Did Plato say this?

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In a recent posting mostly on parts on speech, in particular the category of wise in "The wise talk because they have something to say", I quoted a book of advice for writers in which this example is attributed to Plato. I didn't pursue the attribution, but now Rochelle Edinburg, a philosophy grad student at Princeton, writes to ask about it:

… the quote in question is attributed to Plato. However, I have been searching for any hint of the original in Plato's works, and have yet to find one. Do you know where this quote originally appears? Or, for that matter, why someone would use such a poorly attributed quote in a textbook on writing style?

I haven't found anything similar in several books of quotations in English (of course, you have to guess how an Ancient Greek original might have turned up in English translation), so I've become suspicious.

I do have something of an answer to Edinburgh's question about the advice manuals: books for popular audiences standardly quote what they take to be "famous" sayings, often third-, tenth-, or hundredth-degree removals from the originals, if there are any. There's a huge tradition of folk quotation, almost entirely removed from scholarship.

I'm opening comments on this posting, for anyone who has a decent clue about where Venolia might have gotten the "Plato" wise quote. Please don't comment here on the syntax of the the + Adj construction; I'll talk about that in a later posting.


  1. Don said,

    November 2, 2008 @ 11:31 pm

    Would the "have something to say" / "have to say something" play on words even work in Greek? Or something similar?

  2. Lance said,

    November 2, 2008 @ 11:39 pm

    Google Books turns up a number of hits for variations: "Wise men talk…", "Wise men speak…", "…fools because they would like to…". They tend to show up in quote books, cryptogram books, and the occasional inspirational book.

    One very small piece of evidence favor of its legitimacy is the fact that the phrasing actually does vary. Compare that to "The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of great moral crises maintain their neutrality", widely attributed to Dante, but which oddly shows up everywhere with that exact phrasing, as if every translator happened to pick the same wording. (Of course, it's wholly wrong on three counts: the worst place in his Hell is the coldest; the hottest places are reserved for sodomites; and those who remain neutral aren't even allowed in).

    On the other hand, like the Dante quote, the Plato quote is invariably attributed just to "Plato"; no one gives a source when they quote it. Another possible indication that it's not Plato—that it wasn't written in Greek at all—is the clever caesura of "have something to say / have to say something", which works in English because of the homophony of "have" = possess and "have to" = necessity modal, but wouldn't sound nearly so clever otherwise. (Though again, it was quoted at least once as "would like to", not "have to"; it's also possible that, when translating from the Greek, people do seize on the same clever phrasing.)

    It turns out that the so-called Dante quote was attributed to Dante by JFK—perhaps something similar happened here.

  3. D. Wilson said,

    November 2, 2008 @ 11:58 pm

    In the 19th century, the opposition "have something to say" / "have to say something" was often attributed to Archbishop Richard Whately, it seems. Perhaps correctly.

  4. Alif Baa said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 12:01 am

    I am not sure about the Greek, but the play of words would work in Spanish as well, "Tienen algo que decir/tienen que decir algo." But maybe that's just a coincidence. I don't think that is the case in French.

    And on the whole it does sound like a wrongly-attributed quote to legitimize a pre-existing saying, though I am not inclined to look much deeper into the matter. Let's see what turns up, though?

  5. Stephen C. Carlson said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 12:12 am

    I think the quote is bogus. A search of Plato's writings for οἱ σοφοί ("the wise") does not yield the desired quotation. The closest I got was Euthydemus 276c: Οἱ σοφοὶ ἄρα μανθάνουσιν ἀλλ’ οὐχ οἱ ἀμαθεῖς ("So the wise learn but not the ignorant").

  6. David Schwartz said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 1:16 am

    I have always heard this attributed to Saul Bellow, a writer born in Canada in 1915. I have know idea if the attribution is accurate though.

  7. Rob Groves said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 1:38 am

    I would add to what others have said two things:

    1.) In addition to Stephen's search, I also searched for other things that might mean "the wise" in somewhat loose translation (οἱ νοῦν ἔχοντες, those having sense; οἱ σώφρονες, the prudent, etc. ) and found nothing.

    2.) I can't think of any way to make the play on words Don acknowledged work in Greek. the verb "to have" isn't used to express necessity, nor are the other ways I can think of saying "have something to say." I'm no Plato, but I certainly can't come up with a remotely aphoristic way to say this sentiment in Greek.

    Even if we can trace it back to Plato (which I'm doubting), the translator (or, more likely, original author) should be cited too for his clever play on words.

