Plutarch, On Talkativeness

Translated by John Philips. Edition by William W. Goodwin, Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1878.
Annotation of text copyright 2007 David Trumbull, Agathon Associates. All Rights Reserved.

[1] It is a troublesome and difficult task that philosophy undertakes in going about to cure the disease, or rather itch, of intemperate prating. For that words, which are the sole remedy against it, require attention; but they who are given to prate will hear nobody, as being a sort of people that love to be always talking themselves. So that the principal vice of loquacious persons is this, that their ears are stopped to every thing else but their own impertinencies; which I take to be a wilful deafness in men, controlling and contradicting Nature, that has given us two ears, though but one tongue. Therefore it was that Euripides spoke very right to a certain stupid hearer of his:
Impossible it is to fill that brain,
That in a moment lets out all again;
'Tis but the words of wisdom to unfold
Unto a fool, whose skull will nothing hold.
More justly and truly might I say to an idle prate-too-fast, or rather concerning such a fellow:
In vain I seek to fill thy sieve-like brain,
That in a moment lets out all again;
Infusing wisdom into such a skull
As leaks so fast, it never will be full.
Much more may he be said to spill his instructions over (rather than pour them into) a man, who is always talking to those that do not hear, and never hears when others talk For so soon as a wise man has uttered any thing, be it never so short, garrulity swallows it forthwith like the sea, and throws it up again threefold, with the violence of a swelling tide. Such was the portico at Olympia, called Heptaphonos, by the reverberation of one single voice causing no less than seven distinct echoes. And in like manner, if the least word light into the ears of an impertinent babbler, presently all the room rings with it, and he makes such a din,
That soon the jangling noise untunes the strings
Of minds sedately fixt on better things.
Insomuch that we may say, that the conduits and conveyances of their hearing reach not to the souls, but only to their tongues. Therefore it is that other people retain what is spoken to them; whereas, whatever is said to talkative people runs through them as through a cullender; and then they run about from place to place, like empty vessels void of sense or wit, but making a hideous noise.
[2] However, in hopes that there is yet some room left to try an experiment for the cure of this distemper let us begin with this golden sentence to the impertinent prater
Be silent, boy, and thou wilt find i' th' end,
What benefits on silent lips attend.
Among these benefits two of the first and chiefest are to hear and to be heard. To neither of which can these talkative companions ever attain; so unhappy they are still to meet with disappointments, though they desire a thing never so much. For as for those other distempers of the soul, such as avarice, ambition, and exorbitant love of pleasure, they have this happiness, to enjoy what they so eagerly covet. But this is that which most afflicts these idle prattlers, that being desirous of nothing more than of company that will hear them prate, they can never meet with it, in regard that all men avoid their society; and whether sitting in a knot together or walking, so soon as they behold a prattler advancing towards them, they presently give warning to each other and adjourn to another place. And as, when there happens a deep silence in any assembly, so that all the company seems to be mute, we say that Mercury is got among them; so when a fool, full of noise and talk, enters into any room where friends and acquaintance are met to discourse or else to feast and be merry, all people are hushed of a sudden, as afraid of giving him any occasion to set his tongue upon the career. But if he once begin to open his mouth, up they rise and away they trip, like seamen foreseeing a sudden storm and rolling of the waves, when they hear "the north wind begin to whistle from some adjoining promontory," and hastening into harbor. Whence it comes to pass, that he never can meet with any that are willing either to eat or drink or lodge with him in the same room, either upon the road or upon a voyage, unless constrained thereto by necessity. For so importunate he is in all places, that sometimes he will pull you by the coat, sometimes by the beard, and sometimes be hunching your sides, to make you speak. How highly then are to be prized a swift pair of legs, according to the saying of Archilochus! Nay, by Jove, it was the opinion of wise Aristotle himself. For he being perplexed with an egregious prater, and tired out with his absurd stories and idle repetitions of, "And is not this a wonderful thing, Aristotle?" –No wonder at all, said he, is this; but if a man should stand still to hear you prate thus, who had legs to run away, that were a wonder indeed. To another of the same stamp that, after a long tale of a roasted horse, excused himself by saying that he was afraid he had tired him with his prolixity; No, upon my word, quoth the philosopher, for I never minded what you said. On the other side, should it so fall out that there was no avoiding the vexation of one of these chattering-fops, Nature has afforded us this happiness, that it is in the power of the soul to lend the outward ears of the body, to endure the brunt of the noise, while she retires to the remoter apartments of the mind, and there employs herself in better and more useful thoughts. By which means those sonorous babblers are at the same time disappointed, as well of auditors, as of people that believe what they say. All men look upon their vain babbling with the same opinion that they have of the seed of people insatiably addicted to the use of women; for as the one is barren and useless for generation, so is the other void of the end of discourse, altogether frivolous and impertinent.
[3] And yet there is no member of human bodies that Nature has so strongly enclosed within a double fortification, as the tongue, entrenched within with a barricado of sharp teeth, to the end that, if it refuses to obey and keep silent when reason "presses the glittering reins" within, we should fix our teeth in it till the blood comes, rather than suffer the inordinate and unseasonable din. For, according to the saying of Euripides,
Our miseries do not spring
From houses wanting locks or bolts,
But from unbridled tongues,
Ill used by prating fools and dolts.
And truly, I must tell you, that they who think that houses without doors, and purses without strings, are of no use to their masters, yet at the same time set neither fence nor door before their lips, but suffer a continual torrent of vain and idle discourse to flow through them, like the perpetual flux of water through the mouth of the Pontic sea, seem to me to have the least esteem for human speech of all men in the world. Whence it comes to pass that they never gain belief, which is the end of all discourse. For the main scope and intention of all men that speak is to gain a belief of what they utter with those that hear them; whereas talkative noise-makers are never believed, let them speak never so much truth. For as wheat, when crowded into a musty vessel, is found to exceed in measure, but to be unwholesome for use; so the discourse of a loquacious person smells and enlarges itself with lies and falsehood, but in the mean time it loses all force of persuasion.
[4] Then again, there is no man of modesty and civility but would be careful of preserving himself from drunkenness. For anger, as some are of opinion, is the next neighbor to madness, while drunkenness doth dwell in the very same house with it; or rather, drunkenness is madness itself, inferior to it in continuance of time, jet far exceeding it as it is voluntary, since it is a madness of our own choice. Now there is nothing for which drunkenness is so much abominated and decried, as for that it is the cause of inordinate and unlimited babbling and prating.
Heated with wine, the man at other times
Both wise and grave sings loose and wanton rhymes;
He minds not loud indecent laughter then,
Nor mimic dancing, scorned by sober men.
And yet both singing, laughing, and dancing are all but trifles to that which follows, the consequences of which are oft-times fatal:
He blurts those secrets forth, which once revealed,
Too late he wishes they had been concealed.
This is that which oftentimes proves dangerous, if not terrible, to the discoverer. And who knows but that the poet might here design to resolve a question much disputed among philosophers,–that is to say, what the difference is between being tipsy and stark drunk,–by attributing to the former only mirth and jollity of humor, but branding the latter with the foul reproach of noxious babbling? For, according to the proverb,
What the sober heart conceals,
That the drunken heart reveals.
Wherefore it is reported of Bias, that sitting very silent at a compotation, drinking only when it came to his turn, and being laughed at by one whose tongue ran at random, who for his silence called him mope and fool, he made this reply: Find me out that fool, said he, that e'er could hold his tongue in his cups.

