately squandered away all his means and bestowed them on others,

"It is not kindness in you but disease,
This itch for giving,"[589]

is appropriate also to the prater, "You don't communicate to us all this out of friendship or goodwill, but it is a disease in you, this itch for talking and prating."

Sec. XVI. But all this must not be looked upon merely as an indictment against talkativeness, but an attempt to cure it: for we overcome the passions by judgement and practice, but judgement is the first step. For no one is wont to shun, and eradicate from his soul, what he does not dislike. And we dislike the passions only when we discern by reason the harm and shame that results to us by indulging them. As we see every day in the case of talkative people: if they wish to be loved, they are hated; if they desire to please, they bore; when they think they are admired, they are really laughed at; they spend, and get no gain from so doing; they injure their friends, benefit their enemies, and ruin themselves. So that the first cure and remedy of this disorder will be to reckon up the shame and trouble that results from it.

Sec. XVII. In the next place we must consider the opposite virtue to talkativeness, always listening to and having on our lips the encomiums passed upon reserve, and remembering the decorum sanctity and mysterious power of silence, and ever bearing in mind that terse and brief speakers, who put the maximum of matter into the minimum of words, are more admired and esteemed and thought wiser[590] than unbridled windbags. And so Plato[591] praises, and compares to clever javelin-men, such as speak tersely, compressedly, and concisely. And Lycurgus by using his citizens from boyhood to silence taught them to perfection their brevity and terseness. For as the Celtiberians make steel of iron only after digging down deep in the soil, and carefully separating the iron ore, so Laconian oratory has no rind,[592] but by the removal of all superfluous matter goes home straight to the point like steel. For its sententiousness,[593] and pointed suppleness in repartee, comes from the habit of silence. And we ought to quote such pointed sayings especially to talkative people, such neatness and vigour have they, as, for example, what the Lacedaemonians said to Philip, "[Remember] Dionysius at Corinth."[594] And again, when Philip wrote to them, "If I invade Laconia, I will drive you all out of house and home," they only wrote back, "If." And when king Demetrius was indignant and cried out, "The Lacedaemonians have only sent me one ambassador," the ambassador was not frightened but said, "Yes, one to one man." Certainly among the ancients men of few words were admired. So the Amphictyones did not write extracts from the Iliad or Odyssey, or the Paeans of Pindar, in the temple of Pythian Apollo at Delphi, but "Know thyself," "Not too much of anything,"[595] and "Be a surety, trouble is near;"[596] so much did they admire compactness and simplicity of speech, combining brevity with shrewdness of mind. And is not the god himself short and concise in his oracles? Is he not called Loxias,[597] because he prefers ambiguity to longwindedness? And are not those who express their meaning by signs without words wonderfully praised and admired? As Heraclitus, when some of the citizens asked him to give them his opinion about concord, got on the platform, and took a cup of cold water, and put some barley-meal in it, and stirred it up with penny-royal, thus showing them that it is being content with anything, and not needing costly dainties, that keeps cities in peace and concord. Scilurus, the king of the Scythians, left eighty sons, and on his death-bed asked for a bundle of sticks, and bade his sons break it when it was tied together, and when they could not, he took the sticks one by one and easily broke them all up: thus showing them that their harmony and concord would make them strong and hard to overthrow, while dissension would make them feeble and insecure.

Sec. XVIII. If then anyone were continually to recollect and repeat these or similar terse sayings, he would probably cease to be pleased with idle talk. As for myself, when I consider of what importance it is to attend to reason, and to keep to one's purpose, I confess I am quite put out of countenance by the example of the slave of Pupius Piso the orator. He, not wishing to be annoyed by their prating, ordered his slaves merely to answer his questions, and not say a word more. On one occasion wishing to pay honour to Clodius who was then in power, he ordered him to be invited to his house, and provided for him no doubt a sumptuous entertainment. At the time fixed all the guests were present except Clodius, for whom they waited, and the host frequently sent the slave who used to invite guests to see if he was coming, but when evening came, and he was now quite despaired of, he said to his slave, "Did you not invite him?" "Certainly," said the slave. "Why then has he not come?" said the master. "Because he declined," said the slave. "Why then did you not tell me of it at once?" said the master. "Because you never asked me," said the slave. This was a Roman slave. But an Athenian slave "while digging will tell his master on what terms peace was made." So great is the force of habit in all matters. And of it we will now speak.

