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Socrates Underestimated Writing

Socrates: Well, this is what I’ve heard. Among the ancient gods of Naucratis in Egypt there was one named Theuth, and it was he who first discovered number and calculation, geometry and astronomy, as well as the games of checkers and dice, and above all else, writing.

Now the king of all Egypt at that time was the god Ammon. Theuth came to exhibit his arts to him and urged him to disseminate them to all the Egyptians. Ammon asked him about the usefulness of each art, and while Theuth was explaining it, Ammon praised him for whatever he thought was right in his explanations and criticized him for whatever he thought was wrong.

When they came to writing, Theuth said: “O King, here is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory; I have discovered a potion for memory and for wisdom.” Ammon, however, replied: “O most expert Theuth, one man can give birth to the elements of an art, but only another can judge how they can benefit or harm those who will use them. And now, since you are the father of writing, your affection for it has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are. In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing.”

Phaedrus: Socrates, you’re very good at making up stories from Egypt or wherever else you want!

Socrates: But, my friend, the priests of the temple of Zeus at Dodona say that the first prophecies were the words of an oak. Everyone who lived at that time, not being as wise as you young ones are today, found it rewarding enough in their simplicity to listen to an oak or even a stone, so long as it was telling the truth, while it seems to make a difference to you, Phaedrus, who is speaking and where he comes from. Why, though, don’t you just consider whether what he says is right or wrong?

Phaedrus: I deserved that, Socrates. And I agree that Ammon was correct about writing.

Socrates: Well, then, those who think they can leave written instructions for an art, as well as those who accept them, thinking that writing can yield results that are clear or certain, must be quite naive and truly ignorant of Ammon’s prophetic judgment: otherwise, how could they possibly think that words that have been written down can do more than remind those who already know what the writing is about?

Dijon: Excuse me. I’ve been standing here, leaning against this tree, for some time. You were so caught up in your intercourse that you didn’t hear me approach. A part of me wanted to interrupt, thinking it shameful to eavesdrop, but another part of me couldn’t bring myself to. I was worried that if I interrupted, I wouldn’t be able to hear your private dialogue. However, just now, you said something I couldn’t bear to let pass in silence, and that part of me that wanted to interrupt won out over the other part.

Socrates: I would like to know what was so unbearable that you risked interrupting our dialogue, but first I must ask: how did you come to this beautiful place? You do not appear Ionian or even Greek.

Dijon: I’m passing through Athens. I saw this stream and, it being a hot afternoon, decided to leave the path and walk along its banks. As I walked, I could hear the faint echoes of your voices rising above the cicadas. Intrigued, I walked toward them.

Socrates: Let’s hear what we said that so bothered you.

Dijon: It is the very last thing you said—that written words could at best remind us of what we already know. This seems to be an unfair criticism of the written word. If you were attacked unfairly, wouldn’t it be just for your friends to come to your aid? Likewise, I must come to the aid of my greatest teacher—the written word. It has taught me most of what I know.

Socrates: Phaedrus, how should we proceed?

Phaedrus: I think you should try to calm down this stranger. Since he isn’t from Athens and since your questioning can offend people, it may be best to explain yourself directly.

Socrates: Very well, I shall try. Why did I criticize the written word? Writing shares a strange feature with painting. Paintings stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent. The same is true of written words. You’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever. And when it is faulted and attacked unfairly, it always needs its father’s support; alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support.

What sort of discourse do we need? We need one that is written down, with knowledge, in the soul of the listener. We need a discourse that can defend itself. I mean the living, breathing discourse of the man who knows, of which the written one can be fairly called an image. Unlike the writer, the dialectician chooses a proper soul and plants and sows within it discourse accompanied by knowledge—discourse capable of helping itself as well as the man who planted it, which is not barren but produces a seed from which more discourse grows in the character of others. Such discourse makes the seed forever immortal and renders the man who has it as happy as any human can be.

Dijon: You’re right that the written word doesn’t usually defend itself as well as the spoken, especially to someone who doesn’t love the truth. However, it can grant immortality. To demonstrate this, I’ll read a passage, written many centuries ago, by an Egyptian scribe:

As for those wise writers from the time after the gods, they who foretold what was to come, their names have become everlasting, even though they have departed this life and all their relatives are forgotten.

They gave themselves a book as their lector-priest, a writing-board as their dutiful son. Teachings are their mausoleu, the reed-pen their child, the burnishing-stone their wife. Both great and small are given them as their children, for the writing is chief.

Be a writer, take it to heart, so that your name will fare likewise. A book is more effective than a carved tombstone or a permanent sepulcher. They serve as chapels and mausoleu in the mind of him who proclaims their names. A name on people’s lips will surely be effective in the afterlife!

Is there one here like Hordedef? Is there another like Imhotep? None of our kin is like Neferti or Khety, their leader. May I remind you about Ptahemdjehuty and Khakheperraseneb! Is there another like Ptahhotep, or the equal of Kairsu?

