A phrase concerning the corrupting effect of evil communication has undergone a long, historic voyage of interpretation. For an extensive list of ancient citations and attributions, see Pernigotti (2008) and Kassel and Austin (1983). Ling (1925) provides a more general review of the evidence and suggests that the phrase originated in a lost tragedy of Euripides.
The evil-communication phrase was included in various compilations of gnomes and sententiae Menandri that were copied and transmitted through the Middle Ages.^ Syriac Euthalian material from late antiquity attributes the phrase to Menander’s Thais.
Ancient texts known to quote or refer to the evil-communication phrase:
- Menander’s Thais
- oblique references in Theognis of Megara, Elegies, and Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes
- Diodorus of Sicily, Historical Library
- Paul of Tarsus, 1 Corinthians 15:33
- oblique reference in Philo of Alexandria, The Worse Attacks the Better
- works of Tertullian
- works of Jerome
In the context of both traditional Greco-Roman religion and the patristic texts of Tertullian and Jerome, the evil-communication phrase warned against practices associated with high social status. Such practices included lavish banquets, patronizing courtesans, and sophistic arguments.
Concern about evil communication achieved prominence in penal policy through the influence of leading eighteenth-century English philanthropist and penal reformer Jonas Hanway.