Written by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Plutarch (AD46 – after AD 119) was a Platonic philosopher, essayist, biographer, magistrate, and a priest at the Temple of Apollo later in his life.

Plutarch was known for his involvement in all matters of society, taking on even the humblest of tasks. However, he is best remembered today for Parallel Lives, a series of biographies that followed prestigious Greeks and Romans, and Moralia a collection of essays, letters, and speeches that summarized his life’s work, beliefs, and teachings.

Moralia translated as ‘’Morals’’ or ‘’Matters concerning customs and mores’’ and consists of 78 essays and speeches. From questioning fate to the nature of music, Moralia sheds light on ancient Greek life and offers some of the deepest and most timeless wisdom.

Plutarch etching by Edward Gooch, source: Hulton Archive

Plutarch’s letter on listening was first delivered as a formal lecture and was later converted into a letter to his young friend Nicander, who was about to embark on the study of Philosophy.

While the letter is written to a youth about to enter a period of intense study, it contains lessons from which we could all benefit.

Plutarch’s descriptions of different kinds of listeners are as relevant today as they were then. The lazy listener, the scornful listener, those who listen with excitement, and the over-confident listener are just a handful of listening types he discusses.

Plutarch’s Listeners

Listening to Lectures (De auditu), in Plutarch, Moralia, Vol. I, Loeb Classical Library No. 197 (1927)

The Selective Listener

Plutarch describes the selective listener as someone who is very good at listening – to what they want to hear.

This refers to the tendency to be most interested in hearing about topics that we find exciting and interesting, and how much easier it is to listen to long speeches from great orators or those we admire.

While most of us are guilty of this – no doubt there is great pleasure in listening to topics that one most enjoys – Plutarch warns that only listening to advice and opinions that are pleasing to the ear may mean we miss other important or useful information. Much good can be hidden away in ‘boring’ lectures or speeches from those we deem less interesting or desirable.

The Disapproving Listener

Most people will have listened to opinions that conflict with our values and meet with our disapproval. While there’s nothing wrong with disagreement, Plutarch encourages us to always keep an open mind. Most importantly, he urges us to listen to the speaker in their entirety first, without judgment.

Judgment or disapproval, Plutarch argues, is in itself a distraction of the mind. Those who attend speeches already in a state of disapproval are distracted, often comparing their own intelligence with that of the speaker, and/or observing others in the audience for signs of admiration and approval. In the process, much information is missed and the listener comes away less informed.

Disapproving listeners are at risk of distorting the information conveyed, rendering the whole experience useless.

Plutarch points out that when we have already decided we are against something, we’re likely to recall only what we consider to be the negative points. Great learning, he says, arises when we ponder and reflect on opinions that are opposite to our own.

The Over-Confident Listener

“In praising a speaker, we must be generous, but in believing his words cautious” – Plutarch

“Don’t believe everything you hear” is an adage as old as time. There are certain speakers we confide in due to their achievements, status or because they have previously given honest and useful advice. In that situation it becomes easier just to believe what you hear without a second thought and leave critical thinking at the door.

Plutarch advises us that no matter how much we admire the speaker, or how dazzling and entertaining the performance is, we must be a ‘heartless critic’ when evaluating the quality of the information we are receiving.

Plutarch did not believe that any speaker should be met with hostility, but warns us to be careful not to be swept away by the current. Just because someone may have useful information the first time, does not automatically qualify them to give good advice the second time. All information should be approached with a clear and critical mind, no matter who says it.

Aristotle teaches young Alexander by Charles Laplante (1837–1903)

Listening as a Collaborative Process

One of the core lessons from Plutarch’s essay on listening is that the learning process does not solely rely on the speaker or educator. He continuously reminds us that responsibility also rests on the shoulders of the listener. Learning and informing requires the active participation of both parties.

Thus the listener would do well to reflect on the quality of their listening, be mindful of personal flaws, approach all information with caution, and not be afraid to ask questions.

Quality listening does not mean that the listener must be quiet, Plutarch adds. Questions are an important part of the listening process and should always be welcome, so long as they are related to the topic.

Plutarch believed that the major obstacle in learning from others is one’s own shortcomings and insecurities. To remedy this, proper behavior in all educational settings must be observed so that the information can be adequately understood and assessed without the interference of personal preferences.

Whether we tend to drift off during boring lectures or immediately dismiss speakers we dislike, as listeners we are active participants in the cultivation of ideas. Identifying barriers to our listening and learning, especially those we impose upon ourselves, is a crucial part of personal development and self-improvement.