A citizen of Athens, having invited the king of Persia's ambassadors to a magnificent feast, at their request gave the same invitation to the most eminent philosophers in the city, to bear them company. Now, when all the rest were propounding of themes, and raising arguments pro and con, and others were maintaining of paradoxes to show their wit and learning, only Zeno sat still, so reserved and mute that the ambassadors took notice of it; and thereupon, after they thought they had opened his heart with two or three lusty brimmers, Pray tell us, Zeno, said they, what report we shall make concerning thee to our master? To whom Zeno: Nothing more, said he, but that there was an old man at Athens that could hold his tongue in the midst of his cups. Such profound and divine mysterious virtues are silence and sobriety; whereas drunkenness is loquacious, void of reason and understanding, and therefore full of jangling and impertinent tautologies. Wherefore the philosophers, when they come to define drunkenness, call it "vain talk over wine." So that drinking is not condemned, provided a man keep himself within the bounds of silence; only vain and silly discourse makes wine-bibbing to be drunkenness. He then that is drunk talks idly over his wine; but the babbler does it everywhere,–in the market-place, at the theatre, in the public walks, as well by night as by day. If he be a physician, certainly he is more troublesome than the disease; if your companion in a voyage, more insupportable than the qualms occasioned by the tumbling of the sea. If he praise thee, his panegyric is more offensive than the reproaches of another. It is a greater pleasure to converse with vicious men, so they be discreet in their language, than with twaddlers, though never so honest. Therefore Nestor in Sophocles, desirous to appease exasperated Ajax, mildly thus rebuked him:

I blame thee not, for though thy words are ill,
Thy deeds bespeak thee brave and valiant still.
But there is not the same excuse to be made for a vain babbling fellow; for the ill government of his tongue corrupts and vitiates all the merits of his actions.
[5] Lysias had given to a certain accused criminal an oration of his own writing. He, having read it several times over, came to Lysias very much dejected, and told him that, upon his first perusal of it, it seemed to him to be a most admirable piece; but after he had read it three or four times over, he could see nothing in it but what was very dull and insipid. To whom Lysias, smiling: What, said he, is not once enough to speak it before the judges! And yet do but consider the persuasive eloquence and grace that is in Lysias's writing, and then I may be bold to affirm,
That no man living e'er was favored more
By sacred Muse that violet garlands wore.
Certain it is that, of all the commendations that were ever given to Homer, this is the truest, that he alone avoided being irksome to his readers, as one that was always new and still flourishing, as it were in the prime of poetic beauty. And yet in speaking thus of himself,
I hate vain repetitions, fondly made,
Of what has been already plainly said,
he shows how careful he is to shun that satiety which, as it were, lies in wait for all speech, alluring the ear from one relation into another, and still recreating the reader with fresh variety, in such a manner that he never thinks himself satisfied. Whereas men that let their tongues run at random rend and tear the ears with their tautologies, like those that, after writing-tables have been newly cleansed and wiped, deface them again with their impertinent scrawls and scratches.
[6] And therefore we would have them to remember this in the fist place, that, as they who constrain men to guzzle down wine unmixed with water, and to excess, are the occasion that what was bestowed at first on men as a blessing, to excite mirth and rejoice the heart, becomes a mischief, creating sadness and causing drunkenness; so they that make an ill and inconsiderate use of speech, which is the most delightful means of human converse, render it both troublesome and unsociable, molesting those whom they think to gratify, derided by those whose esteem and admiration they covet, and offensive to such whose lore and friendship they seek. And therefore, as he may be truly said to be no favorite of Venus, who with the girdle of the Goddess, wherein are all manner of allurements, drives and chases away his familiar acquaintance from his society; so he that vexes others with his loose and extravagant talk may be as truly said to be a rustic, wanting altogether education and breeding.
[7] Now then, among all other passions and maladies, some are dangerous, others hateful, and others ridiculous; but in foolish prating all these inconveniences concur. Praters are derided when they make relations of common matters; they are hated for bringing unwelcome tidings; they are in danger for divulging of secrets. Whereas Anarcharsis, being feasted by Solon, was esteemed a wise man, for that, as he lay asleep after the banquet was over, he was seen with his left hand over his privy parts! and his right hand laid upon his month; deeming, as indeed he rightly believed, that his tongue required the stronger curb. For though it would be a hard task to reckon up how many men have perished through the venereal intemperance, yet I dare say it would be almost as difficult to tell how many cities and States have been demolished and totally subverted by the inconsiderate blurting out of a secret.

Sylla besieged Athens at a time when it was certain that he could not lie long before the city, by reason that other affairs and troubles called him another way. For on the one side, Mithridates ravaged Asia; on the other, Marius's party had made themselves masters of Rome. But it happened, that certain old fellows being met together in a barber's shop, among other discourse, blabbed it out, that the Heptachalcon was ill guarded, and that the city was in great danger of a surprise in that part. Which being overheard and reported to Sylla by certain of his spies, he presently brought all his forces on that side, and about midnight, after a sharp assault, entered the city with his whole army: and it was a thousand to one but that he had laid it in ashes. However, he filled it with the carcasses of the slain, and made the Ceramicus run with blood; being highly incensed against the Athenians, more for their reproachful language than their military opposition. For they had abused both him and his wife Metella, getting up upon the walls and calling him "mulberry strewed with dust meal" with many other provoking scoffs of the same nature; and merely for a few words–which, as Plato observes, are the lightest things in the world–they drew upon their heads the severest punishment.