Sec. XIX. For it is not by applying bit or bridle that we can restrain the talkative person, we must master the disease by habit. In the first place then, when you are in company and questions are going round, accustom yourself not to speak till all the rest have declined giving an answer. For as Sophocles says, "counsel is not like a race;" no more are question and answer. For in a race the victory belongs to him who gets in first, but in company, if anyone has given a satisfactory answer, it is sufficient by assenting and agreeing to his view to get the reputation of being a pleasant fellow; and if no satisfactory answer is given, then to enlighten ignorance and supply the necessary information is well-timed and does not excite envy. But let us be especially on our guard that, if anyone else is asked a question, we do not ourselves anticipate and intercept him in giving an answer. It is indeed perhaps nowhere good form, if another is asked a favour, to push him aside and undertake to grant it ourselves; for we shall seem so to upbraid two people at once, the one who was asked as not able to grant the favour, and the other as not knowing how to ask in the right quarter. But especially insulting is such forwardness and impetuosity in answering questions. For he that anticipates by his own answer the person that was asked the question seems to say, "What is the good of asking him? What does he know about it? In my presence nobody else ought to be asked about these matters." And yet we often put questions to people, not so much because we want an answer, as to elicit from them conversation and friendly feeling, and from a wish to fit them for company, as Socrates drew out Theaetetus and Charmides. For it is all one to run up and kiss one who wishes to be kissed by another, or to divert to oneself the attention that he was bestowing on another, as to intercept another person's answers, and to transfer people's ears, and force their attention, and fix them on oneself; when, even if he that was asked declines to give an answer, it will be well to hold oneself in reserve, and only to meet the question modestly when one's turn comes, so framing one's answer as to seem to oblige the person who asked the question, and as if one had been appealed to for an answer by the other. For if people are asked questions and cannot give a satisfactory answer they are with justice excused; but he who without being asked undertakes to answer a question, and anticipates another, is disagreeable even if he succeeds, while, if his answer is unsatisfactory, he is ridiculed by all the company, and his failure is a source of the liveliest satisfaction to them.

Sec. XX. The next thing to practise oneself to in answering the questions put to one,--a point to which the talkative person ought to pay the greatest attention,--is not through inadvertence to give serious answers to people who only challenge you to talk in fun and sport. For some people concoct questions not for real information, but simply for amusement and to pass the time away, and propound them to talkative people, just to have them on. Against this we must be on our guard, and not rush into conversation too hastily, or as if we were obliged for the chance, but we must consider the character of the inquirer and his purpose. When it seems that he really desires information, we should accustom ourselves to pause, and interpose some interval between the question and answer; during which time the questioner can add anything if he chooses, and the other can reflect on his answer, and not be in too great a hurry about it, nor bury it in obscurity, nor, as is frequently the case in too great haste, answer some other question than that which was asked. The Pythian Priestess indeed was accustomed to utter some of her oracles at the very moment before the question was put: for the god whom she serves "understands the dumb, and hears the mute."[598] But he that wishes to give an appropriate answer must carefully consider both the question and the mind of the questioner, lest it be as the proverb expresses it,

"I asked for shovels, they denied me pails."[599]
Besides we ought to check this greediness and hunger for words, that it may not seem as if we had a flood on our tongue which was dammed up, but which we were only too glad to discharge[600] on a question being put. Socrates indeed so repressed his thirst, that he would not allow himself to drink after exercise in the gymnasium, till he had first drawn from the well one bucket of water and poured it on to the ground, that he might accustom his irrational part to wait upon reason.

