Plutarch, On the Hearing of Lectures

Translated by Thomas Hoy, Fellow of St. Johnís College in Oxford. Edition by William W. Goodwin, Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1878.
Annotation of text copyright ©2007 David Trumbull, Agathon Associates. All Rights Reserved.

[1] I have sent, Nicander, the reflections of some spare hours concerning Hearing, digested into the following short essay, that being out of the hands of governors and come to man’s estate, you may know how to pay a proper attention to those who would advise you. For that libertinism which some wild young fellows, for want of more happy education, mistake for liberty, subjects them to harder tyrants than their late tutors and masters, even to their own vicious inclinations, which, as it were, break loose upon them. And as Herodotus observes of women, that they put off modesty with their shift, /1/ so some young men lay aside with the badges of minority all the sense of shame or fear, and divested of the garment of modesty which sat so well upon them are covered with insolence. But you, who have often heard that to follow God and to obey reason are all one, cannot but believe that men of best sense in passing from minority to manhood do not throw off the government, but simply change their governor. In the room of some mercenary pedant, they receive that divine guide and governor of human life, reason, under whose subjection alone men are properly said to live in freedom. For they only live at their own will who have learned to will as they ought; and that freedom of will which appears in unconstrained appetites and unreasonable actions is mean and narrow, and accompanied with much repentance.

[2] For as newly naturalized citizens who were entire strangers and aliens are apt to disrelish many administrations of the government; while those who have previously lived in the country, bred up under the constitution and acquainted with it, act without difficulty in their several stations, well satisfied with their condition; in like manner, a man should for a long time have been bred up in philosophy, and accustomed from his earliest years to receive his lessons and instruction mingled with philosophic reason, that so he may come at last as a kind and familiar friend to philosophy, which alone can array young men in the perfect manly robes and ornaments of reason. Therefore, I believe, some directions concerning hearing will not be ill received by you.

Remarks about Hearing in general.

Of this Theophrastus affirms, that it is the most sensitive of all the senses. For the several objects of sight, tasting, and feeling do not excite in us so great disturbances and alterations as the sudden and frightful noises which assault us only at the ears. Yet in reality this sense is more rational than sensitive. For there are many organs and other parts of the body which serve as avenues and inlets to the soul to give admission to vice; there is but one passage of virtue into young minds, and that is by the ears, provided they be preserved all along free from the corruptions of flattery and untainted with lewd discourses. For this reason Xenocrates was of opinion that children ought to have a defence fitted to their ears rather than fencers or prize-players, because the ears only of the latter suffered by the blows, but the morals of the former were hurt and maimed by words. Not that he thereby recommended deafness, or forbade that they should be suffered to hear at all; but he advised only that debauchery might be kept out, till better principles, like so many guardians appointed by philosophy, had taken charge of that part which is so liable to be drawn aside and corrupted by discourse. And Bias of old, being ordered by Amasis to send him the best and withal the worst part of the sacrifice, sent the tongue; because the greatest benefits and disadvantages are derived to us thereby. Thus again many diverting themselves with children touch their ears, bidding them return the like again; by which they seem to intimate to them that such best deserve their love and esteem whose obligations enter at the ears. This is evident, that he that has lain fallow all his days, without tasting instruction, will not only prove barren and unfruitful of virtue, but very inclinable to vice; for an uncultivated mind, like untilled ground, will soon be overrun with weeds. For if that violent propensity of the mind to pleasure, and jealousy of all that carries any show of pain, — which proceed not from external causes or received prejudices, but are the natural springs of evil affections and infinite diseases of the mind, — are suffered to take their course, and not restrained, or diverted some other way by wholesome instructions, there can be no beast so savage that it may not be called tame and civilized in respect of such a man.

More General Rules about Hearing.

[3] Since then it appears that hearing is of so great use and no less danger to young men, I think it a very commendable thing for such a one to reflect continually with himself, and consult often with others, how he may hear with benefit. And in this particular we may observe many to have been mistaken, that they practise speaking before they have been used enough to hearing. Speaking they think will require some study and attention, but hearing cannot be a thing of any difficulty. Those indeed who play the game of tennis learn at the same time how to throw and how to catch the ball; but in the exercise of the tongue, we ought to practise how to talk well before we pretend to return, as conception and retention of the foetus precede childbirth. When fowls let fall windeggs, it is usually said that they are the rudiments of imperfect fruits which will never quicken and have life; and when young men either hear not at all or retain not what they hear, their discourse comes from them altogether as useless and full of wind,

And vain and unregarded turns to air.