  8. Ray Girvan said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 1:41 am

    Lance > Google Books turns up a number of hits for variations

    Yep. It seems to have taken off in the current specific form in the early 1900s. The oldest examples I can find (wise fools "say something" "something to say" date:1900-1920) are in the 1903 Proverbial Wisdom: Proverbs, Maxims and Ethical Sentences, of Interest to All Classes of Men by Abram N. Coleman, and the 1908 A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors of the World, Both Ancient and Modern by Tryon Edwards. I can't hack the accursed snippet view sufficiently to verify whether the former credits it to Plato, but the latter (which is on the Internet Archive – beware humungous file size – here) does.

  9. Ray Girvan said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 1:48 am

    D. Wilson > attributed to Archbishop Richard Whately

    It's in his 1858 Elements of Rhetoric – see Google Books:

    Universally, a writer or speaker should endeavour to maintain the appearance of expressing himself, not, as if he wanted to say something, but as if he had something to say

  10. Ray Girvan said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 2:07 am

    Aha. Abram N Coleman cites it as "Anon". Looks like Tryon Edwards might be the culprit.

  11. John said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 7:23 am

    I've always thought that this comes from the Bible:

    Proverbs 17:27-28 (New International Version)

    27 A man of knowledge uses words with restraint,
    and a man of understanding is even-tempered.
    28 Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent,
    and discerning if he holds his tongue.

    Obviously, much altered, but the sense seems to be there. Of course, it may just be an old wisdom saying common to many sources, but the Bible's often a source for English folk sayings.


  12. Ray Girvan said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 9:18 am

    It's interesting that we might have a kind of joint lineage here: advice about writing via Whately's "something to say … say something" epigram cross-fertilised with the "wise … fool … Plato" embellishment. Post-Whately, the advice crops up a lot in writing guides of late 19th / early 20th century (see something-to-say "say something" writing date:1800-1950.

  13. D Jagannathan said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 11:23 am


    2.) I can't think of any way to make the play on words Don acknowledged work in Greek. the verb "to have" isn't used to express necessity, nor are the other ways I can think of saying "have something to say." I'm no Plato, but I certainly can't come up with a remotely aphoristic way to say this sentiment in Greek

    There's a simple idiom that may be responsible – ἔχειν (to have) + infinitive = be able to do X. To have something to say is to be able to say something, but the former renders the Greek ἔχειν τι λέγειν in a rather appealing way. There are some near misses in Plato, but nothing quite like the quote.

  14. S. McHale said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 3:14 pm

    Having little to say, they spent a great deal of time saying it!

  15. Jeremiah said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 5:55 pm

    Is there a name (something like 'snowclone') for this kind of pseudo-quotation? Other examples come to mind readily, e.g. "For evil to triumph it is enough only that good men do nothing", attrib. Edmund Burke.

    'Misquotation' isn't strong enough for 'quotes' which are at best paraphrases, at worst outright fabrications.

    If a term doesn't exist, does anyone fancy inventing one?

  16. Ray Girvan said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 6:50 pm

    Jeremiah > does anyone fancy inventing one?

    What about a "HillfingerQuote"? (because it's essentially a fake designer label on a quotation, akin to the labels on fake designer clothing that are given away by mistakes such as misspelling "Hilfiger").

  17. Rubrick said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 6:50 pm

    I believe Proverbs includes not just one but several variants on this theme.

  18. Faith said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 7:46 pm

    In libraries we tend to say misquotations or spurious quotations, but I agree that neither of those are especially zingy. There are a million of these things and librarians spend our days trying to debunk them, viz. http://www.monticello.org/library/reference/spurious.html and http://www.interculturalstudies.org/faq.html#quote , and here's another one from Plato: http://plato-dialogues.org/faq/faq008.htm . When I worked in Judaica I literally never had a question about a quote from the Talmud in which the quote actually came from the Talmud.

    I just searched the database Intelex Past Masters which allows you to keyword search two different translations of the dialogues of Plato. You will be shocked to hear that I did not find this phrase or anything similar to it, even when using truncation, synonyms, proximity searching, and all other tricks in the librarian's toolkit.

  19. Dan T. said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 8:48 pm

    Maybe it was Dana Plato (Kimberly on Diff'rent Strokes) who said it?

  20. JimG said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 8:51 pm

    There's no Plato citation at
    but the idea seems to have been bandied by a number of people, particularly Tom Lehrer and Robert Frost

  21. Ray Girvan said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 10:52 pm

    Faith > There are a million of these things and librarians spend our days trying to debunk them

    This really opens a can of worms; I hadn't realised the sheer extent. Quite by coincidence, my wife just asked me about a Gandhi quotation she'd heard, and which I've seen in a few variants:

    First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

    Guess what? Google Books and News find frequent citations post 2002, but it fizzles as you track back beyond early 1990s. Unless they mysteriously unearthed it from a lost document at that time, looks dubious.

