Ἀμαθέστερον πως εἰπὲ καὶ σαφέστερον

Erasmus Adage 39. Erasmus’ concluding paragraph reminded me of a very good book I read several years ago – Philosophy Between The Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing.

Among the Greeks is a proverb certainly less elegant but nevertheless just as effective: ‘Speak with less learning and with more clarity’ (Ἀμαθέστερον καὶ σαφέστερον εἰπέ), which is found in the same Aulus Gellius: “You know, I believe, that old and widespread phrase, ‘Speak with less learning and with more clarity,’ that is speak with less learning and more simplicity, do it more openly and clearly. It appears this is taken from a comedy of Aristophanes titled The Frogs:

Ἀμαθέστερον πως εἰπὲ καὶ σαφέστερον
Speak with less learning and with more clarity

In that play Bacchus is assessing an obscure statement of Euripides’, which he had set forth with insufficient lucidity. Suidas and the scholiast call attention to a proverb hidden there, which is reported in this way:

Σαφέστερόν μοι κἀμαθέστερον φράσον
Tell me more clearly and less learnedly

I suspect it is taken hence – that in antiquity those sages (σοφοί), as they call them, were accustomed to hide in wrappings of enigmas the mysteries of their wisdom, doubtlessly so that the generality, profane and not yet initiated to the rites of philosophy, not be able to follow them. And even today some professors of philosophy and theology, when they treat of things that some mere woman or workman might say, in order that they might seem learned, enfold and roll up the matter in subtleties (lit. thorns) and worded burdens. So Plato darkened his own philosophy with his talk of numbers. So Aristotle rendered many things much darker through mathematical analogies.



Inelegantius quidem est illud apud Graecos, sed idem tamen pollet: Ἀμαθέστερον καὶ σαφέστερον εἰπέ, quod apud eundem refertur Gellium. Nosti enim, inquit, credo, verbum illud vetus et peruulgatum, Ἀμαθέστερον εἰπὲ καὶ σαφέστερον, id est Indoctius rudiusque quodammodo loquere et apertius ac clarius fare. Sumptum apparet ex Aristophanis comoedia, cui titulus Βάτραχοι, id est Ranae:

Ἀμαθέστερον πως εἰπὲ καὶ σαφέστερον, id est
Indoctius proloquitor atque clarius.

Quo carmine Bacchus Euripidis obscuritatem taxat, qui nescio quid parum dilucide proposuerat. Suidas et interpres admonent subesse prouerbium, quod hunc ad modum feratur:

Σαφέστερόν μοι κἀμαθέστερον φράσον, id est
Apertius mihi loquere atque indoctius.

Suspicor inde sumptum, quod antiquitus illi σοφοί, quos vocant, soleant mysteria sapientiae quibusdam aenigmatum inuolucris data opera obtegere, videlicet ne prophana turba ac nondum philosophiae sacris initiata posset assequi•. [C] Quin et hodie nonnulli philosophiae ac theologiae professores, cum ea quandoque tradant, quae quaeuis muliercula aut cerdo dicturus sit, tamen quo docti videantur, rem spinis quibusdam ac verborum portentis implicant et inuoluunt. Sic Plato numeris suis obscurauit suam philosophiam. Sic Aristoteles multa mathematicis collationibus reddidit obscuriora.

The line from Frogs is 1455, part of an extended exchange where Dionysus, deciding between Aeschylus or Euripides to take back up to Athens, has them both provide advice on how to fix the city. A running theme here is, as phrased in 1434 (ὁ μὲν σοφῶς γὰρ εἶπεν, ὁ δ᾿ ἕτερος σαφῶς), the distinction between the one speaking clearly (σαφῶς) and and the other wisely (σοφῶς). The ordering of the text and assignment of lines in this passage is much contested but the immediate trigger for the proverb is Euripides advising:

ΕΥΡΙΠΙΔΗΣ
ὅταν τὰ νῦν ἄπιστα πίσθ᾿ ἡγώμεθα,τὰ δ᾿ ὄντα πίστ᾿ ἄπιστα—

ΔΙΟΝΥΣΟΣ
πῶς; οὐ μανθάνω.
ἀμαθέστερόν πως εἰπὲ καὶ σαφέστερον

Euripides
When we put our trust in what’s untrusted, and what’s trustworthy is untrusted—

Dionysus
How’s that? I don’t follow. Try to speak somewhat less cleverly and more clearly.