Kierkegaard Talks about Love

Imagine two artists:

One travels the world over, searching for a human subject worthy of his skill as a painter of portraits. But so exacting are his standards and so fastidious his judgment that he has yet to discover a single person worthy of his efforts. Every potential subject is marred by some disqualifying flaw.

The second artist, on the other hand, has no special admiration for his own skill. Consequently, he never things to look beyond his immediate circle of neighbors for his subjects. Nevertheless, he has yet to find a face without something beautiful in it, something eminently worthy to be portrayed.

Wouldn’t this indicate that the second painter is the real artist? Yes–because this second one “brings a certain something” that enables him or her to find in others that which is worthy to paint. The other painter could not find anything worthy to paint anywhere in the world because he or she did not bring this “certain something.” 

So it is with love, says Kierkegaard. Those who think they can love only the people they prefer do not love at all. Love discovers truths about individuals–any individuals–that others cannot see (see Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love [New York: Harper and Row, 1962], 156-157).

[The above four paragraphs are slightly adapted from C. Terry Warner, Bonds That Make Us Free pages 306-307. C. Terry Warner also founded The Arbinger Institute, which wrote Leadership and Self Deception, The Anatomy of Peace, and The Outward Mindset.]

I found this image on

Aristotle, On the Soul Book 3.3

Book 3.3 is about the imagination. Many philosophers believe that thinking is perceiving. [At least, they use metaphors to describe thinking in terms of perceiving.] But this is not entirely the case because that would mean that everything that we see was true, and we are sometimes deceived by our senses. The sun, for example, looks small but is actually many times larger than the earth. But seeing things as they really are is always true, but it is possible to think falsely. Thought belongs to no creature which doesn’t have the power to reason.
Imagination is different from both perception and thought. It always implies perception, and is itself implied by judgment. It’s not in our power to form opinions about whatever we want because our opinions must be either true or false. When we form opinions we are immediately affected by them.
Imagination is a form of judgment, but it is not always right. Is it opinion?
“[O]pinion implies belief (for one cannot hold opinions in which one does not believe)” (428a20). Lower creatures don’t believe, but many have imagination. “Again, every opinion [doxa] is accompanied by belief [pistis], belief by conviction, and conviction by rational discourse [logos]” (428a20). Some creatures have imagination, but no reasoning power, no logos.

“Since sight is the chief sense, the name phantasia (imagination) is derived from phaos (light), because without light it is impossible to see” (429a). 

A Note on the Topics of Aristotle

Wow. Look at this definition! “Now syllogism is a statement [logos] in which, certain things having been posited, something other than the posited necessarily results through what is posited” (100a). We have something—and something else comes in to being from it! Where’s Aristotle’s On Coming to Be and Passing Away when I need it? J

Apodeixis [logical demonstration] occurs whenever the syllogism is drawn from things that are true and primary or from things that are of the sort as to have taken the first principle of knowledge of them from what is primary and true; but a syllogism is dialectical when drawn from generally accepted opinions” (100a-100b18). Things that are true are persuasive in themselves and by themselves. Opinions, or endoxa, are things that seem right to all people or most people or the wise, meaning most of the wise, or the most well-known as authorities.
Dialectic is useful for 3 purposes: mental training as a method to undertake discussion on any subject, serious conversation that lets us restate what other say to us, and philosophical science, since dialectic enables us to state both sides of an issue and thereby more easily see what is true and what is false.
“We shall possess the method completely when we are in the same situation as in rhetoric and medicine and such faculties: that is, [able] to accomplish what we choose from the available means; for neither will the one with rhetorical skill persuade by every means nor will the doctor heal, but if none of the available means is neglected we shall say that he has knowledge adequately” (101b).

[What exactly is “available means”?]

From Topics Book 1.1-3

Chaim Perelman, The Realm of Rhetoric, A Brief Summary

In this excerpt from The Realm of Rhetoric from The Rhetorical Tradition on pages 1379-1383, Perelman gives a brief history of rhetoric and explains the realm of rhetoric.

He begins by discussing ancient philosophy and rhetoric, and uses the sophists to give a voice to a version of rhetoric that is greater than philosophy, can argue on both sides of the question, and puts specific opinions over general truths. Then philosophy is given a voice by Plato, who makes philosophy greater than rhetoric, makes rhetoric as a means to truth, and shows that when a philosopher has perceived truth, he or she uses rhetoric to make it known.

