Earl’s Commentary Phaedrus 14 (274b-277a)
My Commentary on this section will focus, surprise
surprise, on the status of writing for Socrates and in the Platonic
dialogues. I will divide my observations across two planes: form and content.
By „form“ I mean the myth of Theuth
The Myth of Theuth
Now Phaedrus may be pretty, but
he sure can’t type. And I’m sure
you haven’t been dazzled by his powers of observation either. But even
he spotted a home-made myth in Socrates’s tale of Theuth. So, as
we have done with the other „artificial“ myths (which Phaedrus did not
spot, by the way), let us assume that the myth is deployed for the meanings
it enables. We were originally guided into this method by the clue given
early on – in section one, in which Socrates vowed his „belief“ in the
„truths“ of the ancient myths.
We see that there is an operative distinction between „referential“ or
„literal“ truth and the meaningfulness
of the mythic utterance, or perhaps the efficacy of the utterance –
it allows access to insights otherwise closed to direct scrutiny.
Now, since section 12 and 13
however, we have even more justification for our supposition and more concrete
ideas of how Socrates accomplishes what he does with the myths. Remember
he believes a good rhetorician must be able to classify the types of souls
in his audience and match them with types of discourse that will move them,
with stimulate the transition towards the truth. These myths are selected
accordingly, here, in his therapeutic conversation with Phaedrus, trying
to cure Phaedrus of his allegiance to
Lysias and that tradition of oratory and Sophistry. These myths don’t
simply announce „truth“ but seduce the listener towards it, and even [although
you can’t see it happening in the dim bulb we’re dealing with here] the
myth and the dialogue it fosters even can seduce the listener by guiding
the listener to seduce himself towards the truth in his own participation
in that dialogue [a better example would be Theatetus in the Theaetetus
and in the Sophist;
and perhaps the slave boy at the end of the Meno.
But since „we“ modern readers do not belong to whatever category of
soul type that boasted Phaedrus as a member, „we“ are not being addressed
in this myth. And this means that the significance we find in the myth
is not restricted to its intended therapeutic effects on Phaedrus. But
this also means we need to consider a greater range of interpretative contexts
for the significance of the myth than Phaedrus would have [i.e. we have
no guidelines for the „proper“ specification of the myth’s intellgibility.].
For example, we also need to look at the myth’s discontinuities, incoherencies,
contradictions – both internal and intertextually. Let’s look at another
time that Egypt and writing figure in a dialogue, this time the Timaeus.
Egypt, Writing, The Timaeus
most of the dialogue, he is essentially only reciting
| The grandfather
was 90 years old and young Critias was ten when the story was first imparted.
|Solon had allegedly
brought this story back from Egypt, where he had been told it by unnamed
Egyptian priests, during Solon‘ s visit to the Egyptian city of Sais.
There an very elderly priest told Solon that Greeks are very young mentally.
Egypt had been recording Greek history that no trace remained among the
Greeks, because at each stage of Greek civilization up to that time, great
disasters would befall, fires, and floods, etc. And because the Greeks
had no writing system, none of the ancient happenings or advances were
recorded, preserved and handed down. So the Greeks remained ignorant of
the history and were constantly starting all over again. [Timaeus
Although this isn’t Socrates’s story, it still identifies Egypt with
the source of writing. But in this story, writing has not proved to be
a ruin of memory but the preserver of the past – and not just any past
but the past of Athens that had been lost irretrievably by the Greeks precisely
because they had not begun to write. How would you reconcile this
Egypt with the Egypt of Socrates’s origin of writing myth in the Phaedrus?
Twenty more seconds . . .
The Myth of Theuth Elsewhere
While you’re thinking that over, I’ll go back to our Egyptian story
from the Phaedrus [Remember the
Phaedrus?], to compare it with other instances of Socrates’s Egyptian connection.
