Phaedrus Response

of Meaning

Jackson, Jr.

Winter 1999

University of
California, Santa Cruz

Phaedrus and Letter VII


Despite Platoís voluminous collection of dialogues, letters, and laws,
his aversion to written philosophical documents is unmistakable. The fact
that we have received this information via Platoís own writings only mystifies
the matter. So why is it that Plato disagrees with philosophers who would
compose or preserve philosophical positions or treatises? If he holds so
much consternation for those who would commit such actions, why would he
write dialogues exposing many of his own philosophical beliefs? In this
response paper I will look at two dialogues ? Phaedrus
and Ion ? as well
as Letter VII in order to approach answers to these questions.Ý

Of the three dialogues here discussed, Phaedrus alone contains a mythological
origin of Platoís anti-writing platform. In the dialogue, Socrates broaches
the topic of „propriety and impropriety in writing“ by relating to Phaedrus
the story of the Egyptian king Thabus and the god Theuth. In the story,
Theuth approaches Thabus and offers his people various arts, each of which
Thabus must either accept or reject. When Theuth comes to writing, he presents
it to the king by saying, „Here, O king, is a branch of learning that will
make the people of Egypt wiser and improve their memories; my discovery
provides a recipe for memory and wisdom“(Phaedrus 276e). The king,
however, rejects the discovery on the following grounds:


O man full of arts, to one it is given to create the things of
art, and to another to judge

what measure of harm and of profit they have for those that shall
employ them. And

so it is that you, by reason of your tender regard for the writing
that is your offspring,

have declared the very opposite of its true effect. If men learn
this, it will implant

forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory
because they rely

on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer
from within

themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered
is a recipe

not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that
you offer your

disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many
things without teaching

them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part
they know

nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit
of wisdom, they

will be a burden to their fellows. (276e-275a-b).


Similarly, Socrates rejects not writing itself, but „anyone who leaves
behind him a written manual, and likewise anyone who takes it over from
him“ (275c). In Socratesí case it is clear that he practices what he preaches
(or at least what Plato recounts that he teaches) — no manuscripts were
left by Socrates and it seems unlikely that he ever wrote any. Platoís
case is more problematic: the very dialogue in which this information is
imparted operates in itself like a written manual and thus contains a paradox,
for Plato indeed takes the lesson over from Socrates and puts it into words.
In this dialogue, Plato claims that anyone who supposes such writing to
be reliable and permanent must be exceedingly simple-minded. „Ö he must
really be ignorant of Ammonís utterance,“ he writes, „if he imagines that
written words can do anything more than remind one who knows that which
the writing is concerned with“ (275c-d). We cannot assume that this is
merely an oversight, but a few tentative possibilities may be drawn from
this. 1) Plato doesnít suppose his writing to be reliable. 2) Plato doesnít
suppose his writings to be permanent. 3) The writings exist or were created
merely for the purpose of reminding one who already knows that which the
writings are concerned with. Before I entertain these propositions, I want
to point out that Plato as well as Socrates held these beliefs about writing.
In Letter VII Plato writes:

Ö no serious man will ever think of writing about serious realities
for the general

public so as to make them a prey to envy and perplexity. In a word,
it is an inevitable

conclusion from this that when anyone sees anywhere the written
work of anyone,

whether that of a lawgiver in his laws or whatever it may be in
some other form,

the subject treated cannot have been his most serious concern ?
that is, if he is

himself a serious man . . . If, however, he really was seriously
concerned with these

matters and put them in writing, ëthen surelyí not the gods, but
mortals ëhave utterly

blasted his wits.í (Letter VII, 344c-d)


Plato here maintains, in accordance with the Egyptian myth, that true
philosophical doctrines cannot be transmitted via writing. They must be
taught orally, from the mouth of one person to another. Any person who
tries to write down philosophical doctrines, as Dionysius apparently did,
cannot have a full understanding of the doctrine because they do not have
an „inborn affinity with the subject.“ If one fully understood the philosophy,
one would not need to write it down. Thus Plato claims that there are two
reasons that a person such as Dionysius would write down a treatise: either
to be regarded as its author or in order to seem educated. Plato, apparently,
harbors neither of these ideals in regard to his writings (his vehemence
gives him away). Why then did he write the dialogues?

The first proposition, that Plato does not regard his writings to be
reliable, is true only in a very narrow sense. The dialogues are a portrayal,
and as such they do not mirror reality precisely but offer a subjective
version that accords to Platoís own philosophical, political, and personal
beliefs. Plato is only reliable to the extent that any of Socratesí teachings
would be lost without the dialogues, so we must take Plato at his word
(the Perseus Encyclopedia says that „Plato seeks to remain true to the
spirit though not necessarily to the letter of the philosophy of the historical
Socrates“). The second proposition, that Plato doesnít suppose his writings
to be permanent, seems highly unlikely. What is writing but the forging
of words and thoughts into a permanent form? Why would Plato teach at all
if he didnít wish his thought to last? Finally, if the writings exist only
as personal notes — as reminders– Plato is admitting his ignorance to
the doctrine. If, on the other hand, they exist as treatises to be read
by the general public or the students in his academy, he is admitting that
the dialectic method does not work. Both cases, at any rate, counter what
is explicitly stated in the dialogues and so collapse upon their own logic.

I believe the Ion gives us an indication to Platoís antipathy to writing,
although unfortunately it does nothing to help us resolve the paradox.
Just as the rhapsode recites Homer without knowledge of the text (i.e.,
he is only reciting words), so he that would read anything written
cannot possibly understand precisely the meaning of what he reads. As Socrates
says, once a thing is put into writing, the composition drifts all over
the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it (i.e.,
those who donít need to read it), but equally of those who have no business
with it (!); it always needs its parent to come to its help, being unable
to defend or help itself (Phaedrus 275 d-e).

Earl’s comment: This
is great, Joseph. And you’ve also reminded me of another paradox in Plato’s
writing on writing. And I’ve constructed a little demonstration of it that
you can reach by clicking


|| History
|| Orientation || Ethics
|| syllabus || lexicon
|| metapaideia || another
|| fantasy
|| phaedrasityÝ
two egypts
Ý tekne difficulty
Jackson , Jr.
|| contact
|| noesis || Perseus


Glass Town

voice of the shuttle || 

can’t say „I love“

critical conditions ||