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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

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

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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