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Wisdom of the Sages

Hippolytus, from the Greek tragedy of the same name, tries to squirm out of an
inconvenient oath by declaring "Twas but my tongue; 'twas not my soul that swore."

Greek playwright Euripides wrote that line in 428 B.C. but it still has the same relevance
today for many people whose words or actions get too far ahead of their thoughts.  

Bryan W. Van Norden, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Vassar College in
Poughkeepsie, NY, says Eastern and Western ethical traditions condemn careless
speech.  We can all learn much from the world's major religious traditions, regardless of
our own religious beliefs (or lack thereof).

Confucius warned his disciples against casual or glib speech. One Confucian saying:  
"A team of horses cannot overtake your tongue."  The ancient Confucian Mengzi said
he could tell what someone's heart was like from what that person said.
Buddha devotes plenty of thought to correct speech as well.  One of the headings of
Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path is "right speech," which means abstaining from lying,
harsh speech, slander and gossip.
Gen Kelsang Mondrub, resident teacher at the Rameshori Buddhist Center and World
Peace Café in Sandy Springs, GA says Buddhists believe people can harm their
reputation with a few reckless words.  Wrong speech can boomerang on the speaker.  
Mondrub says "We believe there are repercussions from our actions that can create far
worse problems for ourselves... in ways we cannot yet see."
The prophet Muhammad once said that a loose tongue could keep people out of
paradise, says Plemon El-Amin, Imam of the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam in Atlanta.  
El-Amin says Islam teaches that people should only say what is best and otherwise
remain silent.
Christianity also has plenty to say about evil speech.  Archbishop Wilton Gregory of
Atlanta's Roman Catholic Church pointed to the New Testament letter of St. James.   
He wrote that man had tamed all sorts of animals, "but no man can tame the tongue."
Rabbi Hillel Norry of Congregation Shearith Israel says evil speech is a major concern
of Judaism.  The Talmud declares that life and death are in the hands of your speech,
he says.  Rabbi Norry says evil speech is taken so seriously because it is irreversible.  
To illustrate, he tells a famous Chasidic story....   

A man goes to a rabbi and asks what he can do to atone for the sin of spreading
gossip.  The rabbi tells the man to meet him atop the hill at the edge of town the
following day, and to bring with him a feathered pillow.

The man does not understand, but does what he is told.  The following day, he
presents the pillow to the rabbi who then tears it open and shakes the feathers out.  
The wind scatters the feathers all around town.

"Now I want you to collect all the feathers" the rabbi tells the startled man. Of course,
the man is unable to do this.  "Gossip" said the rabbi, "is like the scattered feathers.  
Once you say it, you cannot take it back."
Perhaps the best advice on this topic was given by the ancient Greek poet, Agathon,
who warned that even G-d cannot undo the past.

Credit for this entire page:  The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Faith & Values section - Dec. 2, 2006
Enlighten America
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