But for Perelman, Aristotle’s views are more nuanced, since he believed that philosophy and rhetoric are both important, useful, and necessary. For example, a rigorous mathematical proof would not be appropriate in a speech, and a speech would not be appropriate in a mathematical proof. Certain situations require certain ways of demonstration.

But while anciently rhetoric had been taught as consisting of the five canons of invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery, later in the early modern period, Peter Ramus reduced rhetoric to style and ornamentation, and Descartes went even further to eliminate rhetoric from philosophy altogether. Descartes wanted a philosophy that was pure and unambiguous and, neglecting Aristotle’s advice, also wanted to have mathematical rigor in language, in all fields, and in all realms and areas of study. Descartes wanted to build all knowledge on what was self-evident.

But Perelman has a problem with self-evidence. He says that self-evidence imposes itself on everyone and takes away people’s free will. If a thing is self-evident, then nobody can choose to disagree with it. And even if a thing is self-evident, that self-evidence vanishes as soon as people try to communicate it because language is fallible and not self-evident. In other words, even the trope of “self-evidence” becomes problematic because too many deceptions can come from it. Our words never force anyone else to believe what we say—others have that choice whether to accept our statements or reject them. The choices we make in language and expression, however, are “influenced by reasons which come from dialectic and rhetoric” (1382).

Hence Perelman writes, 

“Even today the teaching of the sciences is inspired by the Cartesian approach. In the areas which are free from controversy, it is not customary to refer to the opinion of one or another scholar. The theses which are taught are considered true, or are accepted as hypotheses; but there is hardly any need to justify them.
“Thus, although axioms in the mathematical sciences, considered at first self-evident, were subsequently shown to be conventions of language, this change of perspective, however fundamental, has not affected the way in which such formal systems are laid out. In fact, if it is not a question of self-evidence, but of hypotheses or conventions, why choose this hypothesis or that convention rather than another? Most mathematicians consider such questions foreign to their discipline” (1381).

In other words, we confess that scientific thought is human thought. And that “Every new idea must be supported by arguments which are relevant to its discipline’s proper methodology and which are evaluated in terms of it” (1382). So, as human beings, we can’t get away from argumentation. Hence, rhetoric as a theory of argumentation is the way to go. We persuade one another to viewpoints, and we use good reasons to support our conclusions.

Philosophy is about separating “the important from the secondary, the essential from the accidental, the construct from the given, all from a perspective whose pertinence and superiority does not compel everyone. Hence the obligation to support the chosen perspective through argumentation, using analogies and metaphors, by which the adequacy and superiority of the one perspective over rival perspectives can be shown.” In other words, people have freedom to choose. A theory of argumentation lets people have freedom because it does not compel anyone to believe a certain way. A “general theory of argumentation” is “a new rhetoric” (1383).

So what is the realm of rhetoric? For Perelman, the realm of rhetoric includes anything that is human: “In identifying this rhetoric with the general theory of persuasive discourse, which seeks to gain both the intellectual and the emotional adherence of any sort of audience, we affirm that every discourse which does not claim an impersonal validity belongs to rhetoric” (1383). Or, put another way, “As soon as a communication tries to influence one or more persons, to orient their thinking, to excite or calm their emotions, to guide their actions, it belongs to the realm of rhetoric” (1383).

Cicero’s Dialogue on the Ideal Orator: A Brief Summary of Book III

Cicero begins this final book with a preface that tells his brother Quintus that Crassus spoke many “divinely inspired words” and was a “divinely gifted man” (225). He spoke like a swan, and swans were believed to sing more beautifully when they were about to die. In a footnote to this passage, James May and Jakob Wisse write that “Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo (84-85) interprets [the likeness of a speaker to a swan] as a sign of prophetic powers” (225n5).

