Plato rejects writing by the mouth of Socrates
Frequently hear someone reject the computer as an educational tool for children and youth with the argument that it harms the development of memory or of some reasoning ability. Previously we heard similar arguments in rejecting electronic calculators that would prevent the ability of mathematical thinking. All this reminds me of a famous passage in Plato's dialogue Phaedrus 274c-277a; Plato in the mouth of Socrates rejects the invention of writing by the same reason that it will end up with memory, essential human faculty.
The passage contains within itself the greatest of contradictions because Plato is a philosopher who wrote much (unlike Socrates) and thanks to that script we know the works and thoughts of Plato, including the passage to which I refer, although he claims that true philosophy can not be expressed in writing.
But aside from the exposed contradiction, the myth raises a number of issues of great interest that deserve comment. In every case, the first step is to read and know itself the prescribed text, that I transcribe despite its length, in the translation by Harold N. Fowler. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.)
I can tell something I have heard of the ancients; but whether it is true, they only know. But if we ourselves should find it out, should we care any longer for human opinions?
A ridiculous question! But tell me what you say you have heard.
I heard, then, that at Naucratis, in Egypt, was one of the ancient gods of that country, the one whose sacred bird is called the ibis, and the name of the god himself was Theuth. He it was who invented numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters. Now the king of all Egypt at that time was the god Thamus, who lived in the great city of the upper region, which the Greeks call the Egyptian Thebes, and they call the god himself Ammon. To him came Theuth to show his inventions, saying that they ought to be imparted to the other Egyptians. But Thamus asked what use there was in each, and as Theuth enumerated their uses, expressed praise or blame, according as he approved or disapproved. The story goes that Thamus said many things to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts, which it would take too long to repeat; but when they came to the letters, “This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.” But Thamus replied, “Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.
Socrates, you easily make up stories of Egypt or any country you please.
They used to say, my friend, that the words of the oak in the holy place of Zeus at Dodona were the first prophetic utterances. The people of that time, not being so wise as you young folks, were content in their simplicity to hear an oak or a rock, provided only it spoke the truth; but to you, perhaps, it makes a difference who the speaker is and where he comes from, for you do not consider only whether his words are true or not.
Your rebuke is just; and I think the Theban is right in what he says about letters.
He who thinks, then, that he has left behind him any art in writing, and he who receives it in the belief that anything in writing will be clear and certain, would be an utterly simple person, and in truth ignorant of the prophecy of Ammon, if he thinks written words are of any use except to remind him who knows the matter about which they are written.
Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself.
You are quite right about that, too.
Now tell me; is there not another kind of speech, or word, which shows itself to be the legitimate brother of this bastard one, both in the manner of its begetting and in its better and more powerful nature?
What is this word and how is it begotten, as you say?
The word which is written with intelligence in the mind of the learner, which is able to defend itself and knows to whom it should speak, and before whom to be silent.
You mean the living and breathing word of him who knows, of which the written word may justly be called the image.
Exactly. Now tell me this. Would a sensible husbandman, who has seeds which he cares for and which he wishes to bear fruit, plant them with serious purpose in the heat of summer in some garden of Adonis, and delight in seeing them appear in beauty in eight days, or would he do that sort of thing, when he did it at all, only in play and for amusement? Would he not, when he was in earnest, follow the rules of husbandry, plant his seeds in fitting ground, and be pleased when those which he had sowed reached their perfection in the eighth month?
Yes, Socrates, he would, as you say, act in that way when in earnest and in the other way only for amusement.
And shall we suppose that he who has knowledge of the just and the good and beautiful has less sense about his seeds than the husbandman?
By no means.
Then he will not, when in earnest, write them in ink, sowing them through a pen with words which cannot defend themselves by argument and cannot teach the truth effectually.
No, at least, probably not.
No. The gardens of letters he will, it seems, plant for amusement, and will write, when he writes, to treasure up reminders for himself, when he comes to the forgetfulness of old age, and for others who follow the same path, and he will be pleased when he sees them putting forth tender leaves. When others engage in other amusements, refreshing themselves with banquets and kindred entertainments, he will pass the time in such pleasures as I have suggested.
A noble pastime, Socrates, and a contrast to those base pleasures, the pastime of the man who can find amusement in discourse, telling stories about justice, and the other subjects of which you speak.
Yes, Phaedrus, so it is; but, in my opinion, serious discourse about them is far nobler, when one employs the dialectic method and plants and sows in a fitting soul intelligent words which are able to help themselves and him who planted them, which are not fruitless, but yield seed from which there spring up in other minds other words capable of continuing the process for ever, and which make their possessor happy, to the farthest possible limit of human happiness.
Yes, that is far nobler.
And now, Phaedrus, since we have agreed about these matters, we can decide the others.
Those which brought us to this point
It shall be done; but now let us go, since the heat has grown gentler.
Is it not well to pray to the deities here before we go?
O beloved Pan and all ye other gods of this place, grant to me that I be made beautiful in my soul within, and that all external possessions be in harmony with my inner man. May I consider
the wise man rich; and may I have such wealth as only the self-restrained man can bear or endure.—Do we need anything more, Phaedrus? For me that prayer is enough.
Let me also share in this prayer; for friends have all things in common.
Let us go.
Note: Theuth is the Egyptian equivalent of Prometheus."Gardens of Adonis" refers to the pots planted with cereals and aromatic flowers to beautify and flavoring the streets and squares in the celebrations of fest of Adonis (the Adonijah) which is held in summer. High temperatures made them grow quickly but just as quickly they withered.