In filling one vessel from another, they take care to incline and turn it so that nothing be spilled, and that it may be really filling and not emptying; but they think it not worth the heeding to regulate their attention and apply themselves with advantage to a speaker, that nothing of importance may fall beside or escape them. Yet, what is beyond comparison ridiculous, if they happen upon any one who has a knack at describing an entertainment or a show, or can relate his dream well, or give an handsome account of a quarrel between himself and another, such a one they hear with the greatest attention, they court him to proceed, and importune him for every circumstance. Whereas, let another call them about him for any thing useful, to exhort to what is decent or reprehend what is irregular, or to make up a quarrel, they have not temper enough to away with it, but they fight with all their might to put him down by argument, if they are able, or if not, they haste away to more agreeable fopperies; as if their ears, like faulty earthen vessels, might be filled with any thing but what is useful or valuable. But as jockeys take great care in breeding horses to bring them to rein right and endure the bit, so such as have the care of educating children should breed them to endure hearing, by allowing them to speak little and hear much. And Spintharus, speaking in commendation of Epaminondas, says he scarce ever met with any man who knew more and spoke less. Some again make the observation, that Nature has given every man two ears and but one tongue, as a secret intimation that he ought to speak less than he hears.

Directions concerning Attention.

[4] Well then, silence is at all times a singular ornament of a youth, but especially if he does not interrupt the speaker nor carp and except at every thing he says, but patiently expects the conclusion, though his discourse be none of the best; and when he has done, if he does not presently come over him with an objection, but (as Aeschines directs) allows time to add, if he please, to what has been said, or to alter, or retract. Whereas such as turn too suddenly upon a speaker neither hear nor are heard themselves, but senselessly chatter to one another, and sin against the laws and rules of decorum. But he that brings along with him a modest and unwearied attention has this advantage, that whatever is beneficial in the discourse he makes his own, and he more readily discovers what is false or impertinent, appearing all the while a friend to truth rather than to squabbling or rashness. Therefore it was not ill said, that such as design to infuse goodness into the minds of youth must first exclude thence pride and self-conceit more carefully than we squeeze air out of bladders which we wish to fill with something useful; because, while they are puffed up with arrogance, there is no room to admit any thing else.

[5] Thus again, envy and detraction and prejudice are in no case good, but always a great impediment to what is so; yet nowhere worse than when they are made the bosom-friends and counsellers of a hearer, because they represent the best things to him as unpleasant and impertinent, and men in such circumstances are pleased with any thing rather than what deserves their applause. Yet he that grieves at the wealth, glory, or beauty of any is but simply envious, for he repines only at the good of others; but he that is ill-natured to a good speaker is an enemy to his own happiness. For discourse to an hearer, like light to the eye, is a great benefit, if he will make the best use of it. Envy in all other instances carries this pretence with it, that it is to be referred to the depraved and ungovernable affections of the mind, but that which is conceived against a speaker arises from an unjust presumption and vain-glorious affectation of praise.

In such a case, the man has not leisure to attend to what he hears; his soul is in continual hurry and disturbance, at one time examining her own habits and endowments, if any way inferior to the speaker; anon, watching the behavior and inclination of others, if inclined to praise or admire his discourse; disordered at the praise and enraged at the company, if he meet with any encouragement. She easily lets slip and willingly forgets what has been said, because the remembrance is a pain and vexation to her; she hears what is to come with a great deal of uneasiness and concern, and is never so desirous that the speaker should hasten to an end, as when he discourses best. After all is over, she considers not what was said, but has respect only to the common vogue and disposition of the audience; she avoids and flies like one distracted such as seem to be pleased, and herds among the censorious and perverse. If she finds nothing to pervert, then she puts forward other speakers, who (as she asserts) have spoken better and with greater force of argument on the same subject. Thus, by abusing and corrupting what was said, she defeats the use and effect of it on herself.