The tongue of one man prevented Rome from recovering her freedom by the destruction of Nero. For there was but one night to pass before Nero was to be murdered on the morrow, all things being ready prepared and agreed on for that purpose. But in the mean time it happened that he who had undertaken to execute the act, as he was going to the theatre, seeing one of those poor creatures that were bound and pinioned, just ready to be led before Nero, and hearing the fellow bewail his hard fortune, gathered up close to him, and whispered the poor fellow in the ear: Pray only, honest friend, said he, that thou mayest but escape this day; to-morrow thou shalt give me thanks. Presently the fellow taking hold of this enigmatical speech, and calling to mind the vulgar saying that he is a fool who lets slip a bird in the hand for a bird in the bush, preferred the surer to the juster way of saving himself, and presently declared to Nero what that man had whispered in his ear. Immediately the whisperer was laid hold of, and hurried away to the place of torture, where by racking, searing, and scourging hw was constrained, poor miserable creature, to confess that by force which before he had discovered without any compulsion at all.

[8] Zeno, that he might not be compelled by the tortures of his body to betray, against his will, the secrets entrusted in his breast, bit off his tongue, and spit it in the tyrant's face. Notorious also was the example of Leaena, and signal the reward which she had for being true to her trust and constant in her taciturnity. She was a courtesan with whom Harmodius and Aristogiton were very familiar; and for that reason they had imparted to her the great hopes which they had upon the success of the conspiracy against the tyrants, wherein they were so deeply engaged; while she on the other side, having drunk freely of the noble cup of love, had been initiated into their secrets through the God of Love; and she failed not of her vow. For the two paramours being taken and put to death after they had failed in their enterprise, she was also apprehended and put to the torture, to force out of her a discovery of the rest of the accomplices; but all the torments and extremities they could exercise upon her body could not prevail to make her discover so much as one person; whereby she manifested to the world that the two gentlemen, her friends, had done nothing misbecoming their descent, in having bestowed their affections upon such a woman. For this reason the Athenians, as a monument of her virtue, set up a lioness (which the name Leaena signifies) in brass, without a tongue, just at the entrance into the Acropolis; by the stomachful courage of that beast signifying to posterity the invincible resolution of the woman; and by making it without a tongue, denoting her constancy in keeping the secret with which she was entrusted. For never any word spoken did so much good, as many locked up in silence. Thus at one time or other a man may utter what heretofore has been kept a secret; but when a secret is once blurted forth, it can never be recalled; for it flies abroad, aid spreads in a moment far and near. And hence it is that we have men to teach us to speak, but the Gods are they that teach us silence; silence being the first thing commanded upon our first initiation into their divine ceremonies and sacred mysteries. And therefore it is that Homer makes Ulysses, whose eloquence was so charming, to be the most silent of men; and the same virtue he also attributes to his son, to his wife, and also to his nurse. For thus you hear her speaking:
Safe, as in hardened steel or sturdy oak,
Within my breast these secrets will I lock.
And Ulysses himself, sitting by Penelope before he discovered himself, is thus brought in:
His weeping wife with pity he beheld.
Although not willing yet to be revealed.
He would not move his eyes, but kept them fast,
Like horn or steel within his eyebrows placed.
So powerfully possessed with continence were both his tongue and lips; and having all the rest of his members so obedient and subject to his reason, he commanded his eye not to weep, his tongue not to speak a word, and his heart neither to pant nor tremble.
So was his suffering heart confined
To give obedience to his mind;
his reason penetrating even to those inward motions, and subduing to itself the blood and vital spirits. Such were many of the rest of his followers. For though they were dragged and haled by Polyphemus, and had their heads dashed against the ground, they would not confess a word concerning their lord and master Ulysses, nor discover the long piece of wood that was put in the fire and prepared to put out his eye; but rather suffered themselves to be devoured raw than to disclose any one of their master's secrets; which was an example of fidelity and reservedness not to be paralleled. Pittacus therefore did very well, who, when the king of Egypt sent him an oblation-beast, and ordered him to take out and set apart the best and worst piece of it, pulled out the tongue and sent to him, as being the instrument of many good things as well as the instrument of the greatest evils in the world.
[9] Ino therefore, in Euripides, frankly extolling herself, says:
I know both when and where my tongue to hold, And when with safety to be freely bo1d.
For they that are brought up under a truly generous and royal education learn first to be silent, and then to talk. And therefore King Antigonus, when his son asked him when they should discamp, replied, What! art thou afraid of being the only man that shall not hear the trumpet? So loath was he to trust him with a secret, to whom he was to leave his kingdom; teaching him thereby, when he came to command another day, to be no less wary and sparing of his speech. Metellus also, that old soldier, being asked some such question about the intended march of his army, If I thought, said he, that my shirt were privy to this secret, I would pull it off and throw it into the fire. Eumenes also, when he heard that Craterus was marching with his forces against him, said not a word of it to his best friend, but gave out all along that it was Neoptolemus; for him his soldiers contemned, but they admired Craterus's fame and virtue; but nobody knew the truth but Eumenes himself. Thereupon joining battle, the victory fell to their side, and they slew Craterus, not knowing whom he was till they found him among the slain. So cunningly did taciturnity manage this combat, and conceal so great an adversary; so that the friends of Eumenes admired rather than reproved him for not telling them beforehand. For indeed, should a man be blamed in such a case, it is better for him to be accused after victory obtained by his distrust, than to be obliged to blame others after an overthrow because he has been too easy to impart his secrets.
[10] Nay, what man is he that dares take upon him the freedom to blame another for not keeping the secret which he himself has revealed to him? For if the secret ought not to have been divulged, it was ill done to break it to another; but if, after thou hast let it go from thyself, thou wouldst have another keep it in, surely it is a great argument that thou hast more confidence in another than in thyself; for, if he be like thyself, thou art deservedly lost; if better, then thou art miraculously saved, as having met with a person more faithful to thee than thou art to thy own interest. But thou wilt say, he is my friend. Very good: yet this friend of mine had another, in whom he might confide as much as I did in him; and in like manner his friend another, to the end of the chapter.

