Reading Dylan Pahman’s recent piece, Don’t write off young ‘socialists’, got me thinking about talking and listening. We all talk and listen, with varying degrees of success, every day. Most of the time I do each well enough to muddle through learning something from others while imparting some sliver of wisdom in between boisterous declarations of my opinions and preferences. It’s a work in progress but a vitally important one in that, “A wise man will hear, and will increase in learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels,” (Proverbs 1:5) and, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof.” (Proverbs 18:21).
Dylan’s piece challenges us to more carefully listen to others, responding not merely to their words but taking the time to measure their intentions and meaning. Even in disagreement we should strive to see what in the speech of our neighbors is oriented towards the true and the good. It is only through building on that common good that our words, even if spoken in disagreement, can bring life and bear fruit in increased understanding. It is, like anything worthwhile, easier said than done.
In thinking through these challenges I recalled a biographical essay by Frank Chodorov on Jay Albert Nock,
He was completely out of step with the times. But he was not crotchety nor quarrelsome with things as they were; he rather accepted them as inevitable. While keeping as far as possible from the parade, he went his own way through life. In a crowd, if he happened to be in one, he was distinguishable only by his infinite capacity for listening. He was too considerate to refute any statement, even a palpably false one, and too self-respecting to get into controversy. “Never complain, never explain, never argue,” he often said, “and you will get more fun out of life.”
Nock’s admonition to never complain, never explain, and never argue puts both others and the truth at the center of our conversation. Our complaints are often self-centered and directed at others. This leads us to an over-developed sense of our own self-importance while simultaneously devaluing and dismissing others. Our explanations of our behavior and ideas often act as excuses for our failings and lack of rigor and clarity. It is for this reason the Duke de Broglie famously warned, “Beware of too much explaining, lest we end by too much excusing.” Our arguments are often arguments in the worst sense, as in a dispute or a quarrel, and not in the sense of statements of fact or reason. We become driven to win or to dominate our interlocutor rather than seeking truth together in the manner of friends.
This advice, in a general way, enables us to orient our conversation toward a greater knowledge of our neighbor and the truth. It transforms even our talking and listening into teaching and learning. This talking, listen, teaching, and learning is how we bring ourselves every day, in a small way, towards a free and virtuous society.