The same ideas were expressed in Plato's Seventh Letter to the relatives and friends of Dion, though it must be noted that the authorship of the Seventh Letter by Plato has been questioned. In any case the letter is consistent with the other writings of Plato.
The text is a topic to discuss about "writing", but its current reading raises some important questions that I can only hint here.
Of course, Plato fails in his premonition of ruin of intelligence and knowledge, as surely fail who currently reject the use of electronic instruments at an early stage of education.
But the article shows the usefulness of writing against the still very important in times of Plato oral world. As I said, Socrates, his teacher, did not write his thoughts.
For Plato, writing, like painting, is but a stationary, passive representation of thought, an approach to object.
For Plato, speaking is something internal and constitutive of the man himself, who in dialogue and relationship with the other supports the question, the stimulation of the listener and constitutes the wisdom and the knowledge.
Writing, however, is something external that can at best serve as a reminder, but it does not constitute part of man nor react to any question or issue and it can not defend itself if you contradict them; it is not wisdom, at most it is information, but not knowledge. The real writing is that "engraved in the soul of the learner; learning takes place when the word is written in the soul; writing is just an image. Writing is nothing but the "pharmakon", the remedy, to remember what they learned before through dialectical discussion.
The writing is not due to life experience of reader but of another one. Written text falls into the hands of anyone, prepared to make sense or not prepared for it.
This is the main objection of Plato. The second is that writing weakens and destroys memory and become forgetful men because the writing is not integrated into their own being.
Naturally, if Plato was right at a time when writing and reading is not widespread but largely coexists with orality, what about the press and its huge production since it was invented?
In fact there were critical voices against the press, as the Venetian humanist, printer and publisher Hieronimus Squarciafico, who worked for the famous printer Aldus Manutius. In his book Memory and books, 1477, said:
Already abundance of books makes men less studious; it destroys memory and enfeebles the mind by relieving it of too much work. (Quoted by Lowry, Martin J. C. (1979), The World of Aldus Manutius: Business and Scholarship in Renaissance Venice, Ithaca, NY, p. 31)
Yet Squarciafico promoted the printing of the Latin classics, but in 1481 he was skeptical of so much book publishing; He imagines receiving a letter from the humanist Francesco Filelfo, who had died shortly before, in which he realizes a discussion on the Champs Elysées between famous authors of the past. Some people are supporters of the press because without it works perish, but others complain about it because the print "now is the work of ignorant men who corrupt everything."
Known is also the view of Rousseau in his Emile, or On Education:
I hate books; they merely teach us to talk of what we do not know.(III, 145)
No book but the world, no teaching but that of fact. The child who reads ceases to think, he only reads. He is acquiring words not knowledge. (III, 130)
All the above applies a fortiori to the world of computers, not only external support for the man but it far exceeds him because its information is enormous. In a way, we are now so used to writing since childhood that in some sense we felt it like something internal. Not so with computers which by its complexity and novelty yet we seem as external machines , techniques not integrated into the knowledge or own wisdom.
But back to Plato, he is not realized that the personal writing , specific to each individual, it is also an element of identification. A handwritten note or signed by an individual is a document that attests not even being present even the interested people, so writing transcends the present and projects itself into the future.
Neither realized the how important it would be the written document. If something exists in the document, more if the document is formal, that exists in reality. In this whole huge bureaucracy holding administrative apparatus of States is based. Who is, for example, in a register of births, he really is lived; he one of whom is no written report, did not exist, but actually lived.
For a long time, reading was made by vocalizing with high voice and there is sufficient evidence of it in the ancient world; only very late, reading is without sound, moving further away from the oral world. And instead it should be further developed at school "fine reading," aloud reading, sonorous reading.
It is true that speakers could write his speeches, but it was to memorize them and expose them with the expressive power of the spoken word.
It is true that education took longer to reduce the orality in favor of textbook, which seems to have now become the only instrument of education since the advent of printing and the spread of printed books. The presence of the textbook in education at all levels is certainly excessive and creates serious problems because it does not address essential aspects of human development.
We can conclude that orality has been losing social significance and writing has been increasing in the social, cultural, legal, administrative life ...
Moreover, the writing, which is never out of context, allows storing knowledge, retrieve and transmit it in a generally context other than that in which it was written, but no false or useless.
Today when we talk about writing and storage of knowledge, we must also include in this concept the modern ystems of conservation of knowledge which preserve vast amounts of information and facilitate its quick access and use. What man needs, then, are the tools and the ability to find and use that information to integrate it into vast knowledge.
In any case, in view of what is happening, we can ask ourselves on the effects of good or bad use of new technologies.
This is what Nicholas Carr asks in a suggestive article in the magazine The Atlantic, July-August 2008: Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains.
And José Manuel Trabado Cabado , from the University of León, states in his study "Information Saturation and new cronotopos of reading" that the system of hypertext-links to the web-"threatens to leave us, never to return, promising wonders here and treasures hidden in there and too large forests for maps of man. "
The issue is beyond the scope of this blog, but it will be fair to recognize that the bottom line is that 2400 years ago Plato raised.
And we also can take this opportunity to emphasize the importance of dialogue and speech, which he calls "little puff", and his powers of persuasion, picking the famous words of the sophist Gorgias Leontines in his Praise of Helen, 8 ...
discourse is a great potentate, which by the smallest and most secret body accomplishes the most divine works; for it can stop fear and assuage pain and produce joy and make mercy abound. (Translated by Brian R. Donovan)