Sec. XXI. There are moreover three kinds of answers to questions, the necessary, the polite, and the superfluous. For instance, if anyone asked, "Is Socrates at home?" one, as if backward and disinclined to answer, might say, "Not at home;" or, if he wished to speak with Laconic brevity, might cut off "at home," and simply say "No;" as, when Philip wrote to the Lacedaemonians to ask if they would receive him in their city, they sent him back merely a large "No." But another would answer more politely, "He is not at home, but with the bankers," and if he wished to add a little more, "he expects to see some strangers there." But the superfluous prater, if he has read Antimachus of Colophon,[601] says, "He is not at home, but with the bankers, waiting for some Ionian strangers, about whom he has had a letter from Alcibiades who is in the neighbourhood of Miletus, staying with Tissaphernes the satrap of the great king, who used long ago to favour the Lacedaemonian party, but now attaches himself to the Athenians for Alcibiades' sake, for Alcibiades desires to return to his country, and so has succeeded in changing the views of Tissaphernes." And then he will go over the whole of the Eighth Book of Thucydides, and deluge the man, till before he is aware Miletus is captured, and Alcibiades is in exile the second time. In such a case most of all ought we to curtail talkativeness, by following the track of a question closely, and tracing out our answer according to the need of the questioner with the same accuracy as we describe a circle. When Carneades was disputing in the gymnasium before the days of his great fame, the superintendent of the gymnasium sent to him a message to bid him modulate his voice (for it was of the loudest), and when he asked him to fix a standard, the superintendent replied not amiss, "The standard of the person talking with you." So the meaning of the questioner ought to be the standard for the answer.

Sec. XXII. Moreover as Socrates urged his disciples to abstain from such food as tempted them to eat when they were not hungry, and from such drinks as tempted them to drink when they were not thirsty, so the talkative person ought to be afraid most of such subjects of conversation as he most delights in and repeats ad nauseam, and to try and resist their influence. For example, soldiers are fond of descriptions about war, and thus Homer introduces Nestor frequently narrating his prowess and glorious deeds. And generally speaking those who have been successful in the law courts, or beyond their hopes been favourites of kings and princes, are possessed, as it were by some disease, with the itch for frequently recalling and narrating, how they got on and were advanced, what struggles they underwent, how they argued on some famous occasion, how they won the day either as plaintiffs or defendants, what panegyrics were showered upon them. For joy is much more inclined to prate than the well-known sleeplessness represented in comedies, frequently rousing itself, and finding something fresh to relate. And so at any excuse they slip into such narratives. For not only,

"Where anyone does itch, there goes his hand,"[602]
but also delight has a voice of its own, and leads about the tongue in its train, ever wishing to fortify it with memory. Thus lovers spend most of their time in conversations that revive the memory of their loves; and if they cannot talk to human beings about them, they talk about them to inanimate objects, as, "O dearest bed," and,

"O happy lamp, Bacchis deems you a god,
And if she thinks so, then you are indeed
The greatest of the gods."

The talkative person therefore is merely as regards words a white line,[603] but he that is especially inclined to certain subjects should be especially on his guard against talking about them, and should avoid such topics, since from the pleasure they give him they may entice him to be very prolix and tedious. The same is the case with people in regard to such subjects as they think they are more experienced in and acquainted with than others. For such a one, being self-appreciative and fond of fame, "spends most of the day in that particular branch of study in which he chances to be proficient."[604] Thus he that is fond of reading will give his time to research; the grammarian his to syntax; and the traveller, who has wandered over many countries, his to geography. We must therefore be on our guard against our favourite topics, for they are an enticement to talkativeness, as its wonted haunts are to an animal. Admirable therefore was the behaviour of Cyrus in challenging his companions, not to those contests in which he was superior to them, but to those in which he was inferior, partly that he might not give them pain through his superiority, partly for his own benefit by learning from them. But the talkative person acts just contrary, for if any subject is introduced from which he might learn something he did not know, this he rejects and refuses, not being able to earn a good deal by a short silence,[605] but he rambles round the subject and babbles out stale and commonplace rhapsodies. As one amongst us, who by chance had read two or three of the books of Ephorus,[606] bored everybody, and dispersed every social party, by always narrating the particulars of the battle of Leuctra and its consequences, so that he got nicknamed Epaminondas.