[6] He therefore who comes to hear must for the time come to a kind of truce and accommodation with vain-glory, and preserve the same evenness and cheerfulness of humor he would bring with him if he were invited to a festival entertainment or the first-fruits’ sacrifice, applauding the orator’s power when he speaks to the purpose, and where he fails receiving kindly his readiness to communicate what he knows and to persuade others by what wrought upon himself. Where he comes off with success, he must not impute it to chance or peradventure, but attribute all to study and diligence and art, not only admiring but studiously emulating the like; where he has done amiss, he must pry curiously into the causes and origin of the mistake. For what Xenophon says of discreet house keepers, that they make an advantage of their enemies as well as their friends, is in some sort true of vigilant and attentive hearers, who reap no less benefit from an ill than a good orator. For the meanness and poverty of a thought, the emptiness and flatness of an expression, the unseasonableness of a figure, and the impertinence of falling into a foolish ecstasy of joy or commendation, and the like, are better discovered by a by-stander than by the speaker himself. Therefore his oversight or indiscretion must be brought home to ourselves, that we may examine if nothing of the same kind has skulled there and imposed on us all the while. For there is nothing in the world more easy than to discover the faults of others; but it is done to no effect if we do not make it useful to ourselves in correcting and avoiding the like failures. When therefore you animadvert upon other men’s miscarriages, forget not to put that question of Plato to yourself, Am not I such another? We must trace out our own way of writing in the discourses of other men, as in another’s eyes we see the reflection of our own; that we may learn not to be too free in censuring others, and may use more circumspection ourselves in speaking. To this design the following method of comparison may be very instrumental; if upon our return from hearing we take what seemed to us not well or sufficiently handled, and attempt it afresh ourselves, endeavoring to fill out one part or correct another, to vary this or model that into a new form from the very beginning. And thus Plato examined the oration of Lysias. For it is a thing of no great difficulty to raise objections against another man’s oration, — nay, it is a very easy matter, — but to produce a better in its place is a work extremely troublesome; as the Spartan, who was told Philip had demolished the city Olynthus, made this reply, But he cannot raise such another. When then it appears, upon handling the same topic, that we do not much excel those who undertook it before, this will abate much of our censorious humor, and our pride and self-conceit will be exposed and checked by such comparisons.

Caution about Admiration.

[7] To contempt is opposed admiration, which indeed argues a more candid and better disposition; but even in this case no small care is to be observed, and perhaps even greater. For although such as are contemptuous and self-conceited receive but little good from what they hear, yet the good-natured and such as are given to admire every thing take a great deal of harm. And Heraclitus was not mistaken when he said that a fool was put in a flutter at every thing he heard. We ought indeed to use all the candor imaginable in praising the speaker, yet withal as great caution in yielding our assent to what he says; to look upon his expression and action with a favorable construction, but to inspect the usefulness and truth of his doctrine with the nicest and most critical judgment; that speakers may cease to be malicious, and that what they say may do no mischief. For many false and dangerous principles steal upon us through the authority of the speaker and our own credulity. The Spartan Ephors, approving the judgment of one of an ill conversation, ordered it to be communicated to the people by a person of better life and reputation; thereby wisely and politicly using them to give more deference to the morals than to the words of such as pretend to advise them. But now in philosophy the reputation of the speaker must be pulled off, and his words examined naked and without a mask; for in hearing as in war there are many false alarms. The hoary head of the speaker or his gesture, his magisterial look or his assuming pride, and above all the noise and clapping of the auditory, bear great sway with a raw and inexperienced hearer, who is easily carried away with the tide. The very expression, if sweet and full and representing things with some pomp and greatness, has a secret power to impose upon us. For, as many lapses in such as sing to an instrument escape the hearers, so luxuriancy and pomp of style dazzle the hearer so that he cannot see clearly the argument in hand. And Melanthius, as it is said, being asked his opinion concerning a tragedy of Diogenes, made answer that the words intercepted his sight of it. But most Sophists in their declamations and speeches not only make use of words to veil and muffle their design; but with affected tone and softness of voice they draw aside and bewitch their followers, for the empty pleasure which they create reaping a more empty glory. So that the saying of Dionysius is very applicable to them, who, being one day extremely pleased with an harper that played excellently well before him, promised the fellow a great reward, yet afterwards would give him nothing, pretending he had kept his word; For, said he, as long as you pleased me by your playing, so long were you pleased by hope of the reward. And such also is the reward this kind of harangues bring to the authors. The hearers admire as long as they are pleased and tickled, but the satisfaction on one hand and glory on the other conclude with the oration; and the hearers lose their time idly, and the speakers their whole life.

