Today, I want to take a moment to comment on the inappropriate use of a certain Socratic dialogue, namely, Phaedrus.
Why the Phaedrus?
I keep seeing Plato’s Phaedrus appear in discussions of new technologies. In particular, the following passage has become quite popular (the section in boldface is most cited, I include the rest for context):
At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: 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. (Phaedrus, 274c-275b) (my emphasis)1
This passage is usually used as a rhetorical device in the argument against skeptics about new technologies. Briefly, some people are decrying the rise of the internet, ebooks, and social media because of perceived effects on the intelligence, reasoning, or social aptitude of future generations (cf. Bauerlein or Carr). Defenders of the new will gleefully point to the passage from the Phaedrus and explain that every major technological advancement is accompanied by portentous omens of dire consequences…even the very print books that the Luddites are trying to defend! Ha! Silly cynics…even your favorite technology was once deemed too radical! (EDIT: I removed quotes to other blogs to avoid the possibility of cherry-picking or misinterpretation. Thanks Andromeda for the hat tip! Still, people do use Plato improperly. Maybe I’ll blame it on a misreading of Walter Ong.))
Unfortunately, cherry-picking this passage in this debate over the future of technology in society precisely illustrates the point that Plato (via his mouthpiece Socrates) was trying to make. Allow me to quote a few other choice passages from the same dialogue:
the writers of the present day, at whose feet you have sat, craftily conceal the nature of the soul which they know quite well. Nor, until they adopt our method of reading and writing, can we admit that they write by rules of art (271c)
I am a lover of knowledge, and the men who dwell in the city are my teachers, and not the trees or the country. Though, I do indeed believe that you have found a spell with which to draw me out of the city into the country, like a hungry cow before whom a bough or a bunch of fruit is waved. For only hold up before me in like manner a book, and you may lead me all round Attica, and over the wide world. (230d)
Wait a minute…”our method”? Socrates has a method of writing? Socrates is willing to leave the men of the city for the spell of books? I thought the written word was bad, what gives?
The truth about the Phaedrus
The Phaedrus (along with its conceptual sibling the Symposium) is primarily a dialogue on the nature of love. In this conversation, the young Phaedrus carries with him a transcription of a speech by the sophist Lysias on the nature of love2. Phaedrus is so impressed by the arguments of Lysias that Socrates cannot help but be intrigued. Socrates asks Phaedrus to read the speech and a conversation on the nature of love follows. It is only in the very last part of the Phaedrus that the discussion on the merits of writing are found. As I will argue, the passage cited so often by the tech-savvy (i.e., 275a) is perfectly compatible with technological advancement and, indeed, that Plato’s argument in the Phaedrus should be embraced by everyone pursuing transliteracy.3
The passage at 274c, and the discussion on writing, is introduced the following way:
SOCRATES: Do you know how you can speak or act about rhetoric in a manner which will be acceptable to God?
PHAEDRUS: No, indeed. Do you?
SOCRATES: I have heard a tradition of the ancients, whether true or not they only know; although if we had found the truth ourselves, do you think that we should care much about the opinions of men?
PHAEDRUS: Your question needs no answer; but I wish that you would tell me what you say that you have heard. (274b-c)
Note that the passage at 274c is only a retelling of a traditional tale, and in no means a position advocated by Socrates. Following the Forgetfulness quote, Socrates explains that one would be
a very simple person, and quite a stranger to the oracles of Thamus or Ammon, who should leave in writing or receive in writing any art under the idea that the written word would be intelligible or certain4; or who deemed that writing was at all better than knowledge and recollection of the same matters (275c-d)
Socrates’s position is nothing about forgetfulness, and everything about knowledge. And why would we be remiss in believing that writing is better than knowledge and recollection? Because,
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. (274d-e)
This, my friends, is Socrates’s real argument against the written word: typographical fixity should not be confused with dialectic. The written word, much like the painting, stands as a mute testament, incapable of explaining itself beyond the text presented. But, there is nothing necessarily wrong with this. Writing, Socrates explains, is a noble pastime, creating “memorials to be treasured against the forgetfulness of old age” (276d). However, the good of writing pales compared to the dialectician, who proceeds through exploratory argument, defending the truth when needed and acquiescing in the face of contrary evidence. To Socrates, the problem with writing is not that it “creates forgetfulness in the learners” but that people mistakenly hold the written word up as the only path to knowledge, when in reality, books are just information and the real knowledge comes from within the reader.
At various points, Socrates makes other enlightening observations. He rebukes Phaedrus’s emphasis on authorship over truth: “you seem to consider not whether a thing is or is not true, but who the speaker is” (275c). He argues in favor of information literacy: “neither poetry nor prose, spoken or written, is of any great value, if…they are only recited in order to be believed, and not with any view to criticism or instruction” (277e). He argues that oral instruction via dialectic is the superior means of teaching difficult concepts: “only in principles of justice and goodness and nobility taught and communicated orally for the sake of instruction and graven in the soul, which is the true way of writing, is there clearness and perfection and seriousness” (278e)
Indeed, the Socratic position is, very simply, that reading about a difficult concept is inferior to actually sitting down and discussing it with someone who is knowledgeable in the topic. Books are just one part of the equation in knowledge creation…we need collaboration, discussion, argument, and reason to complete the picture. Wait a minute…that sounds suspiciously like a job for new technologies!
The lesson of the Phaedrus
Rather than quote the Phaedrus out of context, perhaps we should appreciate Plato’s lesson about the relationship between communication and knowledge creation. The Socratic method of teaching through guided questioning is still a widely respected pedagogy and is a manifestation of the primacy of the dialectic in Plato’s epistemic worldview.5 Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with the printed word other than its inability to act as an interlocutor. This is where new media comes into play. From hyperlinks to blog comments to retweets, readers are now regaining the dialectic. We can ask questions of authors, we can point out fallacies, we can advise others, in short, we can do all of those things that Plato felt that books could not replace. In our newfound connectedness, we are regaining our oral tradition and the attendant dialectical possibilities. We must heed Plato’s real warning…not that we will become forgetful for embracing the new technology, but that we must not lose sight of the benefits of collaboration, communication, and dialogue.
So, stop using that quote from the Phaedrus and start spreading the good word about dialectical education.6
(1) Though I prefer the Hackforth translation, I’ll use Jowett’s, since it is readily available through Google Books.
(2) Note that the Wikipedia article was apparently written by someone who has not read the Phaedrus, either. The Wiki article claims that Phaedrus recites the speech, but 228d, et seq. makes it manifestly clear that Phaedrus will be reading from a printed text.
(3) As an aside, I have read Derrida’s “analysis” of the Phaedrus, and I am well aware of its influence on critical theory. Unfortunately, and to paraphrase Eysenck’s take on Freud, where Derrida was correct, he was unoriginal, and where he was original, he was just making shit up.
(4) Per Hackforth, read “reliable and permanent”
(5) I’m avoiding a discussion of Plato’s metaphysical and epistemological worldview, the Platonic world of forms, the doctrine of recollection, and the like, if only because (a) it would take me too far afield, (b) the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy can explain it better, (c) you should have learned this stuff before you started quoting Plato.
(6) I realize that this post is both rather long, and also far too short to adequately cover the issue of Plato, dialectic, and new technology. Consider this a prolegomena to a possible article on the topic.