And thus the secret gains ground, and spreads itself by multiplication of babbling. For as a unit never exceeds its bounds, but always remains one, and is therefore called a unit; but the next is two, which contains the unlimited principle of diversity,–for it straightway departs from out of itself (as it were) and by doubling turns to a plurality,–so speech abiding in the first person's thoughts may truly be called a secret; but being communicated to another, it presently changes its name into common rumor. This is the reason that Homer gives to words the epithet of winged; for he that lets a bird go out of his hand does not easily catch her again; neither is it possible for a man to recall and cage again in his breast a word let slip from his mouth; for with light wings it fetches many a compass, and flutters about from one quarter to another in a moment. The course of a ship may well be stayed by cables and anchors, which else would spoon away before a fresh gale of wind; but there is no fast riding or anchorhold for speech, when once let loose as from a harbor; but being whirled away with a sonorous noise and loud echo, it carries off and plunges the unwary babbler into some fatal danger.

For soon a little spark of fire, let fly,
May kindle Ida's wood, so thick and high
What one man to his seeming friend lets go,
Whole cities may with ease enquire and know.
[11] The Senate of Rome had been debating among themselves a certain piece of secrecy for several days, which caused the matter to be so much the more suspected and listened after. Whereupon a certain Roman lady, discreet enough in other things, but yet a woman, laid at her husband day and night, and mournfully importuned him what the secret might be. Oaths, you may be sure, she was ready to make, and to curse herself if ever she revealed whatever he should tell; nor was she wanting in tears, and many moist complaints of her being a woman so little to be trusted by a husband. The Roman thus beset, yet willing in some measure to make trial of her fidelity and convince her of her folly, Thou hast overcome me, wife, said he, and now I'll tell thee a most dreadful and prodigious thing. We were advertised by the priests, that a lark was seen flying in the air, with a golden helmet upon her head and a spear in one of her claws; now we are consulting with the augurs or soothsayers about this portent, whether it be good or bad. But keep it to thyself, for it may be of great concernment for the commonwealth. Having so said, he walked forth toward the market-place. No sooner was he gone, but his wife caught hold of the first of her maids that entered the room, and then striking her breast and tearing her hair, Woe is me, said she, for my poor husband and dearest country! What will become of us? –prompting the maid, as if she were desirous that she should say to her, Why? What is the matter, mistress? Upon which she presently unfolded all that her husband had told her; nay, she forgot not the common burden with which all twattle-baskets conclude their stories; But, hussy, said she, for your life, be sure you say not a word of this to any soul living. The wench was no sooner got out of her mistress's sight, but meeting with one of her fellow-servants that had little to do, to her she unbosoms herself; she, big with the news, with no less speed runs away to her sweetheart, who was come to give her a visit, and without any more to do tells him all. By this means the story flew about the marketplace before the first deviser of it could get thither. Presently one of his acquaintance meeting him asked, Did ye come straight from your house? Without stop or stay, replied the other. And did ye hear nothing? says his friend. Why? quoth the other, Is there any news ? Oh! quoth his friend, a lark has been seen flying in the air, with a golden helmet upon her head and a spear in her claw, and the Senate is summoned to consult about it. Upon which the gentleman, smiling: God a mercy, wife, quoth he, for being so nimble! One would have thought I might have got into the market-place before a story so lately told thee; but I see 'twas not to be done. Thereupon meeting with some of the senators, he soon delivered them out of their pain. However, being resolved to take a slight revenge of his wife, making haste home, Wife, said he, thou hast undone me; for it is found out that the great secret I told thee was first divulged out of my house; and now must I be banished from my native country for your wicked gaggling tongue. At first his wife would have denied the matter, and put it off from her husband by telling him there were three hundred more besides himself that heard the thing, and why might not one of those divulge it as well as he? But he bade her never tell him of three hundred more, and told her it was an invention of his own framing to try her and to avoid her importunity. Thus this Roman safely and cautiously made the experiment of his wife's ability to keep a secret; as when we pour into a cracked and leaky vessel, not wine nor oil, but water only.

But Fulvius, one of Augustus Caesar's minions and favorites, once heard the emperor deploring the desolation of his family, in regard his two grandchildren by his daughter were both dead, and Postumius, who only remained alive, upon an accusation charged against him was confined to banishment, so that he was forced to set up his wife's son to succeed him in the empire, yet upon more compassionate thoughts, signifying his determination to recall Postumius from exile. This Fulvius hearing related the whole to his wife, and she to Livia. Livia sharply expostulated the matter with Caesar; wherefore, seeing he had projected the thing so long before, he did not send for his daughter's son at first, but exposed her to the hatred and revenge of him that he had determined to be his successor. The next morning Fulvius coming into Augustus's presence, and saluting him with Hail, O Caesar! Caesar retorted upon him, God send thee more wit, Fulvius. He, presently apprehending the meaning of the repartee, made haste home again; and calling for his wife, Caesar understands, said he, that I have discovered his secret counsels, and therefore I am resolved to lay violent hands upon myself. And justly too, said she, thou dost deserve to die, since having lived so long with me, thou didst not know the lavishness of my tongue, and how unable I was to keep a secret. However, suffer me to die first. And with that, snatching the sword out of her husband's hands, she slew herself before his face.

[12] Truly therefore was it said by Philippides the comedian, who being courteously and familiarly asked by King Lysimachus, what he should bestow upon him of all the treasure that he had, made answer, Any thing, O King, but your secrets.

