Secluded Bodies, Wandering Tongues

An edifying and unintentionally humorous story emerges from a letter written by St. Jerome in A.D. 405.  It is epistle 117, which was addressed to a quarreling mother and daughter residing in Gaul (Ad matrem et filiam in Gallia commorantes).

Jerome supplies us the background details in a remarkably candid preamble.  A man from Gaul visited him (presumably in Jerusalem, where Jerome was then residing) and sought the old man’s advice on a family problem.  The Gaul’s (presumably) virginal sister had had a bad falling out with her mother, and the two women had taken up separate residences in the same town.  They were no longer on speaking terms; the brother had tried, and failed, to reconcile them with each other.  More alarmingly, each had begun cohabiting with male clerics; this evidently scandalous behavior was bringing both of them, as well as the unfortunate brother, into local disrepute.  As the distressed man conveyed the facts of the case, poor Jerome—doubtless with many more important things to do—listened patiently.  We nod and smile as he tactfully writes,

I winced at hearing this tale of woe, and revealed far more by keeping quiet than by speaking.

[Cumque ego ingemescerem, et multo plura tacendo quam loquendo significarem].

The Gaul finally asked Jerome to intervene on his behalf.  If he, Jerome, would use the weight of his authority to reprimand both the sister and mother in a letter, then perhaps they would come to their senses and restore their domestic felicity.  But Jerome was no fool; he was just as canny in the ways of the world as he was erudite with the scholar’s pen.  So he inhaled deeply and told the dejected Gaul, “This is a fine job that you are placing before me, sir.  You expect me, a stranger, to succeed in a task that both a brother and a son have failed in.  You act as if I were some sort of bishop, wrapped with robes of authority.  I am not.  By choice I live in this small cell far from others, reflecting on my past sins while trying to avoid present ones.” 

“St. Jerome Writing,” by Caravaggio [PD: US]

At that time Jerome—who, we should note, is the patron saint of translators and encyclopedists—was engaged with his small staff of consultants and scribes in the monumental task of translating the Bible into Latin.  He told the Gaul this:  

It is not consistent to seclude the body, and to permit the tongue to wander the earth.

[Sed et incongruum est latere corpore et lingua per orbem vagari].   

What Jerome meant, of course, was that a man should not volunteer to speak of things outside his range of knowledge and experience.  The Gaul then responded to old Jerome’s protestations:  “I think you are too fearful, sir.  Is this the stern Jerome we have heard so much about, the man who always spoke out to defend what is right?”  But Jerome refused to be baited by appeals to his pride.  He had been in this situation before; he had learned through hard experience that opening his mouth, and offering his counsel, almost always led to tempestuous outcomes.  His past attempts to mediate or repair quarrels had too often ended in recriminations and finger-pointing for him to be enthusiastic about the Gaul’s request.

“It is just this,” Jerome said, “that makes me avoid this situation, and doesn’t allow me to open my mouth.  After trying to speak out so much against crime, I myself have been made out to be a criminal.  I’ve learned from bitter experience to hold my tongue, and this is what I intend to do.” 

“St. Jerome in the Desert,” by Bellini [PD: US]

But the Gaul persisted.  “Please, father, do not let me have made this long trip [i.e., from Gaul to Palestine] in vain.  All I am asking you to do is speak in general truths.  I am not asking for a specific sermon accusingly directed at my sister and mother.”  Jerome sighed at this, and resigned himself to the inevitable.  He knew that as a leader and a man of authority, he was bound to certain inescapable duties that could only be endured, and never completely avoided.  So he told the Gaul, “Very well, sir.  I will do what you ask.  I will equip you with a letter to carry across the sea.  I caution you to preserve its confidentiality.  If your sister and mother listen to it, we will both rejoice.  But if they reject my advice—which I believe will be the case—then both my words, and your trip here, have been to no avail.” 

Jerome then proceeded to the text of his letter, an artfully written wellspring of advice directed to both the Gaul’s sister and mother.  We need not linger on the specifics of the advice, as it takes us down roads tangential to our present subject.  What I find so appealing about this anecdote is how closely it matches my own experiences as a practicing lawyer.  Numerous ordeals have taught me to tread very carefully when asked to render an opinion or suggestion in response to a family problem.  In these situations, I have found these principles to be both operative and timeless: 

  1.  When someone asks for advice about a family or personal problem, they are usually not looking for independent solutions to the problem, but instead are seeking psychological confirmation of a decision already made.
  2. Any advice the attorney offers will usually be used as a weapon against him at some point.
  3. The disputing parties will eventually reconcile, and will use the attorney as the sacrificial offering upon which peace is made.  In other words, the attorney will be blamed and vilified by all parties. 
  4. If you are pressed for advice, it is better to ask pointed, relevant questions, instead of making declaratory, judgmental statements.  This permits the person to arrive at his own conclusions.    

