Learning a Proverb from a Pagan

Angelico Silence
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Earlier this semester in Exploring Religion, we discussed Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods, and one paragraph particularly struck me as an apt illustration of Qoheleth’s advice that עת לחשות ועת לדבר (Eccl 3:7b; there is a time to be silent, and there is a time to speak):

When Cotta had spoken, Velleius said, ‘It was indeed rash of me to attempt to argue with someone who is both an academician and an orator. I would have no fear of an academician who had no gift of words or of an orator however eloquent who was not a good academic philosopher. I am not put out by a stream of empty words, or by subtle propositions quite devoid of eloquence. But you, Cotta, are  a champion on both counts. You only lacked an audience and a jury. But more of this another time. Let us now hear Lucilius, if he will favor us with his views. (123; underlining added)

Roughly the first half of bk. 1 is Velleius’s argument for the Epicurean position, and the second half is Cotta’s Academic rebuttal. At the beginning of bk. 2, therefore, Velleius could well have stood to attempt to refute Cotta’s initial rebuttal. Yet, he defers this attempt to “another time” and passes the discussion to Lucilius Balbus, the Stoic, who will also do the Epicurean position no particular favors in the body of bk. 2.

This action serves Cicero’s larger purpose of transitioning into a discussion of the Stoic position. Yet, how he does so—namely, Velleius’s reservedness toward Cotta and his yielding the floor to Balbus—suggests, perhaps, an interesting perspective for applying Eccl 3:7b not simply to situations where speaking in general might be out of place but also to situations in which one’s own speech might be out of place (e.g., because of its preceding quantity; cf. Prov 10:19) but another’s speech might not be so.

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