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think not silence the wisdom of fools ; but if rightly timed, the honour of wise men, who have not the infirmity, but the virtue of taciturnity, and speak not out of the abundance, but the well-weighed thoughts of the heart. “Such silence may be eloquence, and speak thy worth above the power of words." Would the author of “Vulgar Errors," however, have sanc tioned for one moment the reference of the proverb on reticent foolishness to that limbo ? On the contrary, the drift of his argument is wholly in favour of the proverb ; for, if the silence of the wise is wisdom, as he contends, much more is a tonguetied condition expedient in the fool.
Stultitiam dissimulare non potes nisi taciturnitate, says the Latin adage: there is no way to conceal folly but by holding your tongue.
There is something at once of pathos and almost of humorous reproach, in the appeal of the Man of Uz, in his extremity, to his too didactic and complacently dogmatical friends: “Oh that ye would altogether hold your peace ! and it should be your wisdom.”
Montaigne exclaims, “ To how many blockheads of my time has a cold and taciturn demeanour procured the credit of prudence and capacity!” Note the counsel of Carlo to Sogliardo, in one of Ben Jonson's heaviest comedies : “When anything is propounded above your capacity, smile at it, make two or three faces, and 'tis excellent; they'll think you've travelled; though you argue a whole day in silence thus, and discourse in nothing but laughter, 'twill pass.” Elsewhere rare Ben cites approvingly the “witty saying,” about one who was taken for a great and weighty man so long as he held his peace : “ This man might have been a counsellor of state, till he spoke; but having spoken, not the beadle of the ward.” Denouncing in his strong dialect the vapid verbiage of shallow praters, Mr. Carlyle exclaims, “Even Triviality, Imbecility, that can sit silent, how respectable is it in comparison !” Michelet says of the Spanish grandees of Charles the Fifth's time, that the haughty silence they maintained, scarce deigning even a syllable of reply, served them admirably to conceal their dearth of ideas. Silence and imperturbability, according to the author of "The Gentle Life,” are the two requisites for a man to get on in the world.
If there are two things not to be hidden-love and a cough -there is a third, contends Nello, the barber of Florence, and that is ignorance, when once a man is obliged to do something besides wagging his head. Charles Lamb shrewdly observes that a man may do very well with a very little knowledge, and scarce be found out, in a mixed company; everybody being so much more ready to produce his own than to call for a display of your acquisitions. But in a tête-à-tête, he adds, there is no shuffling; the truth will out.
The Abbé de Choisy hugged himself on the success of a discreet silence during his residence in Batavia, where he had special reasons to beware of committing, and of exposing, himself. “Often when I utter not a word, they suppose it is because I don't choose to talk ; whereas the real motive for my silence is a profound ignorance, such as it is best to keep concealed from the gaze of mortals.” Molière's sprightly chevalier, Dorante, counsels a fatuous marquis not to talk of what he knows nothing at all about–bidding him hope that in virtue of a scrupulously observed silence, he and the like of him may haply come to be regarded as clever fellows. “Et songez qu'en ne disant mot, on croira peut-être que vous êtes d'habiles gens.” A story is told of Zeuxis, how he reproved a certain Megabyzus, high priest of great Diana of the Ephesians, who discoursed of pictures in the painter's studio with so reckless an audacity of ignorance, that the very lads who were grinding colours there could not refrain from giggling; whereupon quoth Zeuxis to his too-eloquent friend, “ As long as you kept from talking, you were the admiration of these boys, who were all wonder at your rich attire, and the number of your servants; but now that you have ventured to expatiate upon the arts, of which you know simply nothing, they are laughing at you outright.” Plutarch tells the same story of Apelles. Again to draw upon Molière : a fool who keeps his folly tonguetied, is not to be distinguished from a savant who hold his peace:
“Un sot qui ne dit mot ne se distingue pas
D'un savant qui se tait.' Not to be distinguished, possibly, from a savant who talks, and talks to the purpose too.
