Peter Jones

The importance of gossip (according to the ancients)

The importance of gossip (according to the ancients)
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Gossip appears to be good for the mental health. That should make the females of the ancient world some of the healthiest people around.

Not that men did not gossip. The essayist Plutarch (c. ad 100) wrote disapprovingly of the ‘adulteries, seductions, family quarrels and lawsuits’ they loved to hear about (barbers’ shops were especial hotbeds of gossip); but his big gripe was that they were such bores. He described one droning on to Aristotle, and indulgently adding how amazing his stories were. Aristotle replied: ‘What is amazing is that anyone with feet puts up with you.’ Another crasher, after a long rigmarole, said: ‘I’ve bored you, philosopher.’ Aristotle replied: ‘Certainly not! I wasn’t paying attention.’

But it was women who, in male eyes, were the real gossips (as the women in Aristophanes’s comedies regularly confirm). The poet Semonides (c. 625 bc) stereotyped one sort of woman as a dog that ‘hears everything, wants to know everything and can never stop yapping’. Aristotle even suggested tyrants employ female ‘eavesdroppers’ to attend large gatherings (as Hiero, tyrant of Syracuse, did), picking up the rumours and spreading disinformation.

But from another angle, was there an element of social control behind such gossip? To be ‘good’ in the Greek world depended on the judgment of others. Your personal conscience was irrelevant; what was said about you was what counted. So the orator Demosthenes could say: ‘The prospect of shame at what has been done is the greatest constraint upon free men’; he could just as well have said ‘the prospect of praise is the greatest stimulus’. The point is that every Athenian woman had a proud reputation to maintain, and it was up to her to ensure that other women would not besmirch it. Gossip, then, was one way of women controlling female behaviour by means of praise and shame. No surprise that, in his Republic, Plato proposed women should regulate family and sexual affairs.

However, it was not gossip that ancients saw as a key to mental health, but rather training one’s character to face life’s problems resolutely. That requires rather more effort.