  22. Maire Smith said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 3:27 am

    This is a common problem.

    There's a great 'John Ruskin' quote, that may or may not be by Ruskin. I've been looking for a source for over a year now and haven't found a thing: "Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent effort."

  23. JosC said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 4:39 am

    Maybe we should just be happy if they spell Gandhi correctly.

  24. Ray Girvan said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 10:09 am

    Maire Smith > "Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent effort."
    You've probably come to the same conclusion, but a search on this suggests it first appeared around 1939. In close variants (e.g. "quality is never an accident, but is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skillful execution") it's quoted a lot in US industrial/technical publications in the 1940s.

    Re the alleged Gandhi quote: the earliest modern quote is 1993, Columbia Dictionary of Quotations citing a variant –

    "First they ignore you, then they say you're mad, then dangerous, then there's a pause and then you can't find anyone who disagrees with you"

    – to the Labour politician Tony Benn. Many assume him to be paraphrasing Gandhi, but there's a single much older citation, not to Gandhi but a 1914 address given to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.

    And, my friends, in this story you have a history of this entire movement. First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you. And that, is what is going to happen to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.

  25. Alex B said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 11:45 am

    I'd propose migrant quotes, as they migrate from one attribution to another

  26. Ray Girvan said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 1:11 pm

    > migrant quotes

    That's good, but on further thought, I've definitely settled on Hillfingers, on grounds of preferring a somewhat eccentric term in the same register as "mountweazel" and "mondegreen".

  27. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 5:54 pm

    Faith: Have you looked for "the Plato quote" or something like it in the Talmud?

  28. Ray Girvan said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 10:27 pm

    Andy Hollandbeck > Have you looked for "the Plato quote" or something like it in the Talmud?

    "If silence be good for the wise, how much better for fools"

    Not, after this discussion, that I remotely believe this comes from the Talmud. But it's pretty recurrent advice; the Elder Edda – Words of the High One – also advises that fools should STFU. And not get drunk. Which I can't cite at this instant because of not following its advice (my night out).

  29. Steve said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 8:16 am

    Incidental: there's a line (569) in Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannos where Creon says (my paraphrase): 'Where I lack insight, I prefer to stay silent.'

  30. Arnold Zwicky said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 11:28 am

    Predictably, I suppose, the search for the original of the quotation has turned into a search for earlier expressions of the idea embodied in the quotation. Since few ideas are entirely original, that will lead us back into the mists of time and in many different directions. The question about the quotation is not about the idea, but about this formulation (or something very close to this formulation) of the idea.

    (I've posted about this distinction several times, in connection with the history of snowclones — for instance, here.)

  31. Rochelle Edinburg said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 6:08 pm

    Prof. Zwicky, thank you for the follow-up on my email! It's quite an honor to be mentioned on the Language Log.

    I am still hopeful that someone out there can find the original source of this `quote'. One suggestion I got while asking around was that an attribution to Plato might be a mistaken assumption by someone who saw a quote originally attributed to Socrates, and had just enough familiarity with ancient philosophy to know that Socrates did not write anything. Thus, the source might perhaps be in Xenophon's dialogues. Does anyone have a way to check out that possibility?

    [PS: Edinburg, no H, please.]

  32. Arnold Zwicky said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 6:44 pm

    My apologies to Rochelle Edinburg, for having turned her family name into the name of the Scottish capital. It was an automatic thing of the fingers (well, the mind).

    Now fixed.

  33. John Baker said,

    November 6, 2008 @ 5:27 pm

    The earliest attribution to Plato that I see on Google Books is in Tryon Edwards, A Dictionary of Thoughts (1908); this may be the source of the subsequent attributions. Here is the fuller version given by Edwards:

    "Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they would like to say something.

    As empty vessels make the loudest sound, so they that have least wit are the greatest babblers.–Plato."

    I believe that Edwards may have intended only the second of these paragraphs to be attributed to Plato, but later readers conflated the two quotations into one and supposed them to be both from Plato. Perhaps someone else can determine whether the "empty vessels" quotation is really from Plato; the attribution to him predates Edwards.

    An earlier version of the "something to say" quotation is in A.N. Coleman, Proverbial Wisdom (3d ed. 1903), where it is given in the same form as in Edwards (without the "empty vessels" quote) but attributed to "Anon." The quotation is not in the 1897 edition of this work.