It is not my intention here to sound cynical or jaded; far from it.  I very much enjoy helping people resolve problems and believe I have talents as a listener and counselor.  But when dealing with human emotions and behaviors, we must understand that certain dynamics are, and will always be, unavoidably present.  And this is why Jerome’s way of handling the Gaul’s situation was so wise and canny.  He knew that his advice would fall on deaf ears; but he understood that, as a leader and man of authority, he could not send the man away empty-handed. 

I have no doubt that the Gaul’s sister and mother could not have cared less about Jerome’s advice.  I am also sure that this Gaulish family discovered—or had already discovered—some accommodation among themselves that resolved their problems.  In fact, I doubt very much that the petitioning Gaul himself really cared what Jerome had to say:  he had come to Jerusalem to see the sites of the holy city, to see the great man in the flesh, to put his own mind at ease, and to seek reinforcement for decisions he had already made.   

So replied the wise Jerome.  A much less judicious type of response can be found in the example of the philosopher Democritus.  This anecdote is found in the writings collected under the name Pseudo-Hippocrates, an anonymous writer whose works are generally included in the Hippocratic corpus.  One day, we are told, Hippocrates approached Democritus, who was writing in his study.  “What is it that you are working on?” Hippocrates asked.  “I am writing about madness,” was the reply.  “But what specifically about madness are you studying?”  Hippocrates persisted.  “I am trying to find out what causes it in humans,” Democritus said.  “I would like to know what imbalances of the humors cause it, and how it may be cured.”  Hippocrates then said, “You are speaking honestly and correctly.  I consider you to be happy, since you have such peace while doing your work.  But this kind of tranquility has not been granted to me.”  Democritus, looking up from his work, said, “Why has it not been granted to you?”  Hippocrates said, “Because I am oppressed by worries and concerns about many things:  children, household, marriage, loans, illness, servants, and many other things weigh on me, and oppress me.”

“St. Jerome in His Study,” by Antonello da Messina [PD: US]

The morose Hippocrates was probably expecting a sympathetic and nurturing response.  But he had forgotten that Democritus was called the Laughing Philosopher for good reason.  For the atomist of Abdera suddenly burst into peals of laughter in his guest’s face; Hippocrates took great offense at this, thinking that Democritus was mocking him.  He demanded an explanation from his host.  Democritus, calming himself down, looked at him and said, “I am laughing at only one thing, and that is the nature of man.  Man is foolish, full of frivolity, and wastes his energies in so many useless things.  He labors away, and gains no benefits; he travels the globe and learns nothing; he tries to satisfy desires that are unquenchable; and he is animated by futile greedy pursuits.  This is what I am laughing at.”[1] 

Democritus may have been correct in his assessments, but his stinging response to Hippocrates certainly did not win him a friend.  Perhaps there was a reason why Democritus founded no school of his own, and was neither recognized nor acknowledged when he visited Athens.  Another anecdote, from Plutarch’s Table Talk (I.10 628C-D), also exposes one of Democritus’s blind spots.  Once the philosopher was eating a cucumber, and noticed that it was very sweet.  He asked his maid where it came from, and she pointed to a garden beside his house.  Democritus rose from the table to investigate further.  But his maid told him he should sit down, because she had accidentally put the cucumbers in a jar that had contained honey; this, she said, was the explanation.  Democritus did not believe her.  He ignored her statement, saying “You are trying to fool me.  I will continue to look for the cause of their sweetness.”    

The Pythagoreans believed that some men are simply more favored by fortune than other men:  they instinctively know what is better and what is worse, and always manage to find their way.  Even if they act without reflecting or consideration beforehand, they are usually successful; while others who do reflect and plan beforehand may be unsuccessful. 

This kind of innate good fortune, the Pythagoreans believed, extended also to character.  Some men develop in such a way that they have a good nature and do things correctly, while others have a bad nature and always seem to be in conflict.  They never seem to reach their goals, and this is because they lack the inherent gift of good fortune.  This, in any case, is what the Pythagoreans believed.  Only the passage of time may separate the fortunate from the unfortunate.  Until elapsing time exposes the verdicts of Fortune, it may be well to remember Jerome’s comment to the unhappy Gaul, and to preserve our bodies and our tongues in a state of felicitous congruence.          

[1] This story is found in A. Laks & G. Most, Early Greek Philosophy, vol. VII., p. 51.   



Read more on related subjects in the collection of essays from 2016 to early 2020, Digest:

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