But there is another vice no less mischievous that attends garrulity, called Curiosity /1/. For there are a sort of people that desire to hear a great deal of news, that they may have matter enough to twattle abroad; and these are the most diligent in the world to pry and dive into the secrets of others, that they may enlarge and aggravate their own loquacity with new stories and fooleries. And then they are like children, that neither can endure to hold the ice in their hands nor will let it go; or rather they may be said to lodge other men's secrets in their bosoms, like so many serpents, which they are not able to keep there long, because they eat their way through. It is said that the fish called the sea-needle and vipers rive asunder and burst themselves when they bring forth; in like manner, secrets, dropping from the mouths of those that cannot contain them, destroy and overthrow the revealers. Seleucus Callinicus, having lost his whole army in a battle fought with the Galatians, threw off his royal diadem, and flew away full speed on a horse with three or four attendants, wandering through by-roads and deserts, till at last he began to faint for want of food. At length coming to a certain countryman's house, and finding the owner himself within, he asked him for a little bread and water; which the countryman not only readily fetched him, but what else his ground would afford he very liberally and plentifullly set before the king and his companions, making them all as heartily welcome as it was possible for him to do. At length, in the midst of their cheer, he knew the king's face. This overjoyed the man to such a degree,–that he should have the happiness to relieve the king in his necessity,–that he was not able to contain himself or dissemble his knowledge of the king; but after he had rode a little way with him and came to take his leave; Farewell, King Seleucus, said the poor man. But then the king, stretching forth his right hand and pulling his host to his breast, as if he had intended to kiss him, nodded to one of his followers to strike off the countryman's head with his sword.

E'en while he speaks, his head rolls in the dust.
Whereas if he could but have held his peace and mastered his tongue for a little while, till the king, as afterwards he did, had recovered his good fortune and grandeur, he had been doubtless better rewarded for his silence than he was for his hospitality. And yet this poor man had some colorable excuse for letting his tongue at liberty; that is to say, his hopes, and the kindness he had done the king.
[13] But most of your twattlers, without any cause or pretence at all, destroy themselves; as it happened when certain fellows began to talk pretty freely in a barber's shop concerning the tyranny of Dionysius, that it was as secure and inexpugnable as a rock of adamant: I wonder, quoth the barber, laughing, that you should talk these things before me concerning Dionysius, whose throat is almost every day under my razor. Which scurrilous freedom of the barber being related to the tyrant, he caused him forthwith to be crucified. And indeed the generality of barbers are a prating generation of men; in regard the most loquacious praters usually resort to their shops, and there sit prattling; from whence the barbers also learn an ill habit of twattling. Pleasant therefore was the answer of Archelaus to the barber who, after he had cast the linen toilet about his shoulders, put this question to him, How shall I trim your majesty: In silence, quoth the king. It was a barber that first reported the news of the great overthrow which the Athenians received in Sicily /2/; for being the first that heard the relation of it in the Piraeus, from a servant of one of those who had escaped out of the battle, he presently left his shop at sixes and sevens, and flew into the city as fast as his heels could carry him,
For fear some other should the honor claim
Of being first, when he but second came.
Now you may be sure that the first spreader of this news caused a great hubbub in the city, insomuch that the people, thronging together in the market-place, made diligent enquiry for the first divulger. Presently the barber was brought by head and shoulders to the crowd, and examined: but he could give no account of his author, only one that he never saw or knew in his life before had told him the news. Which so incensed the multitude, that they immediately cried out, To the rack with the traitor, tie the lying rascal neck and heels together. This is a mere story of the rogue's own making. Who heard it? Who gave any credit to it beside himself? At the same instant the wheel was brought out, and the poor barber stretched upon it,–not to his ease, you may be sure. And then it was, and not before, that the news of the defeat was confirmed by several that had made a hard shift to escape the slaughter. Upon which the people scattered every one to his own home, to make their private lamentation for their particular losses, leaving the unfortunate barber bound fast to the wheel; in which condition he continued till late in the evening, before he was let loose. Nor would this reform the impertinent fool; for no sooner was he at liberty but he would needs be enquiring of the executioner, what news, and what was reported of the manner of Nicias the general's being slain. So inexpugnable and incorrigible a vice is loquacity, gotten by custom and ill habit, that they cannot leave it off, though they were sure to be hanged.
[14] And yet we find that people have the same antipathy against divulgers of bad tidings, as they that drink bitter and distasteful potions have against the cups wherein they drank them. Elegant therefore is the dispute in Sophocles between the messenger and Creon:

MESSENGER. By what I tell and what you hear,
Do I offend your heart or ear?

CREON. Why so inquisitive to sound
My grief, and search the painful wound?

MESSENGER. My news afflicts thy ears, I find,
But 'tis the fact torments thy mind.

Thus they that bring us bad tidings are as bad as they who are the authors of our misery; and yet there is no restraining or correcting the tongue that will run at random.

It happened that the temple of Minerva in Lacedaemon called Chalcioecus was robbed, and nothing but an earthen pitcher left behind; which caused a great concourse of people, where every one spent his verdict about the empty pitcher. Gentlemen, says one, pray give me leave to tell ye my opinion concerning this pitcher. I am apt to believe, that these sacrilegious villains, before they ventured upon so dangerous an attempt, drank each of them a draught of hemlock juice, and then brought wine along with them in this pitcher; to the end that, if it were their good hap to escape without being apprehended, they might soon dissolve and extinguish the strength and vigor of the venom by the force of the wine unmixed and pure; but if they should be surprised and taken in the fact, that then they might die without feeling any pain under the torture of the rack. Having thus said, the people, observing so much forecast and contrivance in the thing, would not be persuaded that any man could have such ready thoughts upon a bare conjecture, but that he must know it to be so. Thereupon, immediately gathering about him, one asked who he was; another, who knew him; a third, how he came to be so much a philosopher. And at length, they did so sift and canvass and fetch him about, that the fellow confessed himself to be one of those that committed the sacrilege.

And were not they who murdered the poet Ibycus discovered after the same manner, as they sat in the theatre? For as they were sitting there under the open sky to behold the public pastimes, they observed a flock of cranes flying over their heads; upon which they whispered merrily one to another, Look, yonder are the revengers of Ibycus's death. Which words being overheard by some that sat next them,–in regard that Ibycus had been long missing but could not be found, though diligent search had been made after him,–they presently gave information of what they had heard to the magistrates. By whom being examined and convicted, they suffered condign punishment, though not betrayed by the cranes, but by the incontinency of their own tongues, and by an avenging Erinnys hovering over their heads and constraining them to confess the murder. For as in the body, wounded and diseased members draw to themselves the vicious humors of the neighboring parts; in like manner, the unruly tongues of babblers, infested (as it were) with inflammations where a sort of feverish pulses continually lie beating, will be always drawing to themselves something of the secret and private concerns of other men. And therefore the tongue ought to be environed with reason, as with a rampart perpetually lying before it, like a mound, to stop the overflowing and slippery exuberance of impertinent talk; that we may not seem to be more silly than geese, which, when they take their flight out of Cilicia over the mountain Taurus, which abounds with eagles, are reported to carry every one a good big stone in their bills, instead of a bridle or barricado, to restrain their gaggling. By which means they cross those hideous forests in the night-time undiscovered.

