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The Art of Living

On Listening

Massimo Pigliucci hears from Plutarch.

A good case can be made that we talk (or write) too much, and listen (or read) too little. It comes naturally, these days, to blame social media, mainstream media, an epidemic of attention deficit disorder, and what not, for this problem. It turns out, however, that we may need to put at least some of the blame on human nature itself, since it’s an old problem. Just read the following:

“I am of the opinion that listening ought to be a constant topic of discussion in one’s own mind and with other people. This is especially so because it is noticeable that most people go about the matter in the wrong way: they practice speaking before they have got used to listening, and they think that speaking takes study and care, but benefit will accrue from even a careless approach to listening… It is said [by Zeno the Stoic] that Nature gave each of us two ears, but one tongue, because we should listen more than we speak”
(On Listening, p.3, in Essays by Plutarch, trans. Robin Waterfield).

This is how Plutarch of Chaeronea, who lived between 46 and 119 CE, puts it in one of his moral essays (several of which I will comment on from time to time in this series). This entry is from On Listening, a delightful piece of writing that’s still very useful today. For instance, Plutarch is right on the mark when he says that most of us think that speaking requires training and technique while we believe that listening comes naturally and doesn’t need any further attention. And yet imagine, if you will, just how much better our conversations would be – ranging from those talks with relatives during the holidays, to those at work, not to mention political debates – if we all internalized Zeno’s point about listening twice as much as we talk.

Plutarch continues:

“We ought to transfer our scrutiny from the speaker to ourselves, and ask ourselves whether we make the same mistakes without noticing them… Criticism is useless and vain if it fails to lead to any improvement or vigilance in these respects… One should not balk at constantly repeating to oneself Plato’s saying: ‘Am I really sure that I’m not like that too?’” (p.6).

It is natural for many of us to listen not in order to learn something, or, Zeus forbid, to revise our own thinking. No. If we listen at all, it’s so that we can catch fault in what someone else is saying so that we can pounce on them as soon as they give us an opening by pausing to breathe. That’s because we tend to assume an adversarial, as opposed to a cooperative, posture during many of our discussions – even when such discussions unfold among friends over a pint. Yet conversations are not meant to be a competition, but rather a way for participants to learn something new, or to re-examine their own position on this or that topic. Plato’s question as reported by Plutarch, ‘Am I sure I’m not like that too?’, ought to be a standard mantra firmly inscribed in our minds, no matter the occasion.

“Arguments must be examined entirely on their own merits, with no reference to the speaker’s reputation, because there is as much illusion in the lecture room as on the battlefield” (p.7).

While Plutarch here mentions the lecture rooms used by philosophers of antiquity, he may as well be referring to both social and mainstream media. On our screens we’re presented with an endless gallery of talking heads who are supposed to be experts at this, that, or the other. Sometimes they are; often they’re not. Regardless, if we want to learn something from them, we need to pay attention to their actual arguments, not to the person who happens to be the latest to rearticulate a point. And I love Plutarch’s evoking of illusions on a battlefield as a warning about the sort of illusions to which widespread sophistry exposes us still.

“The correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting” (p.18).

I must admit that even professional teachers still too often treat their students’ minds as vessels to be filled; and certainly social media pundits and influencers do so. But Plutarch is right: that’s definitely the wrong analogy. The goal is not to tell someone what to think, but to kindle their natural fire of curiosity – that spontaneous tendency toward inquiry that all kids have, and that we often manage to squash by way of formal education and social indoctrination.

Plutarch ends his essay by saying: “Proper listening is the foundation of proper living” (p.18) – which is why I wrote about this in a column devoted to philosophy as a way of life. If we don’t train ourselves to pay attention, to learn before we criticize, to listen before we talk, the quality of our own life will be adversely affected. Think about that the next time you join a conversation; and see how things improve if you manage to behave accordingly.

© Prof. Massimo Pigliucci 2024

Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His books include How to Be a Stoic (Basic Books) and The Quest for Character (Basic Books). More by him at newstoicism.org.

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