As we have seen, in the Phaedrus Socrates credits Theuth with the creation
of writing. He does this again in the Philebus
too, with interesting differences. I quote from the Philebus below.
|Socrates: When some one, whether god or
godlike man,–there is an Egyptian story that his name was Theuth–observed
that sound was infinite, he was the first to notice that the vowel sounds
in that infinity were not one, but many, and again that there were other
elements which were not vowels but did have a sonant quality, [18c] and
that these also had a definite number; and he distinguished a third kind
of letters which we now call mutes. Then he divided the mutes until he
distinguished each individual one, and he treated the vowels and semivowels
in the same way, until he knew the number of them and gave to each and
all the name of letters. Perceiving, however, that none of us could learn
any one of them alone by itself without learning them all, and considering
that this was a common bond which made them in a way all one,[18d] he assigned
to them all a single science and called it grammar.
Note that this version of the story does not deal with the
origin of writing per se, but rather offers an analysis of the
phonological structure of a spoken language. If we had any doubt that
this myth was invented by Socrates in the Phaedrus, we certainly shouldn’t
doubt it now. Notice anything strange about the associations between these
rather technically amazing anatomies of phonemes and the association with
Twenty more seconds . . .
Well I’m sure you got it right, but I’ll just confirm that by answering
analysis of the phonological components of spoken Greek that Socrates summarizes
here is intrinsic to the principles upon which the Greek alphabet is based.
Indeed, the alphabet itself is an analysis of the phonology of spoken
Greek. The letters correspond to the categories of sounds the analysis
identifies: consonants, vowels, and semi-vowels, to give them their modern
While Socrates’s phonology is perfectly relevant
writing systems of earlier cultures were not alphabetic. And I’m not speaking
necessarily of heiroglyphics and other ideograms. There were phonetic elements
in heiroglyphs and there were phonetic, cursive writing systems for the
Egyptian language. But what do some of these pre-Greek phonetic systems
have in common. Not just Egyptian, but Sumerian, Hebrew, Ugaritic, Sanskrit,
Japanese? I’m sure you know this.
These writing systems were based on the syllable
The consonants I just listed, or the consonants that Socrates can isolate
and name are not merely sounds, but a way of conceiving of the sounds of
a language on a level of abstraction first achieved in the invention of
the Greek alphabet. Unlike a syllabary, the Greek alphabet is in effect,a
new system of representing language based on a nearly biological analysis
of the vocal articulatory patterns in the language in question. Our understanding
of the differences among vowels, consonants, and semi-vowels, and voiced
and unvoiced consonants, stops and sibilants, essentially emerge directly
from invention of the Greek alphabet. What Socrates’s paraphrases the mythical
„God or God-like man“ in his artificial myth of Egypt is linguistically
sound and lingustically sophisticated. He would have passed the intro to
phonology, which is more than I might say of many contemporaries. (And
I don’t mean Socrates’s contemporaries, I mean ours.)
But one of the points I meant to make and I think managed to lose just
now, is that Socrates’s phonology is accurate, but marks his Egyptian story
as a myth, since the phonological observations underlying the Greek alphabet
do not pertain to the the writing systems of Egypt. In the present context
[i.e. in the virtual corner I have just managed to paint my analog self
into], this discrepancy might seem to be irrelevant (and this might be
one of those neat occasions in which something actually is what it seems
like). But I’m preparing now for the future. This discrepancy will be relevant
to another argument. Stay tuned, or better yet see if one occurs to you.
If so, please send it to me and we’ll talk.
If you’re interested in another tradition of cultural fantasizing about
writing systems, I might recommend another open-air essay/conversation
I constructed as part of my Post
Modern Japan site. The module is about the history of writing systems.
Go to the Syllabus
and just click on your choice of navigation links in the strikingly
illustrated box announcing said
Loose Thread: Let us Compare Mythologies
As long as I’ve got you here [or not] I thought I’d mention a point of
contingency and a point of divergence between the artificial myth of Theuth
in the Phaedrus and „real“ Greek myth at that time.
