I teach once every few weeks for an hour or two to a group of youngsters (ca. age ten). The lesson is provided to me, so it is pretty much cookbook, and is mostly about little activities and anecdotes, although certain sections are experiential or conversational. This next lesson seems especially applicable tomorrow. It begins with this quotation:

Nature has given [people] one tongue but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak. — Epictetus, the Greek Stoic philosopher

I don't plan to lecture much tomorrow, but in order to better understand this lesson, I'd like to know more about what philosophical grounding this statement has, especially as told by Epictetus, about whom I know little.

My specific questions: Was this meant to be taken literally as a morphological justification? Is the proportion meant to be exact? Am I completely missing the point with questions like this?

3 Answers 3


The answer to your three questions are: 1) No,it was not meant to be taken literally. 2) No, the proportion is not meant to be exact(2:1). 3)Yes, you are missing the point slightly. My summary/interpretation of Epictetus quote is, one should spend more time listening than speaking.


Since you asked about the context, I think there's a very important point about Epictetus: "No writings of Epictetus himself are really known."

So, how do we know of this particular saying? It appears in a work simply known as "Fragments" of "Fragments of Epictetus." So, we don't have a full explanation of the context.

We can guess though from Epictetus's position as a stoic that it comes from a position of focusing on one's self and what one can control instead of working to impress others by one's words.


Your question is: "What is the context of the quote, 'one tongue, two ears'?" The context is The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, probably about the middle of the first century A.D. The citation is from the Harvard Classics (Vol.2, p. 183, quote 6): "Nature hath given men one tongue but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak." Funny thing, this is one of the quotes gracing the Baptist Church Homeschool workroom (the place, here, where we get our class work done). How many times have I looked up from my studies and read this citation from Epictetus. The meaning is, "Better to be a listener than a speaker." This was the general rule in Puritan America and Victorian England (at least the rule for children and young adults). If you are teaching in a homeschool environment, better to stay within the rules of that tradition than to go outside the bounds and invite unwanted influences in.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.