How to separate the Useful Part of a Discourse.

[8] No, we must separate the trash and trumpery of an oration, that we may come at the more fruitful and useful part; not imitating those women who busy themselves in gathering nosegays and making garlands, but the more useful industry of bees. The former indeed plat and weave together the sweetest and gayest flowers, and their skill is mighty pretty; but it lasts for one day only, and even then is of little or no use; whereas the bees, passing by the beds of violets and roses and hyacinth, fix on the prickly and biting thyme, and settle upon this “intent on the yellow honey,” /2/ and taking thence what they need for their work, they fly home laden. In like manner, a well-meaning sincere hearer ought to pass by the flowers of an oration, leaving the gaudy show and theatrical part to entertain dronish Sophists; and, diving into the very mind of the speaker and the sense of his speech, he must draw thence what is necessary for his own service; remembering withal that he is not come to the theatre or music-meeting, but is present at the schools and auditories of philosophy, to learn to rectify his way of life by what he hears. In order thereunto, he ought to inspect diligently and try faithfully the state and temper of his mind after hearing, if any of his affections are more moderate, if any afflictions grow lighter, if his constancy and greatness of spirit are confirmed, if he feels any divine emotions or inward workings of virtue and goodness upon his soul. For it becomes us but ill, when we rise from the barber’s chair, to be so long in consulting the mirror, or to stroke our heads and examine so curiously the style in which our hair is trimmed and dressed, and then, at our return from hearing in the schools, to think it needless to look into ourselves, or examine whether our own mind has discharged any turbulent or unprofitable affections and is grown more sedate and serene. For, as Ariston was wont to say, The bath and a discourse are of no use unless they are purgative.

[9] Let then a young man be pleased and entertained with a discourse; but let him not make his pleasure the only end of hearing, nor think he may come from the school of a philosopher singing and sportive; nor let him call for perfumes and essences when he has need of a poultice and fomentations. But let him learn to be thankful to him that purges away the darkness and stupidity of his mind, though (as we clear beehives by smoking) with an offensive or unpalatable discourse. For though it lies upon a speaker to take some care that his expression be pleasing and plausible, yet a hearer ought not to make that the first thing he looks after. Afterward, indeed, when he has satisfied his appetite with the substance and has taken breath, he may be allowed the curiosity of examining the style and expression, whether it has any thing delicate or extraordinary; as men quench their thirst before they have time to admire the embossing of the bowl. But now such a one as is not intent on the subject-matter, but demands merely that the style shall be plain and pure Attic, is much of his foolish humor who refuses an antidote unless it be mixed in Attic porcelain, or who will not put on a coat in the winter because the cloth is not made of Attic wool; but who can yet sit still, doing nothing and stirring not, under such a thin and threadbare cloak as an oration of Lysias. That extreme dearth of judgment and good sense, and that abundance of subtilty and sophistry which is crept into the schools, is all owing to these corruptions of the youngsters; who, observing neither the lives nor public conversation of philosophers, mind nothing but words and jingle, and express themselves extravagantly upon what they think well said, without ever understanding or enquiring if it be useful and necessary, or needless and vain.

Of asking Questions.

[10] After this, it will be convenient to lay down some directions touching asking of questions. For it is true, he that comes to a great collation must eat what is set before him, not rudely calling for what is not to be had nor finding fault with the provision. But he that is invited to partake of a discourse, if it be with that proviso, must hear with silence; for such disagreeable hearers as occasion digressions by asking impertinent questions and starting foolish doubts are an hindrance both to the speaker and the discourse, without benefiting themselves. But when the speaker encourages them to propose their objections, he must take care that the question be of some consequence The suitors in Homer scorned and derided Ulysses. —

