A brief selection from Plato’s “Phaedrus”

A bit of an introduction

Chances are, you’ve heard of Plato, the Greek philosopher who lived from about 427 to 347 BC. If you want to learn more about him, you might want to check out the wikipedia entry on Plato. Here are a few things that you ought to keep in mind about the portion of this particular Platonic dialogue.

Plato’s dialogues are sort of like plays: they have a setting and they have characters talking with each other about some topic (often “love”) which is a metaphor for philosophy and “Truth” (with a capital “T” too). Most Platonic dialogues have a number of characters, though this one has just two, Phaedrus and Socrates. Now, despite the fact that Plato himself actually wrote these dialogs down (which, in some ways, seems at odds with the point he was trying to make regarding the nature of writing), it’s worth remembering that at this time in ancient Greece, the spoken word was seen as much more worthy and noble than the written word. In fact Socrates, who was a real person, the teacher of Plato, and a respected teacher and thinker in his day (though ultimately he was put to death for this work), never actually wrote anything down himself. This was the case with a lot of thinkers of the time.

Here’s a link to a summary of the dialog on wikipedia; but here’s my take on it:

Phaedrus is a young man–a boy, really– a student, and not exactly the sharpest crayon in the box. Socrates is an old man, a teacher, and (if we are to believe Plato) is the wisest man that has ever walked the earth. Socrates is always present in Platonic dialogues, and if you ever wonder who is “right” regarding the issue being discussed, bet on Socrates. While he often expresses his humility and “ignorance” of the issue at hand, Socrates ultimately does weigh in and his view is seen by all participants as the correct one.

In this dialog, Phaedrus and Socrates run into each other outside of Athens and Phaedrus is excited to share with Socrates a speech written by Lysias about love, which basically is about the love relationship between an older man and a younger one– a young man/boy about Phaedrus’ age. Phaedrus reads this speech to Socrates. Two things to mention about this: first, homosexuality was viewed quite a bit differently than it is viewed nowadays in several different ways, not the least of which is homosexual relationships– particularly between an older and younger man– were seen by Greeks in this era as not only normal but even noble among the citizens of Athens (and a “citizen of Athens” was defined as a man who was born in and owned property in Athens; most people who lived in Athens– women, slaves, etc.– weren’t citizens). Wikipedia has an interesting explanation about this here.

Second and probably more important, the speech that Phaedrus gives is completely inappropriate. For one thing, it is from the point of view of an old man (Lysias) to a young boy. Since Phaedrus is actually the young boy and Socrates is the old man, it doesn’t really make sense for Phaedrus to be reading this. For another thing, Phaedrus is actually reading a written text, and, as we’ll see later, this is a sort of “false knowledge” according to Socrates.

Socrates tongue-n-cheek praises the speech but then makes up another speech, this one also completely inappropriate, because it is about a younger man getting the attentions of an older one. To correct for this error, Socrates launches into a LOOONNNGGG speech about the True (with a capital “T”) nature of love, which is really about the nature of the soul, of philosophy, etc.

After they get done with these speeches, Socrates and Phaedrus discuss how speeches are made and how to persuade an audience. There’s a lot that’s very important here, which is why this dialog and Plato’s dialog Gorgias are such important works in the study of rhetoric, but after all this, Socrates finally tells Phaedrus about the nature of writing itself. This is the selection below. “Soc.” is Socrates and “Phaedr.” is Phaedrus. If you want to read the whole thing (and it is really good reading, actually), click here. I’ve bolded a couple of key passages to think about, especially as they relate to the other readings we’re doing on writing and technology.

The selection from Plato’s Phaedrus:

Soc. Enough appears to have been said by us of a true and false art of speaking.

Phaedr. Certainly.

Soc. But there is something yet to be said of propriety and impropriety of writing.

Phaedr. Yes.

Soc. Do you know how you can speak or act about rhetoric in a manner which will be acceptable to God?

Phaedr. No, indeed. Do you?

Soc. 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?

Phaedr. Your question needs no answer; but I wish that you would tell me what you say that you have heard.

Soc. 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 came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of the 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.

Phaedr. Yes, Socrates, you can easily invent tales of Egypt, or of any other country.

Soc. There was a tradition in the temple of Dodona that oaks first gave prophetic utterances. The men of old, unlike in their simplicity to young philosophy, deemed that if they heard the truth even from “oak or rock,” it was enough for them; whereas you seem to consider not whether a thing is or is not true, but who the speaker is and from what country the tale comes.

Phaedr. I acknowledge the justice of your rebuke; and I think that the Theban is right in his view about letters.

Soc. He 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 certain; or who deemed that writing was at all better than knowledge and recollection of the same matters?

Phaedr. That is most true.

Soc. 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.

Phaedr. That again is most true.

Soc. Is there not another kind of word or speech far better than this, and having far greater power-a son of the same family, but lawfully begotten?

Phaedr. Whom do you mean, and what is his origin?

Soc. I mean an intelligent word graven in the soul of the learner, which can defend itself, and knows when to speak and when to be silent.

Phaedr. You mean the living word of knowledge which has a soul, and of which written word is properly no more than an image?

Soc. Yes, of course that is what I mean. And now may I be allowed to ask you a question: Would a husbandman, who is a man of sense, take the seeds, which he values and which he wishes to bear fruit, and in sober seriousness plant them during the heat of summer, in some garden of Adonis, that he may rejoice when he sees them in eight days appearing in beauty? at least he would do so, if at all, only for the sake of amusement and pastime. But when he is in earnest he sows in fitting soil, and practises husbandry, and is satisfied if in eight months the seeds which he has sown arrive at perfection?

Phaedr. Yes, Socrates, that will be his way when he is in earnest; he will do the other, as you say, only in play.

Soc. And can we suppose that he who knows the just and good and honourable has less understanding, than the husbandman, about his own seeds?

Phaedr. Certainly not.

Soc. Then he will not seriously incline to “write” his thoughts “in water” with pen and ink, sowing words which can neither speak for themselves nor teach the truth adequately to others?

Phaedr. No, that is not likely.

Soc. No, that is not likely-in the garden of letters he will sow and plant, but only for the sake of recreation and amusement; he will write them down as memorials to be treasured against the forgetfulness of old age, by himself, or by any other old man who is treading the same path. He will rejoice in beholding their tender growth; and while others are refreshing their souls with banqueting and the like, this will be the pastime in which his days are spent.

Phaedr. A pastime, Socrates, as noble as the other is ignoble, the pastime of a man who can be amused by serious talk, and can discourse merrily about justice and the like.

Soc. True, Phaedrus. But nobler far is the serious pursuit of the dialectician, who, finding a congenial soul, by the help of science sows and plants therein words which are able to help themselves and him who planted them, and are not unfruitful, but have in them a seed which others brought up in different soils render immortal, making the possessors of it happy to the utmost extent of human happiness.

Phaedr. Far nobler, certainly.