The Ancient Near East on the Culture of Speech


«There are seven marks of an uncultured, and seven of a wise man. The wise man does not speak before him who is greater than he in wisdom; and does not interrupt the speech of his companion; he is not hasty to answer; he questions according to the subject-matter; and answers to the point; he speaks upon the first thing first, and upon the last, last; regarding that which he has not understood he says, «I do not understand it;» and he acknowledges the truth. The reverse of all this is to be found in an uncultured man.»

This fragment is from Pirkei Avot, written in the 2nd century CE, but I can imagine the same text dating a few hundreds of years before that time. One can find similar passages in the Babylonian Counsels of Wisdom, dating to a time before 700 BC:

«Let your mouth be controlled and your speech guarded: Therein is a man’s wealth—let your lips be very precious. Let insolence and blasphemy be your abomination; Speak nothing profane nor any untrue report. A talebearer is accursed. … Do not utter libel, speak what is of good report. Do not say evil things, speak well of people. One who utters libel and speaks evil, Men will waylay him with his debit account to Shamash. Beware of careless talk, guard your lips; Do not utter solemn oaths while alone, For what you say in a moment will follow you afterwards. But exert yourself to restrain your speech.»

Instructions of Amenemope, dating from the New Kingdom, very late in the second millennium BC:

«Another thing good in the heart of the god: To pause before speaking. Don’t start a quarrel with a hot-mouthed man, Nor needle him with words. Pause before a foe, bend before an attacker. Sleep (on it) before speaking.»

Instructions of Ptahhotep, dating from the second millennium B.C.:

«Don’t be proud of your knowledge, Consult the ignorant and the wise; The limits of art are not reached, No artist’s skills are perfect; Good speech is more hidden than greenstone, Yet may be found among maids at the grindstones. … Guard against reviling speech, Which embroils one great with another; Keep to the truth, don’t exceed it, But an outburst should not be repeated.»

Leave a Reply