To no brave prize aspired the worthless swain,
’Twas but for scraps he asked, and asked in vain,

because they thought it required a great and heroic soul no less to ask than to bestow great gifts. But there is much better reason to slight and laugh at such a hearer as can please himself in asking little trifling questions. Thus some young fellows, to proclaim their smattering in logic and mathematics, upon all occasions enquire about the divisibility of the infinite, or about motion through a diagonal or upon the sides. But we may answer them with Philotimus, who, being asked by a consumptive phthisical person for a remedy against a whitlow, and perceiving the condition he was in by his color and his shortness of breath, replied, Sir, you have no reason to be apprehensive of that. So we must tell them, You have no reason, young gentlemen, to trouble yourselves about these questions; but how to shake off your conceit and arrogance, to have done with your intrigues and fopperies, and to settle immediately upon a modest and well-governed course of life, is the question for you.

[11] Great regard is to be had also to the genius and talent of a speaker, that we may enquire about such things as are in his way, and not take him out of his knowledge; as if one should propose physical or mathematical queries to a moral philosophy reader, or apply himself to one who prides himself on his knowledge of physics to give his opinion on conditional propositions or to resolve a fallacy in logic. For, as he that goes about to cleave wood with a key or to unlock a door with an axe does not so much misemploy those instruments as deprive himself of the proper use of them, so such as are not content with what a speaker offers them, but call for such things as he is a stranger to, not only are disappointed, but incur the suspicion of malice and ill-nature.

[12] Be cautious also how you ask questions yourself, or ask too often; for that betrays somewhat of conceit and ostentation. But to wait civilly while another proposes his scruples argues a studious spirit and willingness that others should be informed, unless some sudden perturbation of mind require to be repressed or some distemper to be assuaged. For perhaps, as Heraclitus says, it is an ill thing to conceal even a man’s ignorance; it must be laid open, that the remedy may be applied. So also if anger or superstition or a violent quarrel with your domestics or the mad passion of love, —

Which doth the very heart-strings move,
That ne’er were stirred before,—

excite any commotion in your mind, you are not, for fear of being galled by reproof, to fly to such as are treating of other arguments; but you must frequent those places where your particular case is stating, and after lecture address yourself privately to the speaker for better information and fuller satisfaction therein. On the contrary, men commonly flatter themselves, and admire the philosopher so long as he discourses of indifferent things; but if he come home to themselves and deal freely with them about their real interests, this they think is beyond all enduring, or at best a needless piece of supererogation. For they naturally think that they ought to hear philosophy in the schools, like actors on the stage, while in matters out of the school they believe them to be no better men than themselves; and, to confess the truth, they have but reason to think so of many Sophists, who, having once left the desk and laid aside their books, in the serious concerns of human life are utterly insignificant and even more ignorant than the vulgar. But they do not know that even the austerity or raillery of real philosophers, their very nod or look, their smile or frown, and especially their admonitions directed to particular persons, are of weighty importance to such as can brook or attend to them.

Directions concerning Praising.

[13] As for commendation, some caution and mean is to be observed in it; because to be either deficient or excessive in that particular shows a base spirit. He is but a morose and rigid hearer whom no part of an oration can work upon or move, one who is full of a secret presumptuous opinion of himself, and of an inbred conceit that he could do better things himself; one who dares not alter his countenance as occasion requires, or let fall the least word to testify his good wishes, but with silence and affected gravity hunts after the reputation of a sagacious and profound person, and thinks that all the praise is lost to himself which he bestows on others, as if it were money. For many wrest that sentence of Pythagoras, who used to say that he had learned by philosophy to admire nothing; but these men think that to admire nobody and to honor nobody consists in despising everybody, and they aim at seeming grave by being contemptuous. Philosophy indeed removes that foolish admiration and surprise which proceeds from doubt or ignorance, by laying open to us the causes of things, but endeavors not to destroy all good-nature and humanity. And those who are truly good take it for their greatest honor and commendation to be just in paying honor and commendation where it is due to others; and for a man to adorn another is a most glorious ornament, proceeding from a generous abundance of glory and honor in himself; while those who are niggardly in praising others only betray how poor and bare they are of praises at home.

Not to be too prone to commend.