Those wise men who foretold what was to come: what they said came into being; it is found as a maxim, written in their books. Other’s offspring will be their heirs, as if they were their own children. They hid their magic from the world, but it is read in their teachings. They are gone, their names forgotten; but writings cause them to be remembered.

Why would the scribe praise Hordedef, Imhotep, Neferti, Khety, Ptahemdjehuty, Khakheperraseneb, Ptahhotep, and Kairsu if their writings merely reminded him of what he already knew? Furthermore, if these wise men and their students weren’t writers, would we be speaking their names today?

Socrates: These wise men, if indeed they were wise, would have no vulgar lust to be a “name on people’s lips.” Instead, they would love for the truth take its place there. Therefore, I’m sure they planted their teachings widely among the souls of their students, where they grew like reeds until they covered the banks of the Nile. As the great river flooded and receded, these reeds swayed back and forth in the muddy waters, more resilient than the pharaohs who conquered and were conquered. And so, these teachings came to define what it was to be Egyptian. They would be taught to young children; your scribe’s mother, father, and grandmother planted the meaning of these sayings in his soul long before he could read “Hordedef” or “Ptahhotep.” Therefore, while your scribe may credit the written word as his teacher, truly it was the patient dialectic that should deserve his praise.

Dijon: Then consider this: a Persian trader and lover of wisdom makes his way to the eastern edge of the world where he is sold a scroll filled with ancient hymns. “These words have been preserved through the centuries, passed down from our ancient sages, and tells many secrets about the gods and the just life,” says the Indian man who sold it to him. This trader brings it to his home in Susa, where it collects dust for many years. In his old age, he has a friend translate it for him to study in his bed. He passes away, and his son, who is also a trader, finds the scroll brings it through Babylon, Sardis, and makes its way to Athens. The young man asks one of our philosophers to teach him its meaning, for a wise man gave it to his father. Wouldn’t our philosopher read this scroll, ponder it, and upon grasping its wisdom, praise the author just like our Egyptian scribe praises Ptahhotep and the others?

Socrates: If the gods desired their wisdom to make its way to us from afar, indeed it would happen as you’ve said. However, I imagine this Athenian philosopher would read the scroll and tell your young Persian trader: “These hymns are filled with names I’ve never heard, many unfathomable sayings, and many other sayings which are not noteworthy in any way. If the scroll contains any deep wisdom, the gods must not want us to fathom it.” In this way, the seeds cast by the Indian scroll’s words would fall fallow in the Greek soil. If the wisdom in the scroll were to make its way into Greek souls, it would need to be planted by patient dialectic in the Persian soil, given time to grow and spread, and so on, until it makes its way to us.

Dijon: I’ll grant that the truth is on your lips, at least for this passing moment, but let me ask you this: Surely, when our Egyptian scribe receives a written invitation to a dinner party, it’s telling him something new—it isn’t merely reminding him?

Socrates: Of course! Clearly, when I said the written word could only serve to remind us of what we know, I didn’t mean it in this general sense. Only a hater of the truth would presume as much. No, there are many sciences whose knowledge can be transmitted with words. It is only the highest sort of knowledge, the knowledge of the object itself, the knowable and truly real being, which can not be. That is, not an image of a circle, but the real circle. Not an image of a bee, but the real bee.

Dijon: Yet, you do believe this highest sort of knowledge can be taught, right?

Socrates: It can, though only when a student has pondered at length, in discourses and examples, and has been tested, pupil and teacher asking and answering questions in good will and without envy—only then, when reason and knowledge are at the very extremity of human effort, can they illuminate the nature of the object.

Dijon: I’m not convinced that the written word couldn’t suffice to teach us this higher knowledge.

Imagine that our scribe is struck deaf and dumb by Ammon for attributing immortality to the written word. He dies, and in the afterlife, he meets the sage Ptahhotep. He writes a note on a piece of papyrus:

“Vizier Ptahhotep, I prostrate myself before you, my superior. I have read your many teachings and taught them to my sons. As you know, they are on the lips of all lovers of wisdom in Egypt. Most of your sayings I could understand on my own, however, all my life, I have had a question about one of them that nobody has been able to answer to my satisfaction. I can not speak or hear, but if you deemed to write responses on this papyrus, I would be honored and delighted to know your answer.”

The vizier, Ptahhotep, writes: “I will answer.”

Our deaf and dumb scribe bows very low, and without lifting his head, he writes:

“Your thirty-first maxim says:

Do not have sex with a boy

when you know that what is condemned will satisfy his desire.

There is no cooling his lust.

Let him not spend the night doing what is condemned:

he will cool down only after he has mastered his desire.

“This practice of older men having sex with boys is universally rejected in my time. Yet you speak against it as if it was common. This leads me to ask: does right and wrong change?”

He hands the papyrus to Ptahhotep, who laughs, then writes on the papyrus and places it on the ground in front of our scribe, whose head is still bowed. Our scribe begins reading. He reads of a middle path, explained to Ptahhotep by the gods of the underworld, that demonstrates how right and wrong changes in some ways but is fixed in other ways by the structure of the universe. Our scribe is so struck by the response that he doesn’t move for some time, nor does he notice when Ptahhotep walks away into the distance.

