Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
The Burden of Much Talking
By Joseph Butler (16921752)
From Sermon On the Government of the Tongue
THE WISE MAN observes, that there is a time to speak and a time to keep silence. One meets with people in the world, who seem never to have made the last of these observations. And yet these great talkers do not at all speak from their having anything to say, as every sentence shows, but only from their inclination to be talking. Their conversation is merely an exercise of the tongue: no other human faculty has any share in it. It is strange these persons can help reflecting, that unless they have in truth a superior capacity, and are in an extraordinary manner furnished for conversation; if they are entertaining, it is at their own expense. Is it possible, that it should never come into peoples thoughts to suspect, whether or no it be to their advantage to show so very much of themselves? Oh that you would altogether hold your peace, and it should be your wisdom. Remember likewise there are persons who love fewer words, an inoffensive sort of people, and who deserve some regard, though of too still and composed tempers for you. Of this number was the son of Sirach: for he plainly speaks from experience, when he says, As hills of sands are to the steps of the aged, so is one of many words to a quiet man. But one would think it should be obvious to every one, that when they are in company with their superiors of any kind, in years, knowledge, and experience, when proper and useful subjects are discoursed of, which they cannot bear a part in; that these are times for silence: when they should learn to hear, and be attentive; at least in their turn. It is indeed a very unhappy way these people are in: they in a manner cut themselves out from all advantage of conversation, except that of being entertained with their own talk: their business in coming into company not being at all to be informed, to hear, to learn; but to display themselves; or rather to exert their faculty, and talk without any design at all. And if we consider conversation as an entertainment, as somewhat to unbend the mind: as a diversion from the cares, the business, and the sorrows of life; it is of the very nature of it, that the discourse be mutual. This I say, is implied in the very notion of what we distinguish by conversation, or being in company. Attention to the continued discourse of one alone grows more painful often, than the cares and business we come to be diverted from. He therefore who imposes this upon us is guilty of a double offence; arbitrarily enjoining silence upon all the rest, and likewise obliging them to this painful attention.