Saturday, June 16, 2007

Butler on Talkers

Today the Anglicans remember the incomparable Joseph Butler, that unmatched summit of early modern moral philosophy. This is certainly a day for a student of early modern philosophy to celebrate. So I'll do so by putting up a string of quotations by Butler.

The wise man observes, that "there is 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 any thing 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 people's thoughts to suspect whether or no it be to their advantage, to show so very much of themselves? "O that you hold your peace, and it should be you wisdom." Remember likewise, there are persons who love fewer words, an inoffensive sort of people, who deserve some regard, though of too still and composed tempers for you.

from Fifteen Sermons, Sermon IV. At some point, probably in the nineteenth century when students were forced to read Butler for examinations, he acquired the reputation of being very abstract, dry, and humorless; but he does have a wit and humor, admittedly sometimes subtle, that pervade his writings.

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