“A man may have hearing and yet not be hearing…”
Aristotle, On the Soul
We probably take hearing for granted, as though simply something we can do at will. But what if without realizing it we are actually hard of hearing, or even deaf?
Hearing is a wonderful and mysterious thing. One of the five senses, it has the dignity of being a way of taking in or having the world around us. How amazing that by hearing we can perceive reality! And of course, in human persons the senses are just the beginning of deeper ways of perceiving–deeper seeing, hearing, or tasting.
Thomas Aquinas says that hearing is a way of gaining knowledge from others, while seeing tends more to be a matter of ‘seeing for oneself.’ Hearing especially takes the form of hearing words that are spoken by other persons. We all can learn to hear better the words spoken by the people around us.
But there is something else, something that is intimately tied to our ability or inability to hear persons. There is a hearing of things that are not spoken—at least not spoken in the normal sense. The ancients refer to giving ear to nature. Perhaps this is a significant aspect of what we need to recover, in order to learn to hear again.
This morning as I sit writing by my window I hear the song of many birds. I can ask myself: am I really hearing what I might perceive in the song of the birds? Or, am I hearing without really hearing?
What about the sunrise, the trees, the grass, and the flowers? But wait—these don’t make much of a sound. Is there any issue of ‘hearing’ them?
Surely, these things have something ‘to say’ to me, something then which calls for my hearing. The natural world is speaking in some very real sense. Here, the sense of sight can be a pathway to hearing. I must look intently with my eyes and listen intently with my ears, in order to hear… that which is really ‘being said.’
Nay-sayers will scoff. Such, they will posit, are whimsical suggestions, the mere imaginations of dreamers or the vain hopes of the unrealistic or unscientific–maybe something about which to write a poem.
Verily, the greatest poets have heard things most of us have not learned to hear; and the greatest philosophers too—for philosophy begins in wonder, and wonder begins in a seeing and a hearing that opens into the deep.
To learn to hear again we can begin with what is all around us, and persevere. When a student struggles to read Plato, it can seem like there is nothing there to hear. The right answer is to keep on reading, so eventually to hear at least something of what is being said.
The natural world is all around us, not to mention within us. We can choose this summer to look again, and to keep listening, in order that we might hear what is being said.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher. On the Soul is his study of the amazing reality of living things, culminating in human life.
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