Yet to use no consideration at all, but to stand up and make a clamor at every word or syllable, is to offend in the other extreme. Such fluttering fellows for the most part oblige not the speakers themselves, and are always a plague and common grievance to the hearers, exciting them many times against their inclination, and forcing them for very shame to join in the tumult. In the end, he that raised the disturbance receives no benefit by the discourse, but goes away with the character of a scoffer or flatterer or novice. A judge, it is true, ought to hear and determine without favor or ill-will, regarding only what is just and equitable; but in philosophical proceedings the case is altered, where neither law nor oaths tie us up from being favorable to the speaker. And the ancients in their temples were wont to place the statue of Mercury among the Graces, intimating that orators ought to find a propitious and good-natured audience. For they thought it passed all belief, that any man could prove so much a blockhead or come so wide of the purpose, that, though he should make no remarks of his own and quote none of others worthy taking notice of, or though the argument and design of his discourse might not be commendable, yet at least the order and disposition or the style should not deserve some applause; —

As oft amidst the furze and thorny brakes
The tender violets more securely peep.

For if some have undertaken successfully to speak in commendation of vomiting or a fever, and have even made an encomium on a porridge-pot not without some acceptance, certainly a discourse from one that has the least pretence to philosophy cannot but afford some opportunity, though it be a slight one, for commendation to a well-disposed auditory. Plato says that all who are in their bloom in some way excite the amorous man; — the fair are the children of the Gods, the black are manly, the hook-nosed have a look of majesty, the flat-nose gives a graceful air, even the sallow complexion is complimented for looking like honey; in spite of all their defects, he cherishes and loves them all. /4/ Thus love, like ivy, must needs find something or other to lay hold on. But much more will a studious hearer and scholar be sure to find some not unworthy reason for praising every speaker. For Plato in an oration of Lysias, disliking the invention and utterly condemning the disposition as confused, yet praised the style and elocution, because every word was wrought off cleverly and cleanly turned. Thus a man may see cause enough to disapprove the argument of Archilochus, the verse of Parmenides, the poverty of Phocylides, the eternal talk of Euripides, and inequality of style in Sophocles; and among the orators, one has no manner, another is not moving, a third has nothing of ornament; yet every one has his peculiar power of moving and exciting, for which he is praised. Some again do not require of us to testify our acceptance by the voice; a pleasing eye or cheerful look, or a behavior without any thing of pain or uneasiness, is all that they desire. For the following favors are nowadays bestowed of course upon every oration, though the speaker may speak to no purpose at all, — sitting modestly without lolling from one side to the other, looking earnestly on the speaker, in the posture of an attentive listener, and with a countenance which betrays not only no contempt or illwill but not even a mind otherwise employed. For as the beauty and excellence of every thing consists in the concurrence of many different accidents, which contribute to the symmetry and harmony of the whole, so that, if but one inconsiderable part be away or absurdly added, de formity immediately follows; in like manner, not only a supercilious look or forbidding mien or roving eyes or waving the body to and fro or indecent crossing of the legs, but even a nod, a whisper to another, a scornful smile, a sleepy yawn, hanging of the head, or the like, are all likewise great indecorums and to be avoided with particular care.

[14] Yet some there are who can assign a speaker his part, and think no duty incumbent on themselves all the while; who will have him prepare and premeditate what he has to deliver, and yet throw themselves into an auditory without any preparation or consideration, as if they were invited to a feast, to revel and take their pleasures at another’s cost. Yet it is known that even a guest has some things required of him to make him suitable and agreeable, and certainly a hearer has much more; because he ought to be a sharer in the discourse and an assistant to the speaker. Neither will it become him to be severe at all turns upon every slight miscarriage or perpetually putting the speaker’s elocution and action to the test, while he himself is guilty of grosser enormities in hearing, without danger or control. But as at tennis he that takes the ball turns and winds his body according to the motion of the server, so a kind of proportion is to be observed between the speaker and the hearer, if both will discharge their several duties.

Care to be observed in Praising Persons of all Qualities.