Then the story continues. Most of the interlocutors rested during the noon hour, but Crassus spent it in intense reading. When it is time for him to speak, he begins by saying that style and content cannot be separated: “I have the impression that those great men of the past, having grasped in their minds something of a higher order, have thereby seen much more than our mind’s eye, today, is able to contemplate: they said that all the universe above and below us is a unity and is bound together by a single, natural force and harmony” (230). So there ought to be agreement and harmony between all disciplines, and true eloquence forms that unity. Speech is like a river that branches into many smaller streams but still comes from the same source. Since things aren’t separated as we sometimes think they are, a person’s words cannot be separated from that person’s thoughts. Hence, “discovering words for a distinguished style is impossible without having produced and shaped the thoughts,” and “no thought can shine clearly without the enlightening power of words” (231).

Each speaker, however, has a distinct style, and all are talented in their own way. So it is the responsibility of teachers to see which students have which talents and to adapt instruction in such a way as to maximize the learning and potential of all students. One must speak with clarity, distinction, and in a way that is both suitable and appropriate to the situation. Orators should learn to control breathing, their tongue, and the sound of their voice. Orators should also use common words and avoid both ambiguity and overly long periodic sentences. No one admires an orator for speaking correct Latin, but they do make fun of one that doesn’t, so speaking correctly is necessary. One may refine grammar and diction by reading other orators and poets.

And then there’s this key passage which I will quote in full:
“For the true orator ought to have examined and heard and read and discussed and thoroughly treated all aspects of human life, since it is with them that the orator is engaged, and it is this that constitutes his material. Eloquence, after all, has its own place among the supreme virtues. Of course, all the virtues are equal and equivalent, but still, one is more beautiful and splendid in appearance than another. This is the case with the power that I am talking about: having acquired all-embracing knowledge, it unfolds the thoughts and counsels of the mind in words, in such a way that it can drive the audience in whatever direction it has applied its weight. And the greater this power is, the more necessary it is to join it to integrity and the highest measure of good sense. For if we put the full resources of speech at the disposal of those who lack these virtues, we will certainly not make orators of them, but will put weapons into the hands of madmen” (239).
The ancients, Crassus continues, didn’t separate speech and act: “For the old form of learning seems to have taught both right actions and good speech. Nor were the teachers separated from each other, but the same people gave instructions for living and for speaking” (240). Disciplines became separated when people began to notice that they could prosper if they would specialize. A rupture between the tongue and the heart is also harmful. The best philosophers also said that “eloquence is a virtue and a form of wisdom” (244), and “used to link the principles of oratory with the entire study and knowledge of everything that was relevant to human conduct, to human life, to virtue, and to the state” (246). These ancients meant for there to be “communion between speaking and understanding” (247).

Hence, true eloquence includes everything: “The real power of eloquence is so enormous that its scope includes the origin, essence, and transformations of everything: virtues, moral duties, and all the laws of nature that govern human conduct, characters, and life. It establishes traditions, laws, and legal arrangements, governs the State, and addresses with distinction and copiousness all questions belonging to any area whatsoever” (248). An orator is an actor. Sure, this is a lofty ideal, but we’re examining the ideal orator, and we do the same thing when we theoretically examine any other art or skill—we try to see it in its best, most ideal, and fullest form possible.

Crassus then discusses style. He says that sweetness and poetic diction in speech can sometimes be effective, but we can’t stand to eat sweet food all day, so moderation is best. The best speeches shift back and forth from the specific to the general because the specific addresses particular concerns, but the general principles enable audience members to apply things in multiple contexts. To become better orators, we must put good things into our minds—the best things, actually. And since all subjects are connected with one another, any good we can gain will help us become effective speakers. The same is true with virtue and the virtues. Plato was a teacher of speech, of the mind, and of virtue.

Crassus goes on to say that metaphors are useful because the mind’s eye is drawn more easily to things we have seen than to things we have only heard. He discusses tropes and figures, juxtaposition, rhythm, and periodic structure. Good rhythm is pleasing to an audience. Crassus mentions figures of thought and figures of speech and their usage, but the underlying rule is that, no matter what, “In every area, the capacity to do what is appropriate is a matter of art and natural ability, but to know what is appropriate at each time is a matter of intelligence” (290).

Finally, Crassus discusses delivery, what he calls the dominant factor in oratory. Orators are actors because they must use their voice, gestures, facial expressions, and eyes effectively. Delivery is “wholly a matter of the soul, and the face is an image of the soul, while the eyes reflect it” (294). In fact, everything is dominated by the eyes. Put another way, “Delivery is, so to speak, the language of the body, which makes it all the more essential that it should correspond to what we intend to say” (294). Delivery is so important and influential because human beings want to see a speech performed. The most useful is the most appropriate.

