It is not enough to learn to speak well. If we want to benefit from the words of those who intend to convey knowledge to us, we also need to learn to listen well. This, briefly, is Plutarch’s main thesis in “On Listening to Lectures”. It is quite remote from the current discourse on listening, which defines it almost exclusively as the condition of an authentic relationship to others, as this quiet action that could open us up to the subjectivity of others so that we may grasp their needs, desires and frustrations. This short essay examines listening as a “necessary condition to learning”. In other words, how shall we listen to those who know (or pretend to know) in a way that will allow us to take in what we need and thus progress in the knowledge—so dear to Plato’s followers—of truth and good?
In a few pages of startling clarity, Plutarch examines the major obstacles to fruitful listening and the means to overcome them. Whether the issue is jealous rivalry, which makes us belittle the “lofty speeches” of those whose talent we envy, excessive attention to form rather than substance, or the kind of blind admiration that makes us agree indiscriminately with everything that is said, the fundamental reason which prevents us from learning from others is, ultimately, our own moral shortcomings. That is one of the main contentions of this essay. The responsibility for transmitting knowledge and virtue does not lie exclusively with the person who conveys it—the educator. It equally lies with the one who receives it. The recipient too has “duties to fulfill”. Education and in particular “philosophical education”, which closely resembles the process of spiritual perfection as described by Ostad Elahi, requires the learner’s active collaboration.
This collaboration starts with some work on the quality of one’s listening. It extends to the way one questions the educator. For listening doesn’t imply that the student should stay quiet. Questions are more than welcome, provided however that they meet the level of the initial discourse. Plutarch’s stigmatises questions that are trivial or irrelevant, as well as those related to matters the speaker has no knowledge of or whose sole purpose is to contradict. He also cautions those working on their moral and spiritual perfection against two listening flaws: one consists in becoming indifferent to criticisms formulated by others (in particular by our “educators”), taking them lightly and not giving them much importance; the other is, on the contrary, to become overly sensitive to criticisms, displaying a hypersensitivity that will lead us to turn our back on those whose advice and attention would have helped us to know ourselves better and improve.
Everyone has been (and may still be), in one field or another, in turn the student and the teacher. If only for this, we would definitely benefit a great deal from making ourselves Plutarch’s attentive listeners. He reminds us how the educator we all are—if only occasionally—should be mindful of the truthfulness of his words. Whether we realise it or not, our words have an effect. They affect the soul of their recipient to various degrees, always with a risk of causing damage, but quite fortunately also with the possibility of instilling good: “virtue’s only hold upon the young is afforded by the ears”. At the same time, the philosopher commits us to better listen so that we may learn not only from those who tell the truth but also from those who spread falsehood: “Everyone ought to be ready ever to repeat to himself, as he observes the faults of others, the utterance of Plato, ‘Am I not possibly like them?’”. In doing so, we may become conscious of the ongoing need to develop an ear that is demanding when it comes to the truth, yet benevolent in the face of misconducts we could just as well be faulty of.
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