Plutarch on listening, and The Block


Not listening[W]e observe that… the great majority of persons …practise speaking before they have acquired the habit of listening.” Plutarch wrote that in his essay De Auditu, or On Listening. Reading those words immediately made me think of that group we have on Collingwood Council who never listen to anyone but themselves and frequently speak without any apparent thought behind their comments: The Block.

And, no, I don’t expect any of them to heed his words of wisdom or advice on this or any other subject. First, that would require reading, and reading is antithetical to all of them because it might lead to learning and that could lead to facts, and facts are something they will have none of this term.

Still, I thought I’d share some of Plutarch’s other words of wisdom with you, dear reader, so you can judge for yourself if, as it strikes me, it seems he was writing about them.*

Plutarch lived almost 2,000 years ago (c.50-c.120 CE), and was a prolific writer (you probably know him best for his historical “Lives”; biographies of famous Greeks and Romans). I came across this essay in a Penguin book I’ve been reading of late. They’re from his master work, Moralia, an eclectic collection of 78 essays.

…if anybody draws them to one side and tries to impart something useful, or to advise them of some duty, or to admonish them when in the wrong, or to mollify them when incensed, they have no patience with him; but, eager to get the better of him if they can, they fight against what he says, or else they beat a hasty retreat in search of other foolish talk, filling their ears like worthless and rotten vessels with anything rather than the things they need.

One only need consider the efforts by PowerStream to have their side of the story presented to council and help debunk the conspiracy theory being floated about the previous sale or the shared services agreement. None of The Block would hear them or our own staff, nor allow them to come to council and make public statements. 

Consider, too, The Block’s refusal to listen to anything the hospital representatives and their planner said about the redevelopment plan. Or to our municipal partners on the airport board who argued in favour of developing the site. There are so many examples of The Block refusing to listen to anyone who contradicted their rigid ideology or debunked their conspiracy theories that I can’t pretend to list them all here.

…the envy that is directed against a speaker is the offspring of an unseasonable desire for repute and a dishonest ambition, and it does not suffer the person in such a mood even to pay attention to what is being said, but it confuses and distracts his mind which at one moment is engaged in reviewing its own condition to see whether it be inferior to that of the speaker, then anon it turns to dwell on the other persons present to see whether they are showing any pleasure or admiration; it is disconcerted by their approval, and irritated at the audience if they find the speaker acceptable; disregards and dismisses the part of the discourse already delivered because the memory of it is painful… when the lecture is over, it does not ponder upon any point of the discussion, but proceeds to count as votes the comments and attitudes of those present; if any approve, fleeing and recoiling from these as though frantic; if disapprove or distort the things said, hastening to join their company; and if it be impossible to distort, then it falls to making comparisons with others who could have spoken better and more forcibly to the same purport — until by spoiling and maltreating the lecture it has succeeded in making the whole thing useless and unprofitable to itself.

A bit rambling, but still relevant: we all know The Block are jealous of anyone who can speak or think or read or reason better than they can (and that’s a long list), so they discount the message and the messenger alike. Like many people without accomplishments, they envy those with them. Hence their unrelenting hostility towards the previous council that actually did things, kept taxes low, and had real, memorable accomplishments as their legacy. This term’s legacy is a bylaw to prohibit throwing birdseed on your driveway. Little wonder The Block are jealous.

An offensive and tiresome listener is the man who is not to be touched or moved by anything that is said, full of festering presumption and ingrained self-assertion, as though convinced that he could say something better than what is being said, who neither moves his brow nor utters a single word to bear witness that he is glad to listen, But by means of silence and an affected gravity and pose, seeks to gain a reputation for poise and profundity; as though commendation were money, he feels that he is robbing himself of every bit that he bestows on another.

Full of presumption, self-aggrandizing confidence, unwilling and unhappy to listen, affected gravity desperate to look smart without actually being so, greedy for praise – that sure seems an uncanny resemblance to everyone in The Block, doesn’t it? Well, maybe the bit about affecting gravity in a vain attempt not to look foolish  really only refers to Sleepy, who seldom utters a peep during meetings.

And those persons who … are wont to exclaim over a lecture “Divine,” and “Inspired,” and “Unapproachable,” … and traduce the speakers, as though these desired such high-flown and excessive commendations. Exceedingly displeasing also are those who use an oath in testifying to their approval of the speakers as though in a law court.

Every watch a council meeting where The Block effusively congratulate staff on every report produced, as if it was a monumental effort for staff to actually do their jobs? Who gush excessively about the quality even of a pedestrian report? Every report gets praised as the best one ever. Such saccharine enthusiasm makes it evident to all listeners that the speaker is using a tissue-thin tactic to disguise the fact they haven’t actually read the report. 