Crassus concludes by saying that his speech isn’t perfect, but it’s the best he could do. Catulus thinks it was awesome, though, and the group decides to rest their minds after the long discussion.

Links to Additional Brief Summaries of On the Ideal Orator (De Oratore)
Book I  |  Book II  |  Book III

“CiceroBust”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Cicero’s Dialogue on the Ideal Orator: A Brief Summary of Book II

Cicero begins Book 2 by telling his brother Quintus that “anyone who has ever achieved success and pre-eminence in eloquence can only have done so by relying on the whole of wisdom, not just on rhetorical rules” (126). In other words, eloquence isn’t about following a set of pre-prescribed rules, but about seeking and coming to know wisdom. That is, to some degree, why Isocrates was the father of eloquence. Then Cicero continues the story he told in Book 1.

The Conversation Continued
Catulus and Caesar join the previous day’s group, and all decide to continue the earlier discussion. Antonius begins by extolling eloquence, saying that the orator can speak well on any topic that belongs to the other arts. When he is finished, Catulus and Crassus act surprised, because what he says today seems to conflict with what he said yesterday, but Antonius explains his change of attitude: yesterday he was trying to refute Crassus, but today he’s trying to express his own opinions. Antonius then divides oratory and discusses judicial and deliberative oratory, historiography, and general, philosophical questions. The books we read, he says, influence our speech patterns. And when we learn the harder things, the easier things follow naturally. Catulus says that the hardest things to talk about are the gods, but Antonius disagrees.

[To some degree, it seems to me as if Antonius is sort of restating parts of Crassus’ speech of the previous day, or at least agreeing with parts of it.]

Antonius then discusses talent, natural abilities, and training. The orator should be a good man, cultured, and almost divine. In training, a learner must find someone to imitate, then reproduce the chosen model. We learn by practicing, and especially by writing.

Antonius then discusses invention, summarizing stasis theory. Oratory consists in three means of persuasion: “proving that our contentions are true, winning over our audience, and inducing their minds to feel any emotion the case may demand (153-154). Antonius’ method is based on three procedures: 1) “to win people over,” which requires gentleness, 2) “to instruct them,” which requires intellectual acumen, and 3) “to stir their feelings,” which requires vigor (157). Invention involves intellectual ability, method, and diligence, and diligence is “the single virtue on which all over virtues depend” (162). Aristotle wrote about the topics or commonplaces from which arguments come, and Antonius then lists several: definition is useful if people don’t know what a thing is, and there are also topics like connected terms, genus, species, similarity, difference, opposite, attendant circumstances, consistencies, antecedents, contradictions, causes, results, greater, lesser, equal. [These remind me of Kenneth Burke’s innate forms of the mind in Counter-Statement. They are things all human beings have the capacity to recognize. Cf. The Metaphors We Live By and The Meaning of the Body.] But Antonius rushes through these things quickly so he can come to “more important matters” (170)—the character of the speaker and the emotions.

As for character, people are won over by a person’s accomplishments, prestige, and reputation. “Such things are easier to embellish if present than to fabricate if totally lacking, but at any rate, their effect is enhanced by a gentle tone of voice on the part of the orator, an expression on his face intimating restraint, and kindliness in the use of his words” (171). Also “generosity, mildness, dutifulness, gratitude, and of not being desirous or greedy. Actually all qualities typical of people who are decent and unassuming, not severe, not obstinate, not litigious, not harsh, really win goodwill, and alienate the audience from those who do not possess them” (171). Good speakers often speak quietly, and in a gentle, low-key manner. Character “often has more influence than the case itself. Moreover, so much is accomplished by speaking thoughtfully and with a certain taste, that the speech may be said to mold an image of the character of the orator. Employing thoughts of a certain kind and words of a certain kind, and adopting besides a delivery that is gentle and shows signs of flexibility, makes speakers appear as decent, as good in character—yes, as good men” (171-172). I have quoted these passages in full because they seem to me to be key.

Poets call speech “soul-bending, the queen of all the world” (172). The hearer cannot feel emotion that the orator does not show in “words, thoughts, voice, face” (173). We act out our own character, and loyalty, moral duty, and diligence are important. Orators should not use oratorical firebrands for insignificant matters. A speech should have humanity to it.

