Sometimes It’s Best To Express Your Wisdom in Silence

The story of Apelles and the presumptuous shoemaker has been passed down through the centuries for our reflection and edification. It is a tale worth telling today.

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Apelles is considered one of the greatest painters of the ancient world, though none of his works have survived the ages so we can see them with our own eyes. But in his day, his reputation was well-established and he was known for his hard work, his obsession with detail, and his exquisite art. One of his phrases has survived him: ”nulla dies sine linea”, or “no day without its line.” So committed was he to his craft that he would not consider any day complete until he had done something to improve his skill.

The Roman author Pliny the Elder tells us that as part of Apelles’ endless pursuit of perfection, he would display his finished paintings on a balcony, then hide himself so he could hear the comments of those who passed by. He believed their critiques might point out flaws he had missed and in that way generate valuable suggestions for improvement. On one occasion he displayed a painting and listened quietly while a shoemaker pointed out a flaw with a sandal on the foot of one of the subjects—the sandal had one loop too few. Apelles immediately corrected the flaw and displayed the painting again.

The next day the same shoemaker passed by and noticed that the flawed sandal had been fixed. Pleased with himself, he then elevated his gaze and began to offer some critique of the subject’s leg. And here Apelles burst out of his hiding spot and remarked, “Ne sutor ultra crepidam!” or “Shoemaker, don’t go beyond the shoe!”

The words “ultra crepidam” have been combined and anglicized, then passed to us in the term “ultracrepidarian.” An ultracrepidarian is someone who goes “beyond the shoe.” He is “one who is presumptuous and offers advice or opinions beyond his sphere of knowledge.” Or “someone who has no special knowledge of a subject but who expresses an opinion about it.” Apelles’ concern was that the shoemaker should stick with his area of expertise and not presume to be an expert on everything. A little success in one area did not give him the right to speak to any or every other area.

The Bible has a number of proverbs that sound a similar note. Proverbs 18:2, for example, says “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” Similarly, Proverbs 13:16 tells us that “Every prudent man acts with knowledge, but a fool flaunts his folly.” We might turn to Ecclesiastes as well to learn that “Even when the fool walks on the road, he lacks sense, and he says to everyone that he is a fool” (10:3).

The shoemaker proved himself a fool, for he spoke boldly about a subject for which he had no expertise. He flaunted his folly by speaking authoritatively when he had no real authority. He spoke beyond the shoe. But at least only a few people heard him. Though the people gathered around Apelles’ balcony would have heard the artist’s rebuke and witnessed the shoemaker’s shame, it would have gone no further.

But that was then and this is now. In today’s social media world we love the fact that those with authority can speak in such a way that their wise words cross the globe in an instant. They can make their wisdom known for all the world to hear. But every new technology brings with it both benefits and drawbacks, both good and evil. Just as those with true authority can express their wisdom for all the world to hear, so those with no authority can express their folly for all the world to hear. And so often they do. Modern digital technologies enable and even provoke the ultracrepidarians among us to speak far too boldly, far too widely, and far too ignorantly.

We would all do well to remember that true wisdom is not only knowing your subject well, but also knowing the limitations of your knowledge. We aren’t wise until we know what we know and what we don’t know. Wisdom is often better expressed in silence than words. For as wise old Solomon reminds us, “Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise; When he closes his lips, he is considered prudent” (Proverbs 17:28).