Sec. XXIII. Nevertheless this is one of the least of the evils of talkativeness, and we ought even to try and divert it into such channels as these, for prating is less of a nuisance when it is on some literary subject. We ought also to try and get some persons to write on some topic, and so discuss it by themselves. For Antipater the Stoic philosopher,[607] not being able or willing it seems to dispute with Carneades, who inveighed vehemently against the Stoic philosophy, writing and filling many books of controversy against him, got the nickname of Noisy-with-the-pen; and perhaps the exercise and excitement of writing, keeping him very much apart from the community, might make the talkative man by degrees better company to those he associated with; as dogs, bestowing their rage on sticks and stones, are less savage to men. It will also be very advantageous for such to mix with people better and older than themselves, for they will accustom themselves to be silent by standing in awe of their reputation. And withal it will be well, when we are going to say something, and the words are on our lips, to reflect and consider, "What is this word that is so eager for utterance? To what is this tongue marching? What good will come of speaking now, or what harm of silence?" For we ought not to drop words as we should a burden that pressed upon us, for the word remains still after it has been spoken just the same; but men speak either on their own behalf if they want something, or to benefit those that hear them, or, to gratify one another, they season everyday life with speech, as one seasons food with salt. But if words are neither useful to the speaker, nor necessary for the hearer, nor contain any pleasure or charm, why are they spoken? For words may be idle and useless as well as deeds. And besides all this we must ever remember as most important the dictum of Simonides, that he had often repented he had spoken, but never that he had been silent: while as to the power and strength of practice consider how men by much toil and painstaking will get rid even of a cough or hiccough. And silence is not only never thirsty, as Hippocrates says, but also never brings pain or sorrow.


[541] Or Garrulity, Chattering, Prating. It is Talkativeness in a bad sense.

[542] Or Heptaphonos. See Pausanias, v. 21.

[543] Some unknown poet's words. I suppose they mean driving one mad, making one "Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh."

[544] So our English proverb, "Empty vessels make the greatest sound."

[545] Literally in a semi-circular place. It is not quite clear whether the front seats of the theatre are meant, or, as I have taken it, more generally, of some public place for entertainment or meeting, some promenade or piazza.

[546] Reading [Greek: akouein], which seems far the best reading.

[547] Homer, "Iliad," v. 226; "Odyssey," vi. 81.

[548] "Bacchae," 385-387.

[549] See Ovid, "Tristia," iv. 4, 55-58.

[550] For example, Horace, "Epistles," i. 2, 62: "Ira furor brevis est" I read [Greek: homotoichos] with Mez.

[551] Homer, "Odyssey," xiv. 463-465.

[552] Ibid. 466.

[553] Compare the German proverb, "Thought when sober, said when drunk"--"Nuchtern gedacht, voll gesagt."

[554] Cf. Quintilian, x. 1, 78: "His aetate Lysias major, subtilis atque elegans et quo nihil, si oratori satis est docere, quaeras perfectius. Nihil enim est inane, nihil arcessitum; puro tamen fonti quam magno flumini propior." Cf. ix. 4, 17.

[555] Somewhat like Pindar, "Pyth." i. 1. 1, 2.

[556] "Odyssey," xii. 452, 453.

[557] See Cicero, "Ad Fam." vii. 18; Catullus, xxii. 5, 6.

[558] See "Iliad," xiv. 214-217.

[559] "Allusio ad Homericum [Greek: epei ponos allos epeigei.]"--Xylander.

[560] "Laws," xi. p. 935 A.

[561] So true are the words of AEschylus, [Greek: glosse mataia zemia prostribetai].--"Prom." 329.

[562] Our "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."

[563] "Non Citticus, sed Eleates. v. Cic. Tuscul. ii. 22, et Nat. Deor. 3, 33."--Reiske.