[15] Now then if the question should be asked, Which are the worst and most pernicious sort of people? I do not believe there is any man that would omit to name a traitor. By treason it was that Euthycrates covered the uppermost story of his house with Macedonian timber, according to the report of Demosthenes; that Philocrates, having received a good sum of money, spent it upon whores and fish; and that Euphorbus and Philagrus, who betrayed Eretria, were so well rewarded by the king with ample possessions. But a prattler is a sort of traitor that no man needs to hire, for that he offers himself officiously and of his own accord. Nor does he betray to the enemy either horse or walls; but whatever he knows of public or private concerns requiring the greatest secrecy, that he discloses, whether it be in courts of judicature, in conspiracies, or management of state affairs, 'tis all one; he expects not so much as the reward of being thanked for his pains; nay, rather he will return thanks to them that give him audience. And therefore what was said upon a certain spendthrift that rashly and without any discretion wasted his own estate by his lavish prodigality to others,
Thou art not liberal; 'tis a disease
Of vainly giving, which does thee possess;
'Tis all to please thyself, what thou dost give,
may well be retorted upon a common prattler:
Thou art no friend, nor dost to me impart,
For friendship's sake, the secrets of thy heart;
But as thy tongue has neither bolt nor lock,
'Tis thy disease, that thou delight'st to talk.
[16] Nor would I have the reader think that what has hitherto been said has been discoursed so much to blame as to cure that vicious and infectious malady of loquaciousness. For though we surmount and vanquish the vices of the mind by judgment and exercise, yet must the judgment precede. For no man will accustom himself to avoid and, as it were, to extirpate out of his soul those vices, unless he first abominate them. Nor can we ever detest those evil habits of the mind as we ought to do, but when we rightly judge by reason's light of the prejudice they do us, and the ignominy we sustain thereby. For example, we consider and find that these profuse babblers, desirous of being beloved, are universally hated; while they study to gratify, they become troublesome; while they seek to be admired, they are derided. If they aim at profit, they lose all their labor; in short, they injure their friends, advantage their enemies, and undo themselves. And therefore the first remedy and cure for this spreading malady will be this, to reckon up all the shameful infamies and disasters that attend it.
[17] The second remedy is to take into serious consideration the practice of the opposite virtue, by always hearing, remembering, and having ready at hand the due praises and encomiums of reservedness and taciturnity, together with the majesty, sanctimony, and mysterious profoundness of silence. Let them consider how much more beloved: how much more admired, how they are reputed to excel in prudence, who deliver their minds in few words, roundly and sententiously, and contract a great deal of sense within a small compass of speech, than such as fly out into voluminous language, and suffer their tongues to run before their wit. The former are those whom Plato so much praises, and likens unto skilful archers, darting forth their sentences thick and close, as it were crisped and curled one within another. To this same shrewdness of expression Lycurgus accustomed his fellow-citizens from their childhood by the exercise of silence, contracting and thickening their discourse into a compendious delivery. For as the Celtiberians make steel of iron by burying it in the ground, thereby to refine it from the gross and earthy part, so the Laconic way of speech has nothing of bark upon it, but by cutting off all superfluity of words, it becomes steeled and sharpened to pierce the understanding of the hearers. So their consciousness of language, so ready to turn the edge to all manner of questions, became natural by their extraordinary practice of silence. And therefore it would be very expedient for persons so much given to talk, always to have before their eyes the short and pithy sayings of those people, were it only to let them see the force and gravity which they contain. For example: The Lacedaemonians to Philip; Dionysius in Corinth. And when Philip wrote thus to the Spartans: If once I enter into your territories, I will destroy ye all, never to rise again; they answered him with the single word, If. To King Demetrius exclaiming in a great rage, What! have the Spartans sent me but one ambassador? the ambassador nothing terrified replied, Yes; one to one. Certainly they that spoke short and concisely were much admired by the ancients. Therefore the Amphictyons gave order, not that the Iliad or the Odyssey or Pindar's paeans should be written upon Pythian Apollo's temple; but Know thyself; Nothing too much; Give sureties, and mischief is at hand. So much did they admire conciseness of speech, comprehending full sense in so much brevity, made solid as it were by the force of a hammer. Does not the Deity himself study compendious utterance in the delivery of his oracles? Is he not therefore called Loxias, because he avoids rather loquacity than obscurity? Are not they that signify their meaning by certain signs, without words, in great admiration and highly applauded? Thus Heraclitus, being desired by his fellow-citizens to give them his opinion concerning Concord, ascended the public pulpit, and taking a cup of cold water into his hand, first sprinkled it with a little flour, then stirring it with a sprig of pennyroyal, drank it off, and so came down again; intimating thereby, that if men would but be contented with what was next at hand, without longing after dainties and superfluities, it would be an easy thing for cities to live in peace and concord one with another.

Scilurus, king of the Scythians, left fourscore sons behind him; who, when he found the hour of death approaching, ordered them to bring him a bundle of small javelins, and then commanded every one singly to try whether he could break the bundle, as it was, tied up altogether; which when they told him it was impossible for them to do, he drew out the javelins one by one, and brake them all himself with ease; thereby declaring that, so long as they kept together united and in concord, their force would be invincible, but that by disunion and discord they would enfeeble each other, and render their dominion of small continuance.

[18] He then, that by often repeating and reflection shall enure himself to such precedents as these, may in time perhaps be more delighted with these short and conclusive apophthegms than with the exorbitances of loose and lavish discourse. For my own part, I must acknowledge that I am not a little ashamed of myself, when I call to mind that same domestic servant of whom I am now going to speak, and consider how great a thing it is to advise before a man speaks, and then to be able to maintain and stick to what he has resolved upon.

