Credo in Unum Deum

I Believe in One God

On the Inadequacies of the Written Word over the Oral Word

Plato argues that, contrary to popular opinion, the written word is inferior to the oral word. There are six reasons that Plato gives.

1. Writing Does Not Increase Either the Wisdom or the Memory of Human Beings. Saith Socrates:

Then anyone who leaves behind him a written manual and likewise anyone who takes it over from him, on the supposition that such writing will provide something reliable and permanent, must be exceedingly simple-minded; he must really be ignorant of Ammon’s utterance if he imagines that written words can do anything more than remind one who knows what the writing is concerned with.

2. Writing Is Incapable of Helping and Defending Itself on Its Own and Needs the Intervention of Its Author. He continueth:

You know, Phaedrus, that’s the strange thing about writing, which makes it truly analogous to painting. The painting’s products stand before us as though they were alive, but if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence. It is the same with written words; they seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say … they go on telling you just they same thing forever. And once a thing is put in writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it; it doesn’t know how to address the right people and not address the wrong. And when it is ill-treated and unfairly abused it always needs its parent to come to its help, being unable to defend or help itself.

3. The Reasons for the Superiority of Oral Discourse over Writing. And thus moreth:

Socrates: But now tell me, is there another sort of discourse which is brother of written speech, but of unquestioned legitimacy? Can we see how it originates, and how much better and more effective it is than the other?

Phaedrus: What sort of discourse have you in mind, and what is its origin?

Socrates: The sort that goes together with knowledge, and is written in the soul of the learner, that can defend itself, and knows to whom it should speak and to whom it should say nothing.

Phaedrus: You mean no dead discourse, but the living speech, the original of which the written discourse may fairly be called a kind of image.

Socrates: Precisely.

4. The “Playfulness” of Written Discourse and the “Seriousness” of Oral Discussion. Furthermoreth (and this is quite longeth):

Socrates: 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 … 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?

Phaedrus: Yes, Socrates, he would, as you say act in that way when in earnest and in the other way only for amusement.

Socrates: and are we to maintain that he who has knowledge of what is just, honorable, and good has less sense than the farmer in dealing with his seeds?

Phaedrus: Of course not.

Socrates: Then it won’t be with serious intent that he “writes them in water” or that black fluid we call ink, using his pen to sow words that can’t either speak in their own defense or present the adequately.

Phaedrus: It certainly isn’t likely.

Socrates: No, it is not. He will sow his seed in literary gardens, I take it, and write when he does write by way of pastime, collecting a store of refreshment both for his own memory, against the day “when age oblivious comes,” and for all such as tread in his footsteps, and he will take pleasure in watching the tender plants grow up.And when other men resort to other pastimes, regaling themselves with drinking parties and suchlike, he will doubtless prefer to indulge in the recreation I refer to.

Phaedrus: And what an excellent one it is, Socrates.

Socrates: Yes indeed, dear Phaedrus. But far more excellent, I think, is the serious treatment of them, which employs the art of dialectic. The dialectician selects a soul of the right type, and in it he plants and sows his words founded on knowledge, words which can defend themselves and him who planted them, words which instead of remaining barren contain a seed whence new words group up in new characters, whereby the seed is vouchsafed immortality, and its possessor the fullest measure of blessedness that man can attain.

5. The Clarity and Completeness That Belong to Oral Discussion but Not to Written Discourses. Still more cometh:

Socrates: But the man who thinks that in the written word there is necessarily much that is playful, and that no written discourse … deserves to be treated very seriously (and this applies also to the recitations of the rhapsodies, delivered to sway people’s minds, without opportunity for questioning and teaching), but that the best of them really serve only to remind us of what we know; and who thinks that only words about justice and beauty and goodness spoken by teacher for the sake of instruction and really written in a soul is clearness the speaker’s own legitimate offspring, first the word within himself, if it be found there, manner in the souls of other , -that man, Phaedrus, is likely to be such as youu and I might pray that is what I wish and pray for.

6. The Philosophical Writer Does Not Entrust to Written Works “the Things of Greatest Value”. And finallyeth:

Socrates: Then we may regard our literary pastime as having reached a satisfactory conclusion. Do you now go and tell Lysias that we two went down to the stream where is the holy place of the nymphs, and there listened to words which charged us to deliver a message, first to Lysias and all other composers of discourses, secondly to Homer and all others who have written poetry whether to be read or sung, and thirdly to Solon and all such as are authors of political compositions under the name of laws- to wit, that if any of them has done his work with a knowledge of the truth, can defend his statements when challenged, and can demonstrate the inferiority by a name drawn from those written works, but by one that indicates his serious pursuit.

Phaedrus: Then what names would you assign him?

Socrates: To call him wise, Phaedrus, would, I think, be going too far; the epithet is proper only to a god. A name that would fit him better, and have more seemliness, would be “lover of wisdom,” or something similar.

Phaedrus: Yes, that would be quite in keeping.

Socrates: On the other hand, one who has nothing to show of more value than the literary works on whose phrases he spends hours, twisting them this way and that, pasting them together and pulling them apart, will rightly, I suggest, be called a poet or speech writer or law writer.

Phaedrus: Of course.

Food for thought! Also notice the implications for the Protestant notion of Sola Scriptura. Yeah… doesn’t look so good.


January 4, 2008 - Posted by | Philosophy

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