Examining Epictetus #34: Silence: Your General Rule

Every word was another spade of dirt. As the speaker continued, the hole he dug for himself got bigger. He should have stopped long ago, but his foolishness got the better of him. He was another prime example of the proverb, “A fool’s mouth is his destruction, and his lips are the snare of his soul (Proverbs 18:7).”

How many times have I been the speaker? How many times have you? There are some days when shutting up seems impossible. The words flow in all directions. Some of them cut, some bring shame, and most of it ends up being nonsense. And when the words come with nary a thought, the danger is at its highest level. Wisdom flees the speaker as the foolishness takes command.

Let silence be your general rule; say only what is necessary and in few words. -Epictetus

There is a memorable scene at the end of the movie Gone in 60 Seconds. The Sphinx, a character played by Vinnie Jones, goes through the whole movie without saying one line. But then at the end, he waxes poetic and lays down a wonderful set of lines.* The other characters are amazed, and some didn’t even know he could speak at all. Would his eloquence have carried the same weight if he spoke throughout the movie?

And in the real world, the rule holds true. When the ones that are generally quiet speak up, others listen. Maybe the listeners pause from the shock, but they do stop and listen.

Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace; when he shuts his lips, he is considered perceptive. -Proverbs 17:28

In writing, an over-abundance of words doesn’t always hit the mark. Instead, it often adds confusion and costs the reader more time. Similarly,  a speaker who can drive home the message with less words will have a greater impact. If we can guard our tongues, and as Epictetus said, “Say only what is necessary and in few words,” our message will carry greater weight.

“If his unpleasant wounding has in some way enlightened the rest of you as to the grim finish beneath the glossy veneer of criminal life and inspired you to change your ways, then his injuries carry with it an inherent nobility, and a supreme glory. We should all be so fortunate. You say poor Toby? I say poor us. -The Sphinx, Gone in 60 Seconds


Feature photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

Silence Is Golden

They are everywhere. You know them, if not by sight, then by the constant noise uttered from their mouths.  I have worked with several over the years. One in particular, couldn’t shut up to save his life. He was always talking. And the more he talked, the more foolish he sounded. The guy was ultimately looking for attention and trying to get it the only way he knew how. In the end, the attention he was seeking cost him his job. He should have just stayed silent.

Another guy comes to mind that I still work with from time to time. I wrote about him once and called him the mechanic, as that was his background. When I first met him, he seemed different. He hardly ever spoke. In this day and age, that silence is rare. I asked him once about it. I wanted to know why he was so quiet. I will never forget his answer. He said, “I don’t want to sound like an idiot.” Can you imagine the wisdom in this response? Through not speaking, nobody would ever know if he was or was not an idiot. His silence would never give others the opportunity to find out. His silence was indeed wisdom. His silence was golden.

But what if he was lacking in wisdom? Wouldn’t he be considered a fool? It is not something any would desire. What good is there in being a fool, unless you are a silent fool? As Frances Bacon said, “Silence is the virtue of fools.” If you are going to be a fool, at least you don’t have to broadcast it to the world.

From what I could tell, the mechanic was by no means foolish. And for someone in his early twenties, he was even wise beyond his years. But the world we live in is quick to judge that silence for something else. There are those that want to think something is wrong with the quiet person. However, the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus had a response for that, “If your silence is mistaken for ignorance and you are not upset by it, then it is a real sign of progress.” Imagine that, truly water off a duck’s back. Don’t let what others think bother you. You have your reason for silence –to not sound like an idiot. Now you are making progress towards that endeavor.

It is all well and good that I can make this observation in others, but how does this apply to me? Seeing this wisdom in others does no good if I cannot apply it to my own life. I have been guilty of letting my mouth run too much. On occasion, I have deserved that moniker, “acting the fool.” My most powerful words have been the ones most thought out. My greatest points did not come from rambling, but from careful thinking. I have to be on guard and not allow my tongue to get out of control. If I do not, I may be in danger of receiving that title I truly detest: fool.

There is another area in which I need to be careful. I am on a journey. Over the last six months, my life has gone through some amazing transformations. I have known for some time that I needed a change. I was not happy with the direction my life was going. I started to become really conscious of what I put into my body and mind. In a sense, I have been brainwashing myself on ways to change my life for the better. Some colleagues have noticed this change and have been asking questions about it. I have been rather free in describing what I am going through, but even here I have to be careful and not get carried away. Once again the words of Epictetus come to mind, “Don’t brag about the principles you follow in life. Don’t even mention them to others. Instead, act according to those principles.” Action is a powerful thing and often speaks for itself. I can always be like the mechanic, who is an incredibly efficient worker whose actions speak louder than his words.

My son:

Those who spare their words are truly knowledgeable, and those who are discreet are intelligent. -Proverbs 17:27