Pupius Piso, the rhetorician, being unwilling to be disturbed with much talk, gave orders to his servants to answer to such questions only as he should ask them, and say no more. Then having a design to give an entertainment to Clodius, at that time magistrate, he ordered him to be invited, and provided a splendid banquet for him, as in all probability he could do no less. At the time appointed several other guests appeared, only they waited for Clodius's coming, who tarried much longer than was expected; so that Piso sent his servant several times to him, to know whether he would be pleased to come to supper or no. Now when it grew late and Piso despaired of his coming, What! said he to his servant, did you call him? Yes, replied the servant. Why then does he not come away? Because he told me he would not come. Why did you not tell me so before? Because, sir, you never asked me the question. This was a Roman servant. But an Athenian servant, while he is digging and delving, will give his master an account of the articles and capitulations in a treaty of peace. So strangely does custom prevail in all things, of which let us now discourse.

[19] For there is no curb or bridle that can tame or restrain a libertine tongue; only custom must vanquish that disease. First therefore, when there are many questions propounded in the company where thou art, accustom thyself to silence till all the rest have refused to give an answer. For, as Sophocles observes,
Although in racing swiftness is required,
In counselling there's no such haste desired;
no more do speech and answer aim at the same mark with running. For it is the business of a racer to get the start of him that contends with him; but if another man gives a sufficient answer, there needs no more than to commend and approve what he say, and so gain the reputation of a candid person. If not, then to tell wherein the other failed and to supply the defect will neither be unseasonable nor a thing that can justly merit distaste. But above all things, let us take special heed, when another is asked a question, that we do not chop in to prevent, his returning an answer. And perhaps it is as little commendable, when a question is asked of another, to put him by, and under tike the solution of what is demanded ourselves. For thereby we seem to intimate that the person to whom the question was put was not able to resolve it, and that the propounder had not discretion sufficient to know of whom to ask it. Besides, such a malapert forwardness in answering is not only indecent, but injurious and affrontive. For he that prevents the person to whom the question is put in returning his answer, would in effect insinuate a What need had you to ask of him? –What can he say to it? –When I am in presence, no man ought to be asked those questions but myself. And yet many times we put questions to some people, not for want of an answer, but only to minister occasion of discourse to provoke them to familiarity, and to have the pleasure of their wit and conversation, as Socrates was wont to challenge Theaetetus and Charmides. Therefore to prevent another in returning his answers, to abstract his ears, and draw off his cogitations from another to himself, is the same thing as to run and salute a man who designs to be saluted by somebody else, or to divert his eyes upon ourselves which were already fixed upon another; considering that if he to whom the question is put refuse to return an answer, it is but decent for a man to contain himself, and by an answer accommodate to the will of the propounder, modestly and respectfully to put in, as if it had been at the request or in the behalf of the other. For they that are asked a question, if they fail in their answer, are justly to be pardoned; but he that voluntarily presumes to answer for another gives distaste, let his answer be never so rational; but if he mistake, he is derided by all the company.
[20] The second point of exercise, in reference to our own answering of questions, wherein a man that is given to talk ought to be extremely careful, is first of all not to be over-hasty in his answers to such as provoke him to talk on purpose to make themselves merry and to put an affront upon him. For some there are who, not out of any desire to be satisfied, but merely to pass away the time, study certain questions, and then propound them to persons which they know love to multiply words, on purpose to make themselves sport. Such men therefore ought to take heed how they run headlong and leap into discourse, as if they were glad of the occasion, and to consider the behavior of the propounder and the benefit and usefulness of the question. When we find that the propounder is really desirous to be informed, it is convenient then for a man to bethink himself awhile, and make some pause between the question and the answer; to the end that the proposer, if he pleases to make any additions to his proposal, may have time to do it, and himself a convenient space to consider what answer to make, for fear of running at random and stifling the question before it be fully propounded, or of giving one answer for another for want of considering what he ought to say,–which is the effect of an over-hasty zeal to be talking. True it is, indeed, that the Pythian priestess was wont to give her oracular answers at the very instant, and sometimes before the question was propounded. For that the Deity whom she serves
Both understands the mute that cannot speak,
And hears the silent e'er his mind he break.
But it behooves a man that would return a pertinent answer, to stay till he rightly apprehend the sense and understand the intent of him that propounds the question, lest he may happen to make good the proverb,
A rake we called for; they refused a bowl.
Besides, we must subdue this inordinate and insatiate greediness of having all the talk, that it may not seem as if we had some old flux of humors impostumated about the tongue, which we were willing to have lanced and let out by a question. Socrates therefore, though never so thirsty after violent exercise, never mould allow himself the liberty to drink, till he had drawn one bucket of water and poured it out upon the ground; to the end he might accustom his sensual appetite to attend reason's appointment.
[21] Now therefore we come to understand that there are three sorts of answers to questions, the necessary, the polite, and the superfluous. For example, if a man should ask whether Socrates is within, the other, if he were in an ill-humor or not disposed to make many words, would answer, Not within; or if he intended to be more Laconic, he mould cut off "within," and reply briefly, No. Thus the Lacedaemonians, when Philip sent them an epistle, to know whether or not they would admit him into their city, vouchsafed him no other answer than only No, fairly written in large letters upon a sheet of paper. Another that would answer more courteously would say: He is not within; he is gone among the bankers; and perhaps he would add, Where he expects some friends. But a superfluous prater, if he chance to have read Antimachus of Colophon, would reply: He is not within; but is gone among the bankers, in expectation to meet certain Ionian friends, who are recommended to him in a letter from Alcibiades, who lives at Miletus with Tissaphernes, one of the great king of Persia's lieutenant-generals, who formerly assisted the Lacedaemonians, but is now, by the solicitation of Alcibiades, in league with the Athenians; for Alcibiades, being desirous to return to his own country, has prevailed with Tissaphernes to change his mind and join with the Athenians. And thus perhaps you shall have him run on and repeat the whole eighth book of Thucydides, and overwhelm a man with his impertinent discourse, till he has taken Miletus, and banished Alcibiades a second time. Herein therefore ought a man chiefly to restrain the profuseness of his language, by following the footsteps of the question, and circumscribing the answer, as it were, within a circle proportionable to the benefit which the propounder proposes to make of his question. It is reported of Carneades, that before he was well known in the world, while he was disputing in the Gymnasium, the president of the place sent him ail admonition to moderate his voice (for he naturally spoke very deep and loud); in answer to which he desired the president to send him a gauge for his voice, when the president not improperly made answer: Let that be the person who disputes with thee. In like manner, the intent of the propounder ought to be the rule and measure of the answer.
[22] Moreover, as Socrates was wont to say, that those meats were chiefly to be abstained from which allured men to eat when they were not a-hungry, and those drinks to be refrained that invited men to drink when they were not a-dry; so it would behoove a man that is lavish of his tongue, to be afraid of those discourses and themes wherein he most delights and makes it his business to be most prolix, and whenever he perceives them flowing in upon him, to resist them to the utmost of his power. For example, your martial men are always talking of sieges and battles, and the great poet often introduces Nestor boasting of his own achievements and feats of arms. The same disease is incident to noted pleaders at the bar, and accompanies such as have unexpectedly risen to be the favorites of great princes. For such will be always up with their stories,–how they were introduced at first, how they ascended by degrees, how they got the better in such a case, what arguments they used in such a case, and lastly how they were hummed up and applauded in court. For to say truth, gladness and joy are much more loquacious than the sleeplessness so often feigned in their comedies, rousing up and still refreshing itself with new relations; and therefore they are prone to fall into such stories upon the least occasion given. For not only
Where the body most is pained,
There the patient lays his hand;
but pleasure also has a voice within itself, and lends the tongue about to be a support to the memory. So lovers spend the greatest part of their time in songs and sonnets, to refresh their memories with the representations of their mistresses; concerning which amours of theirs, when companions are wanting, they frequently discourse with things that are void of life. Thus,
O dearest bed, whereon we wont to rest;
and again,
O blessed lamp divine,–for surely thee
Bacchis believes some mighty Deity,–
Surely the greatest of the Gods thou art,
If she so wills who does possess my heart.
And indeed it may well be said, that a loose-tongued fellow is no more, in respect of his discourse, than a white line struck with chalk upon white marble. For in regard there are several subjects of discourse, and many men are more subject to some than to others, it behooves every one to be on his guard especially against these, and to suppress them in such a manner that the delight which they take therein may not decoy them into their beloved prolixity and profuseness of words. The same inclination to overshoot themselves in prattling appears in such as are prone to that kind of discourses wherein they suppose themselves to excel others, either in habit or experience. For such a one, being as well a lover of himself as ambitious of glory,
The chiefest part of all the day doth spend,
Himself to pass and others to transcend.
For example, he that reads much endeavors to excel in history; the grammarian, in the artificial couching of words; the traveller is full of his geography. But all these surplusages are to be avoided with great caution, lest men, intoxicated therewith, grow fond of their old infirmities, and return to their former freaks, like beasts that cannot be driven from their haunts. Cyrus therefore, yet a young stripling, was most worthy of admiration, who would never challenge his equals and playfellows to any exercise wherein he excelled, but to such only wherein he knew himself to be inferior; unwilling that they should fret for the loss of the prize which he was sure to win, and loath to lose what he could himself from the others' better skill.