That last quotation should be read in parallel with this one from section 18:

…we certainly must not neglect the mistake that leads to the opposite extreme, which some persons are led to commit by laziness, thus making themselves unpleasant and irksome. For when they are by themselves they are not willing to give themselves any trouble, but they give trouble to the speaker by repeatedly asking questions about the same things, like unfledged nestlings always agape toward the mouth of another, and desirous of receiving everything ready prepared and predigested.

Blind and ignorantWe are all aware of how The Block have swallowed the direction, advice and ideologies presented by the administration (and former CAO), and the sole-sourced lawyers and consultants hired to spoonfeed council.

None of the Block question, much lest investigate, the claims these sole-sourced “experts” made – which has led to the situation where now The Block are rabid believers in wildly inaccurate and egregiously biased conspiracy theories about pretty much everything from the fake OPP investigation to the former sale of a share in Collus to the operating costs of the recreational facilities. They were told to believe wild and crazy things and in their unquestioning, blind faith, they did. Eagerly.

There is another class, who, eager to be thought astute and attentive out of due place, wear out the speakers and loquacity and officiousness, by continually propounding some extraneous and unessential difficulty and asking for demonstrations of matters that need no demonstration…

Just watch any council meeting and you will soon weary of all the bloviation as The Block consume their time with pointless questions or vapid comments – none of which would be necessary if they actually read their agendas and reports. True at least one somnambulant councillor is seldom awake enough to engage in such self-serving puffery. Or perhaps it’s all simply beyond his ken, so he remains silent.

…admonitions and rebukes must be listened to neither with stolid indifference nor with unseemly emotion. For those who can submit to being reproved by philosophers so light-heartedly and heedlessly as to laugh when being taken to task and to commend those who take them to task, as parasites do when abused by those at whose expense they live, are utterly forward and bold, and they give no good or genuine proof of manliness by their shameless behaviour. As for a pleasant scoff, wittily delivered and in pure fun, if a man know how to take it cheerfully and without offence, his conduct argues no ignoble or uncultured mind, but one altogether generous and Spartan. On the other hand, to hear a reprehension or admonition to reform character, delivered in words that penetrate like a biting drug, and not to be humbled at hearing it, not to run into a sweating and dizziness, not to burn with shame in the soul, but, on the contrary to listen unmoved, grinning, dissembling in the face of it all, is a notable sign of an illiberal nature in the young, dead to all modesty because of an habitual and continued acquaintance with wrongdoing, with a soul like hard and calloused flesh, upon which no lash can leave a weal.

Can you imagine even ONE of The Block taking criticism in a mature, adult manner? Or being humble? Or just once not being vindictive? Neither can I. Their collective M.O. has always been to blame others and strike out, even when The Block made the mistake themselves. Then taking credit for what others did. Very Trumpian, that.

…it is necessary to keep in mind what has here been said, and to cultivate independent thinking along with our learning, so that we may acquire a habit of mind that is not sophistic or bent on acquiring mere information, but one that is deeply ingrained and philosophic, as we may do if we believe that right listening is the beginning of right living.

Well, The Block are not even bent on acquiring “mere information” because they already know everything, and don’t want to confuse themselves with facts. Besides, learning and thinking and facts were never part of their ideology. Blaming and criticizing and grabbing more entitlements, however, are well-established in it.

Plutarch ends this essay with an admonition that, “…the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth.” In which case, you would have to agree that the Block’s using very wet kindling in its faint effort to start any mental fires. So damp that it’s not smoking. Waterlogged, even.

Think independently? Think again: this is The Block’s hivemind we’re talking about. Ardent desire for truth? Yeah, I chuckled at that one, too.

Now, I know: Plutarch wasn’t really writing about our Blockheads, no matter how eerily relevant to them his words seem today. He wasn’t a “psychic” or prescient or prophetic.** He was writing about his own times and people. But it is interesting – and sometimes amusing – to read him today and see how little human behaviour has changed in the intervening millennia: Blockheads have been with us since the dawn or time. Which is why some of us continue to read these classics today.

Maybe I’ll post a piece on the local relevance of some of the other essays in the near future.

And, as I always say, Collingwood deserves better.

* The text quoted here is from Vol. I of the Loeb Classical Library edition of the Moralia, first published in 1927, and now in the public domain. The Penguin edition I am reading is somewhat less fustian in its wording. You can read a few more of these essays here, from the same 1927 edition.

** Anyone who claims to be a “psychic” is either delusional or a con artist. Or both.

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One comment


    Two new social psychology studies predict the likelihood that one will believe conspiracy beliefs or theories… people who overestimate how well they understand politics are more likely to believe that hidden actors or clandestine groups are conspiring in wide-ranging activities to influence important world actions, events, and outcomes.

    That partially explains why The Block believe in conspiracies: they don’t understand what the politics or the facts. But then, they don’t want to: they’re happy as clams not to know the truth,

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