[564] See Pausanias, i. 23. Leaena means "lioness." On the conspiracy see Thucydides, vi. 54-59.

[565] Homer, "Odyssey," xix. 494. Plutarch quotes from memory. The nurse's name was Euryclea.

[566] Odyssey," xix. 210-212. Quoted again "On Moral Virtue," Sec. iv.

[567] Literally bark. See "Odyssey," xx. 13, 16.

[568] "Odyssey," xx. 23.

[569] See "Odyssey," ix. [Greek: Kyklopeia].

[570] Euripides, "Ino." Fragment, 416.

[571] "Significat Q. Caecilium Metellum, de quo Liv. xl. 45, 46."--Reiske.

[572] Euripides, "Ino." Fragm. 415. Compare St. James, iii. 5, 6.

[573] Fabius Maximus. So Tacitus, "Annals," i. 5, who relates this story somewhat differently.

[574] See Tacitus, "Annals," i. 3. As to his fate, see "Annals," i. 6.

[575] Tiberius Nero, who actually did succeed Augustus.

[576] The Emperor's wife.

[577] So it is in Sec. xii. But perhaps here it means, "I wish you had more sense, Fabius!"

[578] Adopting the reading of Reiske.

[579] Reading [Greek: phorutou] or [Greek: phoryton], as Wyttenbach.

[580] Reading [Greek: katechein dynantai] with Reiske.

[581] See Sophocles, Fragm. 162.

[582] Homer, "Iliad," x. 457.

[583] Compare "Moralia," p. 177 A; Horace, "Satires," i. 7. 3: "Omnibus et lippis notum et tonsoribus."

[584] Homer, "Iliad," xxii. 207.

[585] Sophocles, "Antigone," 317-319.

[586] See Pausanias, iii. 17; iv. 15; x. 5.

[587] Compare the idea of the people of Melita, Acts xxviii. 4.

[588] An Allusion to Dolon in Homer, "Iliad," x., 374, sq. according to Xylander.

[589] Quoted again by our author in his "Publicola," p. 105 B., and assigned to Epicharmus.

[590] So Shakspere has taught us, "Brevity is the soul of wit."--Hamlet, Act ii Sc. 2.

[591] "In Protagora."--Xylander.

[592] That is, is all kernel. See passim our author's "Apophthegmata Laconica."

[593] Or, apophthegmatic nature.

[594] Dionysius the younger, tyrant of Syracuse, was expelled, and afterwards kept a school at Corinth. That is the allusion. It would be like saying "Remember Napoleon at St. Helena."

[595] See Pausanias, x. 24.

[596] See Plato, "Charmides," 165 A.

[597] A title applied to Apollo first by Herodotus, i. 91, from his ambiguous ([Greek: loxa]) oracles.

[598] Part of the words of an oracle of the Pythian Priestess, slightly changed. The whole oracle may be seen in Herodotus, i. 47.

[599] Proverb of cross purposes.

[600] Reading [Greek: exerasthai] with Duebner.

[601] Catullus calls him "tumidus," i.e. long-winded, 95, 10. See also Propertius, iii. 34-32. He was a Greek poet, a contemporary of Socrates and Plato, and author of a Thebaid. Pausanias mentions him, viii. 25; ix. 35.

[602] The mediaeval proverb, Ubi dolor ibi digitus.

[603] A proverbial expression for having no judgment. See Sophocles, Fragm. 307; Plato, "Charmides," 154 B; Erasmus, "Adagia." So we say a person's mind is a blank sheet on a subject he knows nothing about.

[604] Euripides, Fragm. 202. Quoted also by Plato, "Gorgias," 484 E.

[605] Reading with Reiske, [Greek: misthon auto dounai to mikron siopesai me dynamenos].

[606] A celebrated Greek historian, and pupil of Isocrates. See Cicero, "De Oratore," ii. 13.

[607] Of Tarsus. See Cicero, "De Officiis," iii. 12.

[The end]
Plutarch's essay: On Talkativeness