Caesar’s Excursus on Wit
Then comes Caesar’s excursus on wit. Wit can accomplish good. Joking shouldn’t detract from authority, though but laughter is power. It can refute some arguments that can’t otherwise be easily refuted. Joking must be used with restraint, however. The orator “must give proof of his own good manners and modesty by avoiding dishonorable words and obscene subjects” (188). The orator is distinguished from the buffoon because he takes into account the occasion and exercises restraint and moderation, as well as tries to achieve some purpose with them instead of just being funny. Topics for humor can be topics for seriousness, such as observations, resemblances, similarities in words, puns, and ambiguity.

But not everything that is funny is also witty. For example, clowns may be funny, but orators should not try to imitate clowns, nor should they be in any way “peevish, superstitious, suspicious, boastful, [or] stupid” (191). Orators also shouldn’t be obscene or distort their face, like some comedians do. Humor can also come from many topics or commonplaces such as fables, similarity, exaggeration, insinuation, irony, calling something disgraceful by an honorable name, censuring stupidity, the unexpected turn, friendly advice, pointing to something that seems to fit a person’s character, pointed remarks, impossible wishes, or the unexpected.

Antonius Concludes

After Caesar finishes his excursus on laughter and humor and wit, Antonius takes control again and begins talking about arrangement: choice and distribution of arguments, character, and emotion. Orators must be good judges of situations. The audience’s expectations should be met as quickly as possible, even in the first few words of the introduction. The speech should charm and attract the hearer right away, and the following narration should be pleasant, after which comes the proposition, the argumentation, and finally the conclusion. Antonius mentions the deliberative and laudatory genres, and concludes his speech by discussing memory: since understanding a thing’s order improves its retention in the mind, one way to remember things is to form mental images of a related object or place and use that object or place to recall things in the speech. The purpose of the art of speaking is not to create something from scratch what isn’t present in us, “but to rear and develop what has already been born and created within us” (220). Antonius concludes, and the morning’s discussion ends with everyone anticipating what will be Crassus’ afternoon discussion of style and delivery.

Links to Additional Brief Summaries of On the Ideal Orator (De Oratore)
Book I  |  Book II  |  Book III

“M-T-Cicero” by original: Gunnar Bach Pedersen; for that version: Louis le Grand – Image:Thorvaldsen Cicero.jpg.
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Cicero’s Dialogue on the Ideal Orator: A Brief Summary of Book I

In a preface, Cicero writes to his brother Quintus about oratory: eloquence is important because it has such powerful influence on people, society, politics, and even humanity, but there are few really great speakers. True oratory is challenging because one must know so many things, such as how language is shaped and arranged, how emotions work in human beings, and what kind of a person befits a gentleman. Also, one must understand history and law and delivery, as well as have a good memory. In short, one must know practically everything (62). Hence the challenge of oratory. Then Cicero begins to tell a story.

Five men, Crassus, Cotta, Sulpicius, Scaevola, and Antonius are walking in Crassus’ garden when Scaevola turns to Crassus and says that this plane tree reminds him of the conversation between Socrates and Phaedrus in Plato’s Phaedrus. It is suggested that they have a similar conversation, and Crassus begins to extol eloquence and its power and greatness. This kind of praise and honor to eloquence, however, leads Scaevola to object by saying that sometimes eloquence has been harmful to people. Crassus replies by telling Scaevola that he heard these same arguments against eloquence on a visit to Athens, though ideally, eloquence is a good thing. Crassus continues to say that the orator does need philosophical knowledge if he is to speak well. The perfect orator can speak on any subject, even better than the specialists. He learns about life the same way he learns about a case from his clients. The true orator also knows all of the arts: the “entire topic of human life and conduct must be thoroughly mastered by the orator” (73).

Scaevola responds by saying that this ideal orator is unrealistic, and when Crassus says he’s only talking about the ideal, Scaevola says this ideal might go too far. Yet, prompted by Cotta, Sulpicius, and Scaevola, Crassus goes on to say that the most eloquent aren’t interested in many of the trivial handbooks that have been published (81). Natural ability is important, and, interestingly, the better a man speaks the more fearful he is about speaking because he knows that orators are judged harshly every time they open their mouths. “In an orator, . . . we have to demand the acumen of a dialectician, the thoughts of a philosopher, the words . . . of a poet, the memory of a jurisconsult, the voice of a tragic performer, and gestures close to those of a consummate actor” (86). Training and practice are also important, and the pen is the best teacher of all.