Point of Contingency
Theuth, in the Egyptian pantheon, corresponds to Hermes in the Greek. Think
the messenger god, god of interpretation, gambling, and deceit.
Point of Divergence
In Greek myth, the person usually
credited with the invention of
writing is that ill-fated good Samaritan, Prometheus. There’s a lot
that could be said about that but I’ll let you think about it without the
burden of my thoughts on the matter. Oh, alright, here’s a hint: Remember
what happened to Prometheus when Zeus et alia found out he had given mortals
the technology of fire? It wasn’t pretty. I think that’s enough of a hint,
Besides these mythic resonances, there are also intertextual resonances
with other dialogues. As we saw in Earl’s
Commentary 12, one of the major methodological contributions of the
Phaedrus is the joint procedure of Collection and Division [Remember them?],
which are fundamental to Socratic dialectic.
In that commentary I also review the other dialogues in which division
and collection or diairesis
and sunagogeê come up:
The Statesman, the Philebus, and the Sophist.
In the Phaedrus Socrates demonstrates his reverence towards these methods
by saying that whenever he encounters anyone adept in these practices he
„follows in their footsteps like a god.“ [Which is a distorted quotation
from the Odyssey that I also have
a theory about but I’ll let that go for now, but would be happy to tell
you about it if you ask [yeah, right ;-)]. In the Philebus Socrates is
even more lavish in his praise of this dual-process method of inquiry,
calling it „a gift of the gods. . . which they let fall from their abode,
and it was through Prometheus, or one like him, that it reached mankind,
together with a fire exceeding bright.“ [Philebus
Theorizing the Shift from Orality to Literality
The scholar that has done the most extensive yet accessible and interesting
work on the shifts from a preliterate to literate culture in Greece is
Eric A. Havelock. I think you’d like some of the articles he’s written
over the years collected in handy paperback entitled, The Literacy Revolution
in Greece and its Cultural Consequences. More arcane, but very readable
and provocative is his monograph, Preface to Plato which is a complicated
theory explaining why Plato banishes the poets from the Republic in terms
of a necessary shift from a preliterate, epic-centered society, to a post-literate,
text-based society. It’s a great beach read, among other things.
One of Havelock’s central concerns has been to demonstrate how the shift
from an oral culture to literate culture among the Greeks entailed a transformation
of cognitive structures. Very much like the computer in our time, the introduction
of writing into Greek culture meant a new way of storing information. Homer’s
epics are a legacy of the former way of information storage and retrieval:
memorization/contextualization/and recitation. To memorize something in
a culture without writing was done by putting the information into a narrative
and performing and memorizing that narrative. This way even the most abstract
knowledge (at least abstract in a literate culture) is preserved through
instances concrete and specific situations. Instead of memorizing battle
plans and military strategies, Homer’s
bards and audiences memorized the various campaigns waged between the
Greeks and the Trojans.
With the advent of writing, information could be recorded and stored
without relying on such mnemonic devices: stories were no longer necessary.
This gives rise to a new tendency of decontextualization and abstraction.
Thus, information storage and retrieval shifted modes – from from an institutionalized
poetic performance to a privitized conceptual inventory.
See: Works by Eric A. Havelock:
- The Literacy Revolution in Greece and its Cultural Consequences
- Preface to Plato. Cambridge. 1963
The Muse Learns To Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity
to the Present New Haven 1986
Writing vs. Speech
The contradiction between the Phaedrus and the Timaeus concerning the value
of writing as a means of preserving knowledge is hardly a blip on a screen
compared to the contradiction at the heart of the Phaedrus passage alone.We
see Socrates doesn’t take the introduction of writing into Greece in the
same way Havelock does. This is ironic, since the „Socrates“ presented
in the text, and (if we subscribe to Havelock’s thesis) the very foundation
Socratic/Platonic conceptualizations are made possible by the transformations
in cognitive structures brought about by literacy. How can we account for
the discrepancies between the Socratic condemnation of writing and the
medium in which that condemnation is represented, preserved, and disseminated.
