Minerva and The Owl

Minerva begged her Owl to speak wisely. The Owl demurred but on threat admitted that with world being so depraved it was better to hold his tongue.

If you have nothing nice to say then don’t say anything.

JBR CollectionJBR Collection

“My most solemn and wise bird,” said Minerva one day to her Owl, “having hitherto admired you for your profound taciturnity, I have now a mind, for variety, to have you display your parts in discourse; for silence is only admirable in one who can, when he pleases, triumph by his eloquence, and charm with graceful conversation.” The 0wl replied by solemn grimaces, and made dumb signs. Minerva bid him lay aside that affectation, and begin; but he only shook his wise head and remained silent. Whereupon Minerva, provoked with this mimicry of wisdom, commanded him to speak immediately, on pain of her displeasure; when the 0wl, seeing no remedy, draws up close to Minerva, and whispers very softly in her ear this sage remark: That since the world was grown so depraved, they ought to be esteemed most wise who had eyes to see and wit to hold their tongues.


[Note: The Northcote fable is the same fable as in the JBR Collection above. Only the illustrations and Application associated with the fable in the Northcote book are displayed here.]


That the Owl speaks like a politician cannot be denied; for those who too publicly criticise the conduct of their neighbours will be sure to get their hatred. All men revenge themselves of an evil-speaker by speaking against him; and as those are rather numerous of whom he will find occasion to speak ill, he will be soon overwhelmed by the numbers who assail him. Detractors are universally hated, and if sometimes great men converse with them, it is more out of pleasure to hear their satire, than for any esteem they have of them.

The proverb says, A busy tongue makes the mind repent at leisure; and that silence is a gift without peril, and a treasure without enemies.

It has been observed, that in the ordinary conversation of the world, those who speak are not serious enough, and those that hear are too serious. Therefore what we may consider as only idle talk when we speak, may be received by our hearers as of serious importance. Words are like arrows, and should, not be shot at random.

JN Fable 046

Sketch: James Northcote; Wood drawing: William Harvey; Engraving: G.W. Bonner (1828)

JN Fable 046a

Wood drawing: William Harvey; Engraving: T. Williams (1828)