There are two opposite ways, on Washington Irving's showing, by which some men get into notice—one by talking a vast deal and thinking a little, and the other by holding their tongues and not thinking at all. By the first, he says, many a vapouring, superficial pretender acquires the reputation of a man of quick parts ; by the other, many a vacant dunder-pate, like the owl, the stupidest of birds, comes to be complimented, by a discerning world, with all the attributes of wisdom. Silent, quiet people, as Miss Jewsbury incidentally remarks, have a charmed mystery about them which gives them a great advantage over more demonstrative mortals ; “nobody knows exactly what they think, nor the impression made on them by anything ; all within them has the prestige of an oracle ; the extent of what they indicate is unknown; and what little is uttered goes so far.” The best, perhaps, as well as the bestknown of all stories illustrative of our theme, is that of Coleridge admiring a certain dinner-guest, so impregnable in his sublime reserve, so inexorably proof against every temptation to join in the table-talk, such a model (in appearance) of dignified superiority—until there was carried in that unlucky dish of apple-dumplings, the very first glance at which roused Sir Oracle to the enthusiastic outburst, “Them are the jockeys for me !” Goldsmith had, long before, recorded a somewhat parallel passage of disenchantment. His travelled Chinese, Lien Chi Altangi, is present at a dinner-party of dignitaries and dons in whose company and from whose converse he expects to find a feast of reason as well as turtle, and a flow of soul as well as claret. Their silence before dinner is served, rather puzzles and disappoints the eager expectant; who, however, accounts for and excuses it by the reflection, that men of wisdom are ever slow of speech, and deliver nothing unadvisedly. “Silence,” says Confucius, “is a friend that will never betray.” The dons and dignitaries were now by the man
darin's surmise, inventing maxims, or hard sayings, for their mutual instruction, when some one should think proper to begin. “My curiosity was now wrought up to the highest pitch; I impatiently looked round to see if any were going to interrupt the mighty pause ; when at last one of the company declared that there was a sow in his neighbourhood that fare rowed fifteen pigs at a litter.” Broken at once was the spell, and disillusion was the Chinaman's doom.
Pope, being satirist of the first class, as well as poet of (say) the second, took care, in his imitative stanzas on Silence, not to be all sentiment and rhapsodical rapture on that subject. Hence, one of his stanzas begins,“ Silence, the knave's repute ;” and another declares Dulness to be her bosom-friend :
“ And in thy bosom lurks in Thought's disguise ;
Thou varnisher of fools, and cheat of all the wise.” The moral of one of Gay's fables is to the purpose—that one, namely, in which a young dog, ignorant of game, gives tongue as lustily as if he knew all about it, and gets well lashed for his pains. To the astounded puppy's remonstrance the whipbearing huntsman replies :
"Had not thy forward noisy tongue
Proclaim'd thee always in the wrong,
Are sure to make their follies known.” So a French satirist of the last century bids le sot remember, that by simply holding his tongue, he will acquire not a little respect-hopeless as the reminder in such a case may be ; for you might as well counsel the coward not to tremble, as the fool not to expose himself in words, words, words :
“ Souvenez-vous qu'un sot doit garder le silence,
Il serait respecté beaucoup plus qu'il ne pense ;
C'est, sans espoir, défendre au poltron ne trembler."
the fool might be condensed into an applied line from Molière, where Orgon bids Dorine hold her tongue, and regard that as a standing order :
“Taisez-vous. C'est le mot qu'il vous faut toujours dire.” All silent people, Lord Lytton affirms, can seem conventionally elegant. And he tells the story of a groom married to a rich lady, and in consequent trepidation as to the probability of being ridiculed by the guests in his new home and her old one, to whom an Oxford clergyman gave this bit of advice : “Wear a black coat, and hold your tongue.” The groom took the hint, and, we are assured, was always considered the most gentlemanly man in the county. Elsewhere, again, the same author relates his meeting with a diplomatist of weighty name, a stock example of political success, but of whom he could make nothing whatever, except indeed that he was a preposterous numskull. When, therefore, the Prime Minister, some days later, spoke to our author of this “superior man,” he got for a reply, “Well, I don't think much of him. I spent the other day with him, and found him insufferably dull.” “Indeed!” said the minister, with something of horror in his tone ; " why then, I see how it is. Lord – has been positively talking to you !” Had he but altogether held his peace, it had been his wisdom.
According to La Bruyère, everything tells in favour of the man who talks but little; the presumption is that he is a superior man ; and if, in point of fact, he is not a sheer blockhead, the presumption then is that he is very superior indeed. His comparative freedom from folly is positively presumed to exist in the superlative degree. In another place the same observant philosopher describes in his best style the sort of people who, by a grand talent for silence, win golden opinions from all sorts of men; they look wise, and now and then enforce and reenforce the look by a timely shrug of the shoulders, or significant shake of the head; but the assumed depth of wisdom don't really go two inches down; scratch the surface, and you come to the bottom at once.