Socrates argues pretty forcefully that writing is not good for much,
and certainly could be used to extend the reach of philosophy. Writing
is inherently frivolous, and when it tries to be serious, it’s pathetic,
because it can’t defend itself, it can’t anything other than what it said
when it was written down, and it will be cut free from its original contexts
to languish or mislead.
Now we could write this off as Socratic Irony, but we’d be not only
wrong but intellectually remiss in dodging a challenge that is meant to
be taken up. We could call it Platonic Irony, distinguishing the narrated
voice of Socrates from the never-present voice of Plato. And to a degree
this is inevitably true – there’s some irony there, but I would mortgage
the farm on it. Plato’s not getting a last laugh at Socrates’s expense
by any means. For one thing, there is some compelling evidence that Plato
agrees with this position.
Remember that part of the Seventh Letter I included in the Who
Was Plato? page? If you haven’t yet [and this is the SECOND time this
has come up] please read it now. You can get it solo by clicking on the
filename inever.html“ .
Socrates. I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately
Phaedrus. That again is most true.
Phaedrus. Whom do you mean, and what is his origin?
Socrates. I mean an intelligent word graven in the soul of the
Phaedrus. You mean the living word of knowledge which has a soul,
There does not exist, nor will there ever exist,
Notwithstanding, of thus much I am certain,
– Reread Socrates’s devaluation of writing in
this section of the Phaedrus, together with the relevant passages of Plato’s
Seventh Letter. Ask yourself this question: what connection might you
see between Plato’s thoughts on the inadequacy of writing for philosophy
and his use of the dialogue form? How does the dialogue form serve as an
„answer“ to the suspicion against written philosophical texts? And I will
be happy to take your answer in any form
: written, electronic,
Topic Relevance Bonus!
Remember way back when, when you couldn’t imagine what the Phaedrus had
to do with your life? [In other words, remember earlier this morning? Or
remember now?] And you opened up that
Relevance Menu? There were a lot of categories there, and some seemed
pretty fishy. The one at the bottom of that menu in fact made little sense
at all but at least it told you not to pay attention to it yet. But that
„yet“ is now „now.“ [Even though the „now“ of the time I’m typing this
up is not the „now“ when I finally upload this page to the site, and certainly
isn’t the „now“ you Noah and Oed are blissfully lounging in when you’re
reading this page. So even if the „now“ I’m describing is a realization
of a time that was a distant hypothetical unlikely future at an earlier
now when you first read the last category pointer in the Relevance menu,
this realized future is nevertheless concretized as a „now“ as fictional
as any other. But remember the fictionality of an entity does not always
inhibit its reality or its efficacy. I certainly hope you have ignored
everything between these two brackets.]
The section on the Relevance Menu
[Remember the Relevance Menu?] in question is the „Technologies
of Writing“ issue which is multiphasically hyper-relevant. In fact,
it’s so relevant, I don’t even want to begin writing about it now. So instead
of you getting the break between sessions this time, I think I will take
Well, before I go,
I want to point out that I construct our supplementary approach to the
question of writing into two meta-categories, modelled on the division
between „Relevance“ and „Contexts“
as represented in the division of labor between the Relevance
[and Medical Relevance] and Contexts
menus, respectively. Thus, for the contexts side of the question of writing,
see the Ancient Orthographies
page. And for the relevance side, see the Grapho-tekne
page. Now I’m taking a very hot
bath, and Gus and I are going to rewatch either The
Big Combo [Gus’s vote] or Pursued
[if Gus falls asleep before I do].
But I’ll be back soon. You know I can never
stay away very long, even though I’m already
gone forever. Go figure ;-).
Phaedrus Commentary 14 Part Two
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