On the other side, the profuse talker is of such a disposition that, if any discourse happen from which he might be able to learn something and inform his ignorance, that he refuses and rejects, nor can you hire him even to hold his tongue; but after his rolling and restless fancy has mustered up some few obsolete and all-to-be-tattered rhapsodies to supply his vanity, out he flings them, as if he were master of all the knowledge in the world. Just like one amongst us who, haying read two or three of Ephorus's books, tired all men's ears, and spoiled and brake up all the feasts and societies wherever he came, with his continual relations of the battle of Leuctra and the consequences of it; by which means he got himself a nickname, and every one called him Epaminondas.

[23] But this is one of the least inconveniences of this infirmity; and indeed we ought to make it one step towards the cure, to turn this violent vein of twattling upon such subjects as those. For such a loquacity is less a nuisance when it superabounds in what belongs to humane literature. It would be well also that the sort of people who are addicted to this vice should accustom themselves to write upon some subject or other, and to dispute of certain questions apart. For Antipater the Stoic, as we may probably conjecture, either not being able or else unwilling to come into dispute with Carneades, vehemently inveighing against the Stoics, declined to meet him fairly in the schools, yet would be always writing answers against him; and because he filled whole volumes full of contradictory arguments, and still opposed him with assertions that only made a noise, he was called Calamoboas, as one that made a great clamor with his pen to no purpose. So it is very probable that such fighting with their own shadows, and exclaiming one against another apart by themselves, driving and restraining them from the multitude, would render them gradually more tolerable and sociable in civil company; as curs, after they have once discharged their fury upon sticks and stones, become less fierce towards men. It would be always of great importance to them to converse with their superiors and elders; for that the awful reverence and respect which they bear to their dignity aid gravity may accustom them in time to silence.

And it would be evermore expedient to intermix and involve with these exercises this manner of ratiocination with ourselves, before we speak, and at the very moment that the words are ready to break out of our mouths: What is this which I would say, that presses so hard to be gone? For what reason Would this tongue of mine so fain be talking? What good shall I get by speaking? What mischief shall I incur by holding my peace? For we are not to ease and discharge ourselves of our words, as if they were a heavy burthen that overloaded us; for speech remains as well when uttered as before; but men either speak in behalf of themselves when some necessity compels them, or for the benefit of those that hear them, or else to recreate one another with the delights of converse, on purpose to mitigate and render more savory, as with salt, the toils of our daily employments. But if there be nothing profitable in speaking, nothing necessary to them that hear what is said, nothing of satisfaction or delight, what need is there it should be spoken? For words may be in vain and to no purpose, as well as deeds. But after and above all that has been said, we ought always to bear in remembrance, and always to have at our tongue's end, that saying of Simonides, that he had often repented him of talking, but never of keeping silent. Then as for exercise, me must believe it to be a matter of great importance, as being that which overcomes and masters all things; considering what watchful care and even toil and labor men will undergo to get rid of an old cough or hiccough. But silence and taciturnity not only never cause a dry throat, as Hippocrates observes, but are altogether free from pain and sorrow.

Here Ends Plutarch's On Talkativeness.


/1/ See Plutarch, On Curiosity.

/2/ See Plutarch, Life of Nicias, 30.