[15] Neither ought we to use any expressions of praise indifferently. For it is an ill thing which Epicurus relates, that, upon reading any epistles from his friends, those about him broke out into tumultuous applauses; and such as daily introduce new forms into our auditories, as Divinely said! Superhuman! Inimitable! (as if those used by Plato, Socrates, and Hyperides, Well! Wisely! Truly said! were not sufficiently expressive), exceed the bounds of decency and modesty, nay indeed, do but affront the speaker, as though he were fond of such extravagant praises. Nor are they less odious and troublesome who confirm approbation with impertinent oaths, as if they were giving their testimony for a speaker in a court of judicature. And so likewise is it with such as observe not to give just deference to the quality of persons, who to a philosopher are apt to cry out, Smartly said! or to a reverend gentleman, Wittily! Floridly! applying to philosophy such trifles as are proper to scholastic exercises and declamations, and giving meretricious applause to a sober discourse, — as if a man should compliment the conqueror in the Olympic games with a garland of lilies or roses, instead of laurel or wild olive. Euripides the poet one day at a rehearsal instructing the chorus in a part that was set to a serious air, one of the company unexpectedly fell out a laughing; Sir, said he, unless you were very stupid and insensible, you could not laugh while I sing in the grave mixolydian mood. In like manner a master of philosophy and politics may put a stop to the unseasonable levity and pertness of a youngster, by telling him, You seem to be a madman and unacquainted with all manner of civility, otherwise you would not hum over your tunes or practise your new steps while I am discoursing of Gods, or the laws, or the supreme magistrate. For consider seriously what a very scandalous thing it is that, while a philosopher is in his discourse, the passengers in the street, from the clamor and hooting of the hearers, should have reason to make it a question whether some piper or harper or morris-dancer were got in among them.

Of bearing Admonitions and Reproofs.

[16] Admonitions and reprimands ought to be taken neither altogether insensibly nor yet sheepishly. For such as carry off a disgrace from a philosopher carelessly and without due concern, so as to grin at his reprehensions or scoffingly to praise him for them, as sharping parasites applaud the scurrilous reflection of their cullies, — such, I say, are shameless and insolent, and betray only their invincible impudence, which is no good or true argument of courage. Yet to bear handsomely without passion an innocent jest in raillery is not unbecoming the breeding of a gentleman, but a good accomplishment and altogether worthy of a Spartan. But when an exhortation to amendment of manners, like a bitter potion, is made up of harsh and unpleasant words, in such a case for a youth — instead of hearing submissively and running into a sweat or being seized with dizziness, when the mind is on fire with shame and confusion — to remain unmoved or sneer or dissemble his concernment is the certain sign of a dissolute and ill-bred man, one whose soul, like callous flesh, being hardened with a course of debauchery, will receive no scar or impression. Some young men indeed there are of a contrary disposition, who having undergone one rebuke fly off without ever looking back, turn renegades, and quite desert philosophy. These being naturally very modest have a good disposition toward an healthful habit of mind, but vitiate it by too much tenderness and effeminacy, which disables them for bearing a reproof or manfully submitting to a correction, and run after more pleasing harangues, wherewith some flatterers and Sophists soothe and bewitch them, without any benefit or advantage. For as he that flies from the surgeon after incision, and will not suffer the ligature to be applied, endures that part of his skill only which is painful, rejecting what would give him ease; so such a one as being lanced and scarified by a sharp oration has not patience till the wound be skinned over, goes away from philosophy tortured and harassed, without that benefit he might receive thereby. For not only Telephus’s wound was cured by rusty filings of the spear (as Euripides has it), but whatever pain philosophy may occasion to a meek disposition will be cured and removed by the same discourse that gave the wound. He therefore that is reprehended must endure awhile and away with some pain, not presently be discouraged or out of heart. Let him behave himself as though he were to be initiated into the mysteries of philosophy, still hoping, after the lustrations and more troublesome ceremonies are undergone, he shall enjoy some considerable effect of his present troubles and inconveniences. Or suppose he be wrongfully chidden, it is but handsome to expect the conclusion; after that he may make his defence, and desire that such freedom and violence may be reserved to repress some other misdemeanor which really deserves it.

The Difficulties in Philosophy vincible.