Then, when Cotta and Scaevola ask Crassus to develop more fully his picture of the ideal orator, Crassus emphasizes that the orator needs knowledge of law. The great orator they are discussing is a child of the gods: “The man we are searching for is, in the first place, the high priest of his art, an art whose great powers, it is true, were bestowed upon the human race by nature herself, but which is at the same time regarded as having had a god for its creator: the very faculty that is the hallmark of humanity appears not to have been produced through our own agency, but to have been presented to us from above by divine decree” (106). The orator is protected by his own title of speaker (and the assumption here is that he is an envoy who promotes peace).

Antonius objects, saying that Crassus has essentially defined a philosopher, not an orator. Philosophy is not necessary for an orator because philosophy is impractical. Legal knowledge is also not totally necessary, and, overall, Crassus’ demands are too high: an orator is one who “is able to speak in a manner that is suited to persuasion” (123) and who must constantly practice and work hard. And with those words of Antonius, the discussion ends for the day.

Links to Additional Brief Summaries of On the Ideal Orator (De Oratore)
Book I  |  Book II   |  Book III 

“M. Tullii Ciceronis De oratore liber” by Arundel MS 124, f. 1site
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Two Scholars On Reading Well

What does it mean to read something well? What sources can you think of that discuss reading well?

One source from the Appendix in Wayne Booth’s Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism. Booth was a scholar of literary criticism and rhetoric. The Appendix to this book is called “A Hippocratic Oath for the Pluralist,” and in it, Booth gives what he calls five “ordinances” for achieving good criticism, saying at the end that if we kept them, “we would experience a renewed sense that our critical sanity does not depend on ‘covering’ as many works as possible” (352). Here is what he says:

1. We shouldn’t publish anything about anything we’ve read all the way through at least once.
2. We’ll try to not publish anything about anything that we haven’t totally understood.
3. We’ll not believe other critics unless they convince us that they’ve abided by the first 2 rules.
4. We won’t take on a project that has us violate principles 1-3.
5. We won’t judge others’ “inevitable violations” of the first 4 principles worse than we judge our own.

Isn’t that interesting?

Another source on reading well comes from C.S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism. Lewis was a medieval and renaissance scholar who became Christian apologist later in life. In Chapter 4 of An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis gives 5 characteristics of bad readers, but I’ll sum them up into 3 categories:

1. Bad readers only read narratives.
2-3. Bad readers have no ears and are wholly unconscious of style.
4-5. Bad readers enjoy narratives that are reduced to the minimum and are action-packed.

What do you think about these guidelines for reading well?
What sources have you found about good reading and bad reading? And what does it mean to read well?

What Speech Reveals, According to a Chinese Philosopher and a Few Rhetoricians

Kung-sun Ch’ou asked Mencius, the Chinese Philosopher, how he was better than Kao Tzu, another Chinese Philosopher. 

Mencius said, “I understand ‘what can be put in words.’ I am adept in the cultivation of the ch’i.

But this answer didn’t satisfy Kung-sun Ch’ou. So he said, “Might I ask what you mean by ‘the ch’i’?” Then Mencius replied,

It is difficult to express in words. The ch’i [often translated as “physical vigour” or “passion-nature”] in this sense is the greatest, the most durable. If it is nurtured by rectitude it remains unharmed and permeates the entire universe. The ch’i in this sense is the fit recipient for Justice and the Way. Without it, man is ill-nourished. It is begotten of the sum total of just deeds. It is not to be seized and held by incidental just deeds. If an act of ours does not meet approval with the heart, then [the life force] is ill-nourished. That is why Kao Tzu has never understood Justice. He thinks it is external to man. One must render service to it; one must not regard it as an objective criterion. The mind must never let it out of its sight, but we must not try to make it grow. Let us not be like the man of Sung who, worried that his young plants were not growing, tugged at them [to help them grow]. He returned home, full of fuss, saying, “What a busy day! I have been helping my plants to grow.” His son hurried out to the fields to look, but the young plants had withered already. There are few men in the world today who are not “helping the plants grow.” Some neglect their plants, thinking it useless to weed them. Some help their plants by giving them a tug. But this is not merely useless; it is actually harmful.

