A Timeless Analogy About Speaking and Listening

A conversation is like playing catch (and we never learn learn how to listen)

Mortimer Adler & Charles van Duren (How to Read a Book):

The reader or listener is much more like the catcher in a game of baseball. Catching the ball is just as much an activity as pitching or hitting it. The pitcher or batter is the sender in the sense that his activity initiates the motion of the ball. The catcher or fielder is the receiver in the sense that his activity terminates it. Both are active, though the activities are different. If anything is passive, it is the ball. It is the inert thing that is put in motion or stopped, whereas the players are active, moving to pitch, hit, or catch.

Plutarch (Essays):

Instead, just as in a ball game the catcher must move and change position in a rhythm which responds to that of the thrower, so in the case of speeches there is a certain harmonious rhythm on both the speaker’s and the listener’s part, if each of them makes sure that his own conduct is appropriate.

Epictetus (Discourse)

This is what you will see skilful ball players doing also. None of them is concerned about the ball as being something good or bad, but about throwing and catching it. Accordingly, form has to do with that, skill with that, and speed, and grace; where I cannot catch the ball even if I spread out my cloak, the expert catches it if I throw.

Yet if we catch or throw the ball in a flurry or in fear, what fun is there left, and how can a man be steady, or see what comes next in the game? But one player will say “Throw!” another, “Don’t throw I ” and yet another, “Don’t throw it up!” That, indeed, would be a strife and not a game. In that sense, then, Socrates knew how to play ball. How so? He knew how to play in the lawcourt. “Tell me,” says he, ” Anytus, what do you mean when you say that I do not believe in God. In your opinion who are the daemones? Are they not either the offspring of the gods or a hybrid race, the offspring of men and gods?” And when Anytus had agreed to that statement Socrates went on, “Who, then, do you think, can believe that mules exist, but not asses?” In so speaking he was like a man playing ball. And at that place and time what was the ball that he was playing with? Imprisonment, exile, drinking poison, being deprived of wife, leaving children orphan.These were the things with which he was playing, but none the less he played and handled the ball in good form. So ought we also to act, exhibiting the ball-player’s carefulness about the game, but the same indifference about the object played with, as being a mere ball.For a man ought by all means to strive to show his skill in regard to some of the external materials, yet without making the material a part of himself, but merely lavishing his skill in regard to it, whatever it may be. So also the weaver does not make wool, but he lavishes his skill on whatever wool he receives. Another gives you sustenance and property and can likewise take them away, yes, and your paltry body itself. Do you accordingly accept the material and work it up. Then if you come forth without having suffered any harm, the others who meet you will congratulate you on your escape, but the man who knows how to observe such matters, if he sees that you have exhibited good form in this affair, will praise you and rejoice with you; but if he sees that you owe your escape to some dishonourable action, he will do the opposite. For where a man may rejoice with good reason, there others may rejoice with him.

One Response to “A Timeless Analogy About Speaking and Listening”

  1. Max Weismann


    We are a not-for-profit educational organization founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery—three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos—lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading, on one DVD. A must for all readers, libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

    I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are—we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

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    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

    Thank you,

    Max Weismann, Co-founder with Dr. Adler