Socrates Against Writing

Back in the time of the Ancient Greeks, some very wise people thought that writing – the written word – would lead to the downfall of society.

O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

So says Socrates in the Phaedrus, which was ironically written down by his student Plato. Indeed, the only reasons we know anything Socrates said is because his students took up with this new-fangled writing idea, and went about writing down a great deal of what he said whether he liked it or not; and despite this, a great deal of Socrate’s discourse is lost to history.

That quote was taken from a parable, but later on in the manuscript we receive confirmation that this was indeed what Socrates believed:

I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.

That whether Lysias or any other writer that ever was or will be, whether private man or statesman, proposes laws and so becomes the author of a political treatise, fancying that there is any great certainty and clearness in his performance, the fact of his so writing is only a disgrace to him, whatever men may say. For not to know the nature of justice and injustice, and good and evil, and not to be able to distinguish the dream from the reality, cannot in truth be otherwise than disgraceful to him, even though he have the applause of the whole world.

What does this have to do with futurism, you may ask? Well, to me it points out that the great and the wise have always been suspicious of new technologies, convinced that they would result in “brain drain” and a cheapening of serious discourse. Indeed, a great many of the same arguments are made today about the internet: that with information readily available to everyone, no one will bother to really learn. What is the critique of selfie culture other than saying that by preserving our memories externally, we are robbing them of some special meaning, unique to the first experience and natural memories thereof?

Just take a look at this quote from this article from 2015:

[Andrew Keen] believes the emphasis on the art of memory from civilisations such as ancient China has been lost. “Some people believe it creates mental discipline: the facts themselves less important than the discipline of remembering them. Minds are in some ways more flaccid – especially if we’re dabbling in social media.”

Doesn’t that sound familiar? Oh tech, certainly has downsides, I won’t argue that. But I will say that an age where more learning is available to more people won’t make us stupider, any more than it did some 2,000 years ago. As a more recent article says:

[W]e are not losing our minds. We are just adapting to a different way of consuming and processing information.

One thought on “Socrates Against Writing

  1. I’ve been a fan of this blog for a while but I think this post really hits it off the park! Especially when I relate the message here to the series of articles the New York Times has had this past week on the pluses and minuses of AI and other high end technology. I wonder if people reacted the same way when the typewriter first came out…


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