He ponders these thoughts for many days, but then he questions emerge, and so he tracks down Ptahhotep once more. This time, their engagement lasts for several days, each writing their responses for the other on the papyri. Finally, our scribe understands the real nature of right and wrong—the real nature of the just and the good, and Ptahhotep departs.

Our scribe reads the dialogue over and over again, studying its beautiful parts. But then he remembers Ammon’s chastisement, and having already memorized its contents, throws the papyrus back into the Styx, thus returning the reeds to where he’d harvested them.

Centuries after this meeting, a living man enters Hades, crosses the Styx, and asks Anubis to return his young wife to him. The man pleads and begs. He is a musician and plays a song that is overwhelmingly beautiful, that our Egyptian scribe, standing behind a crowd of bloodless onlookers, hears the soft melody and weeps for joy. Anubis relents, on one condition: “Do not look back,” he says, “or your wife will need to remain in the underworld.”

It just so happens that our scribe is sent to retrieve the man’s wife. He finds her and gives her two papyri. The first reads: “Your husband has sought you out from the chambers of death. He has overwhelmed Annubis with a song; your fate will be woven again. I was sent to bring you to him. I’ve given you a second papyrus to take with you back to the mortal realm. It contains a great secret, which will make you and your husband live forever.” She takes the gift and is reunited with her husband.

The couple climbs up from the fog and darkness, but fate ordained that the secret of right and wrong would remain in Hades, and the musician can not help but look back upon the beautiful face of his wife. Woe is she! Woe is the musician! Woe is our scribe, who never repented from his love of writing!

If this secret dialogue were smuggled to Thrace, do you think that it would merely remind me of what I already know? Keep in mind that I’ve had the very same questions that our scribe asked Ptahhotep.

Socrates: If this dialogue were uniquely written such that it addressed your particular questions, perhaps it could teach you something new. Thus, I concede that the written word can, in certain cases, do more than remind us of what we already know. However, dialectic is still a more able farmer.

Dijon: Why do you say that? While I concede that the written word may be a less effective teacher for any particular student, it can sow its seeds much more widely.

Socrates: An author, unlike a living teacher, must anticipate all of your questions to answer them. Since this is nearly impossible, a writer will always leave you with questions.

Dijon: Where I come from, written words are abundant. Theuth has given us a great tool: if you shout a question towards the heavens, Boreas, Zephyrus, Notus, and Eurus will bring you everything that’s been written about the question before an acorn can fall to the ground. Thus, for many questions, I can rely on the written word.

Socrates: I would travel through dense forests and over high mountains to live in such a place, yet even so I wonder whether Ammon would praise or criticize this new invention.

Casting seeds is not enough to ensure they grow in another’s soul. Imagine that our scribe and Ptahhotep, having few other diversions or responsibilities, corresponded for many years. Their dialogue would fill many papyri. You, being a lover of truth, would begin reading in earnest. Yet, as their dialogue wore on, you’d start to persuade yourself that you’d sufficiently heard the whole of it and need make no further effort. In this way, the written word can be a disservice to its pupils, making them full of half-formed opinions and making it difficult for a real teacher to properly plant the seeds of truth.

Dijon: I must admit that I’ve observed this very sequence of events occur, both in others and in myself. There are books that I read in my youth which I dismissed as trite or obvious, only to discover, after much direction from others, that there was a deeper truth I hadn’t appreciated.

Socrates: Indeed, it is all too common. And, stranger, not only is it easy to stop watering a new plant too quickly, but our existing plants may choke out the new ones in their shade. Dialectic can weed out your garden and make room for new seeds to grow.

Dijon: I have also observed this pattern in myself. It is difficult to overcome; you must know yourself and be committed to the truth.

You’re right to point out the limitations of the written word, but dialectic has its own problems. First, you must find someone with new ideas who’ll talk with you. Many people are too busy. Others have the time but find the questioning to be tedious. Still others will merely agree with what you already think. This last sort is especially dangerous because you’ll both continue onward in mutual ignorance, having watered each other’s plants.

Once you’ve found someone to talk with, there are other traps to avoid. Some people may be dishonest to avoid an argument. For example, a lover may not correct his beloved for fear of pushing them away. Other people become eager to win instead of investigating the subject under discussion. In fact, in the end, some have a most shameful parting of the ways, abuse heaped upon them.

Socrates: I’ve experienced this problem in many discussions. You are indeed correct. In fact, if you caught me on the right day, I may have spoken this very sentence.

Dijon: I think we should take a middle path. Use dialectic to weed your garden and the written word to sow new seeds and water it. Both methods require a commitment to finding the truth to be effective.

Socrates: By Theuth, you’re right—it’s best not to love one or the other too much.

Dijon: I must be off.

Socrates: Good day, enjoy your time in Athens.