[17] But besides this, — as in grammar, music, and the exercises of activity, there are many things which to young beginners appear troublesome, laborious, and obscure, which yet a fuller knowledge, like acquaintance among men, makes more agreeable, ready, and feasible, — in like manner, though philosophy in its first terms and notions may seem uncouth and strange, yet a man must not be so far discouraged at the first elements as to throw it up altogether, but he must bid at all and ply his business hard and patiently expect that acquaintance which will make all easy and pleasant; and that will not be long in coming, bringing great light into things and exciting ardent affections to virtue; without which to endure to live, after one has through his own effeminacy fallen from philosophy, is an argument of a mean spirit and servile disposition. I must confess there is some difficulty in the things themselves which is not easily conquered by raw and unexperienced beginners; yet the greatest part of the difficulty they bring upon themselves by their own ignorance and inadvertency, falling into the same error from two contrary causes. For some, out of a foolish bashfulness and desire to be easy to the speaker, are loath to be inquisitive or have the thing made plain to them, and so they nod their assent to every thing that is said, as if they fully comprehended it. And others out of unseasonable vain-glory, and vying with their fellows that they may vaunt their readiness of wit and quickness of apprehension, pretend to understand things before they do, and never understand them at all. Now the consequence in both cases is this; the modest go away in a great deal of anxiety and doubt, and are forced in the end, with greater disgrace, to interrupt the speaker to be informed again; and the vain-glorious are troubled to keep close and conceal the ignorance they carry about them.

[18] Therefore all such sheepishness and self-conceit being set aside, let us learn to lay up in our minds whatever is usefully said, enduring to be laughed at by such as set up for wits and railers. This course took Cleanthes and Xenocrates, who being somewhat slower than their fellows did not therefore give over hearing or despond; but prevented the jests of others, by comparing themselves to narrow-mouthed vessels and to copper plates; because, though they received learning with some difficulty, yet they retained it surely. For he that will be a good man must not only, as Phocylides says, —
Expect much fraud, and many a time be caught, —

but be laughed at and disgraced, and endure many scurrilous and virulent reflections; he must also encounter ignorance and wrestle with it with all the strength of his mind, and subdue it too.

Neither on the other hand must the faults be passed by which some troublesome people commit out of mere laziness and negligence; such men as will not bestow any pains in considering themselves, but asking often the same questions are a perpetual vexation to the speaker; like callow birds always gaping at the bill of the old one, and still reaching after what has been prepared and worked over by others. Another sort there are, who, affecting the reputation of quickness and attention, confound the speaker with their pragmatical curiosity and jargon, always haling in something unnecessary and requiring demonstrations of things foreign to the business in hand.

Thus a short way is long and tedious made,

as Sophocles /5/ says, and that not only to themselves, but others also. For by taking off the speaker with vain and unnecessary questions they retard the progress of instruction, like travellers in the road, by impertinent halts and stops. Hieronymus compares these men to lazy and greedy curs, which within doors bite and tear the skins of wild animals and lie tugging at their shaggy hair, but in the field dare not fasten upon beasts themselves.

A Concluding Exhortation.

Yet one exhortation let me leave with these people, that having received the general heads of things they would supply the rest by their own industry, making their memory a guide to their invention; and that, looking on the discourse of others only as a kind of first principle or seed, they would take care to cherish and increase it. For the mind requires not like an earthen vessel to be filled up; convenient fuel and aliment only will inflame it with a desire of knowledge and ardent love of truth. Now, as it would be with a man who, going to his neighbor’s to borrow fire and finding there a great and bright fire, should sit down to warm himself and forget to go home; so is it with the one who comes to another to learn, if he does not think himself obliged to kindle his own fire within and inflame his own mind, but continues sitting by his master as if he were enchanted, delighted by hearing. Such a one, although he may get the name of a philosopher, as we get a bright color by sitting by the fire, will never clear away the mould and rust of his mind, and dispel the darkness of his understanding by the help of philosophy. In fine, if there is any other precept concerning hearing, it is briefly this, to be careful in observing the last exhortation, — that is, to join the exercise of our invention to our hearing; that so, while we lay down the rule that hearing well is the first step to living well, we may not content ourselves with a superficial commonplace knowledge, but endeavor after such a philosophical habit as shall be deeply imprinted on the mind.

Here Ends Plutarch's On the Hearing of Lectures


 [1] Herod. I. 8.

 [2] Simonides, Frag. No. 47.

 [3] Odyss. XVII. 222.

 [4] Plato, Republic, V. p. 474 D.

 [5] Antigone, 232.