But this somewhat cryptic answer still wasn’t enough for Kung-sun Ch’ou. So he asked what Mencius meant when he said that he “understood what can be put into words.” Then Mencius responded,

I understand what hides the other half of a half-truth. I understand the pitfalls that lie beneath extravagant statements. I understand the emptiness that lies behind evasive statements. Engendered in the mind, they cause harm to government. When they result in governmental action they cause harm to public affairs. If a Sage were to rise again he would agree with all I have said. (Mencius

Stephen Owen has interpreted Mencius’ statement this way,

Mencius’ knowledge of language is a knowledge of what the words reveal about the speaker, what they make manifest. . . . Words become only a surface whose shape reveals what lies within. Mencius’ list of different kinds of language shows that the trained listener can make fine discriminations. Most important, what the speaker reveals in his words is involuntary–perhaps not at all what he would wish to have revealed. Error and deception are not autonomous categories here, but are subsumed under understanding the person: they are nothing more than manifestations of ignorance or the desire to deceive and as such become important pieces of evidence for us when we listen to someone speak, recognizing the truth or accepting error, being deceived or not being deceived rest with the capacities of the listener. (Readings in Chinese Literary Thought, 1992)

In other words, speech is a subset of action. Ways of speaking are ways of acting, and speech patterns reveal thought patterns. All of this suspiciously sounds like Isocrates, who wrote in his Nicocles that “We regard speaking well to be the clearest sign of a good mind . . . and truthful, lawful, and just speech we consider the image of a good and faithful soul” (171). 

That capacity that Owen reads into Mencius–the capacity to listen well and to listen responsibly–is what we as human beings all strive towards. Wayne Booth, at the end of his book that was subtitled The Quest for Effective Communication, wrote that the quality of our lives–not just individually but also collectively–largely depends on the quality of our capacity to listen and respond, in short, our capacity to actually communicate (The Rhetoric of Rhetoric 171-172).

But there is a difference between actually communicating and merely thinking that we are communicating. Actual communication does not happen between beings who do not try to listen with their hearts as well as their heads. Listening is more than merely hearing words, and understanding another human being is more than simply getting enough information that will make me sound cool when I open my mouth. 

Cicero on How to Treat One’s Neighbor

Cicero, who lived from 106-43 BC and who is considered the greatest of the Roman orators, often has some pretty good things to say. In book 3 chapter 5 of his On Duties, for example, he writes that it is better to spend one’s time in the service of others instead of spending it in the service of one’s self. Here is the passage: 

There he is. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

[I]t is more in accord with Nature to emulate the great Hercules and undergo the greatest toil and trouble for the sake of aiding or saving the world, if possible, than to live in seclusion, not only free from all care, but revelling in pleasures and abounding in wealth, while excelling others also in beauty and strength. Thus Hercules denied himself and underwent toil and tribulation for the world, and, out of gratitude for his services, popular belief has given him a place in the council of the gods. The better and more noble, therefore, the character with which a man is endowed, the more does he prefer the life of service to the life of pleasure. Whence it follows that man, if he is obedient to Nature, cannot do harm to his fellow-man. (Loeb 30; 1913, 132)

Pretty good, right? I like it because it inspires me to want to work at making the world a better place instead of trying to make my own life as easy and extravagant as possible. I think it is true that the best human beings who have lived on this earth, the most respected and the ones who have done the most good, often “underwent [much] toil and tribulation” when they could have spent a life “revelling in pleasures and abounding in wealth.” 

This certainly doesn’t mean entirely neglecting one’s own duties to one’s self. But it does mean not letting what I want distract me from recognizing that the most important things in life are not things: having a bunch of awesome stuff that I keep for myself doesn’t really make me happy. The most important things, on the contrary, are other members of the human family. They are brothers, sisters, parents, children, friends, coworkers, acquaintances, and even strangers. After all, strangers to us are not strangers to themselves. Strangers have lives similar to our own, and their lives are certainly not strange to themselves. Doing things for these people–even strangers–is what makes me happy, and it is also what makes the world a better place.