Folks who know me know that I have a deep love of Greek and Roman literature. Lately, I have been on something of a Plutarch kick, and I am working my way through his Essays (Penguin Classics). I forgot how wonderful they are.
Plutarch, much like Montaigne, was gifted at communicating impressive ideas in a simple, succinct form. I think that is one of the things I love most about classical literature – seeing how phenomenally intelligent our human race was even thousands of years ago. Of course, to have that sense, you either have to have an excellent translator or be able to read Latin and Greek. Hence, I am teaching our young daughter to read Latin, and hopefully Greek will follow.
Today, I have been re-reading Plutarch’s essay On Listening. If you have never read it, you should. And Robin Waterfield is such a brilliant translator, for those who care.
For Plutarch (as I read him, anyway), being an excellent listener has two components.
One involves the art of listening to someone who intends to persuade you on some point. This means being able to follow reason (and not necessarily the person who intends to persuade you). To Plutarch, the ability to reason is a divine gift. To follow God and to follow reason are one and the same, he explains.
The other involves allowing someone to articulate a complete thought. This means showing proper respect to someone who is trying to make a point and can make it well, even if you do not agree with them. When I was younger, this would have been called collegiality (a word of medieval origin, taken from the Latin collegium, a community, society, or guild).
Both, really, are totally lost in modern American society. Though, to be fair, trying to be polite to a parrot is an exercise in madness.
I love this passage:
It goes without saying that a young man who is denied all instruction and never tastes any rational discourse not only remains barren and unproductive of virtue, but also might become marred and perverted toward vice, producing plentiful mental weeds from his unturned and unworked soil, as it were…
There are, in short, no exceptions to the rule that for a young man silence is undoubtedly an adornment; and never more so than if he listens to someone else without getting worked up and barking out a riposte but – even if the comments are distinctly unwelcome – puts up with them and waits for the speaker to finish and, once the speaker has finished, instead of immediately answering back, leaves an interval, as Aeschines says, to see if the speaker wants to add anything else to what he has already said, or to make any changes or to take something back. Immediately to lash out in retaliation, however, and neither to listen nor be listened to, but to speak while being spoken to, is scandalous; on the other hand, anyone who has acquired the ability to listen in a self-controlled and respectful fashion is receptive and retentive of any remarks that are useful, while any that are useless or false are quite transparent to him and easily detectable, because he is – as is obvious – aiming at the truth rather than winning an argument, and does not pitch in head first for a fight.
Can you believe that this was written in the first century? Yet this is the exact behavior social media (and the news media) conditions people against developing.
Unlike Plutarch’s generation, people are not especially interested in being persuasive anymore. There are basically three styles of argumentation being taught/learned nowadays: (1) if someone disagrees with you, insult their character, background, or livelihood; (2) shout louder than someone; (3) parrot corporate media talking points until your interlocutor is reduced to a coma. Even the people who pass as eloquent in American society are not gifted listeners, but more subtle bullies. They certainly aren’t aiming at truth or dispensing wisdom.
Of course, there are times when calling into question someone’s intentions is necessary. But it should not be a default.
Sometimes I wonder if the art of being persuasive even works nowadays. Plutarch’s time was dominated by virtue ethics. That does not seem to exist much anymore, except within certain religious communities and institutions.
Instead most forums are dominated by people with what one might call “therapeutic” ideals. They respond well to confessional storytelling and hierarchies of grievances. That is definitely not something the Greeks and Romans would understand or support. Being persuasive assumes you have worked to achieve some position of strength. People who fail are not persuasive. There’s a reason the ancients taught science and logic before rhetoric. Logic is not taught in K-12 public schools, but identity politics is. And our discourse reflects that.
A person who is trained in logic can attempt to reason someone through their thinking nowadays, but that generally makes their interlocutor cling to the position they have staked out publicly even harder. You are, in short, wasting your time.
This is absolutely true in talking about politics, government, and economics these days. I have given up try to persuade anyone who gets into how they “feel” about public policy. They don’t seem to want to work out a practical solution to problems, which involves caring about details like how resources are limited or laws on the books already. They just want to emote. They don’t want a good argument from you, either. They just want to pass judgment on whether you have “proper” emotions too.
I don’t want open borders but I also don’t want there to be punishments for people who come into the country illegally, because that seems mean.
I don’t want to spend yet another decade and another trillion dollars in Afghanistan, but I also want there to be a government in Afghanistan that is fair by western ideals and respects the rights of women and the LGBTQ community.
Blah blah blah. You can listen politely all you want, but the fact is you are talking to an irrational person who hasn’t and won’t invest any serious thought into a real-world solution to these problems. You aren’t going to give them the civic education they never received,even though they likely have an undergraduate degree. That ship has sailed. The Greeks and the Romans, however, were absolutely obsessed with civic education.
Virtue (of the sort that has a metaphysical foundation) has been replaced with attention as a form of social capital, and squawking and bullying is an easier way to get attention than trying to persuade someone. Of course, you will never bully someone into believing something that they did not believe already. No one in the history of mankind has been publicly shamed into a new perspective. But that’s increasingly not the point of discourse. For a not insignificant portion of society, silencing someone is as much of a victory as persuading them. Because that’s the best you can achieve when all you have is an arsenal of emotions.