    The contrast of "something to say" and "say something" predates Richard Whately, who used it in his work on rhetoric (1828, according to Wikipedia; later editions are on Google Books). From volume XXIII of the Quarterly Review (1820):

    "[I]t is no slight recommendation to the greater part of his readers, and we may add, to his reviewers, that he seems altogether exempt from the ambition of making a book, and conveys his information briefly and plainly, with the air of a man who writes, not because he wants to say something, but because he has something to say."

  34. vaardvark said,

    November 10, 2008 @ 5:04 am

    If a term doesn't exist, does anyone fancy inventing one?


  35. Jon Clarke said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 5:15 pm

    David Thomas in his "The Homilist" (published by W. Kent & Co. in 1866) said (on page 226) attributed the "empty vessel" quote to Plato, but (like many others subsequently) failed to identify the source.

    That is the earliest reference that I can find (from Google Books) of an attribution to Plato.

    The earliest use that I can find is this:

    "I have always observed that your empty vessels sound loudest"
    Jonathan Swift in "A tritical essay upon the faculties of the mind"
    Published in "The Works" in 1803 by J. Johnson. (See page 270).

    15 years later comes this:
    "Empty vessels make the greatest sound.
    The Scripture saith, A fool's voice is known by multitude of words. None more apt to boast than those who have least real worth ; least whereof justly to boast. The deepest streams flow with least noise."
    Page 71 of "A compleat collection of English proverbs of the Scotch, Italian, French, Spanish and other languages" by John Ray, published in 1818

    Consider the following passage:
    " Empty vessels make always the loudest sound; the less virtue, the greater report. Deep rivers pass away in silence ; profound knowledge says little ; but what a murmur and bubbling, yea, sometimes what a roaring, do they make in the shallows ! The full vessel gives you a soft answer, but sound liquor. Samson slew a lion, but he made no words of it: the greatest talkers are the least doers. As when a rabbi, little learned, and less modest, usurped all the discourse at table; one much admiring him, asked his friend in private, whether he did not take such a man for a great scholar: to whom he plainly answered, Fог aught I know he may be learned, but I never heard learning make such a noise. Religion is much heard of in our words, but it is little seen in our works. We have busy tongues, but lazy hands; and this argues but vain hearts ; we may be still empty vessels. By their unseasonable noise, men are known for empty vessels."
    Page 843 of "An Exposition Upon the Second Epistle General of St. Peter" by Thomas Adams and James Sherman, published by Henry G. Bohn in 1848.

  36. Sean said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 7:17 pm

    Great work, everyone! I was interested in the source of this quotation because I had hear it attributed to Plato but it just didn't 'sound' like him. I found this site by searching on google, and appreciate everyone who took the time to enlighten me on this subject.

  37. Mark Liberman said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 7:35 pm

    No discussion of this sort should be without a reference to Robert K. Merton's On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript, which traces the saying "If I have seen farther, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants" (often attributed to Newton) through hundreds of years and pages to its source(s).

    This work is one of those (like LOTR and HGTTG) to have its own widely-used acronym, OTSOG, as in Steven Jay Gould's essay "Polished Pebbles, Pretty Shells: An Appreciation of OTSOG".

  38. Jon Clarke said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 8:24 am

    According to Wikipedia's Wikiquote, there is a Kashmiri proverb "ژھرے مچِ چھء ؤزان " ("Tchaerrye maeccye tchye wazaan") which translates as "Empty vessels make much noise".
    See http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Kashmiri_proverbs#T
    No indication is given of the age of the proverb.

  39. Jon Clarke said,

    January 30, 2014 @ 4:44 pm

    In Shakespeare's Henry V, the character called "Boy" ends a scene with an aside about Pistol (a pompous and bombastic character) which begins as follows:
    "I did never know so full a voice issue from so empty a heart: but the saying is true 'The empty vessel makes the greatest sound.' "
    Shakespeare Henry V, Act IV, scene 4, line 72 (c. 1599)

  40. Jon Clarke said,

    March 22, 2014 @ 12:24 pm

    Perhaps I should have started with the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, but better late than never …

    John Lydgate
    Pilgrimage of Man l. 15933
    A voyde vessel‥maketh outward a gret soun, Mor than‥what yt was ful.

    William Baldwin
    Treatise of Moral Philosophy iv. Q4
    As emptye vesselles make the lowdest sounde: so they that haue least wyt, are the greatest babblers.

    [Shakespeare, Henry V, already quoted above]

    Swift Essay on Faculties of Mind I. 249
    "Empty Vessels sound loudest." [more fully quoted above]

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