Socrates on the risks of writing

socrates-death-detail  Every new invention has its critics.

Socrates warned against the spread of writing and the subsequent loss of the ability to memorise.

Plato’s Phaedrus, written in about 370 BC, takes the form of a dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus, an Athenian aristocrat.

Socrates quoted the God Thamus, on the topic of writing:

For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practise their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them.

Thamus went on to say:

You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.

Socrates lived at the time when writing was taking hold in ancient Greece. Ironically, we only know what he believed because his pupil, Plato, wrote it down.

We now trust everything to our electronic devices. The entire world of information is at our fingertips, so why bother remembering anything when you can just look it up? Are we paying for the information age with wisdom?

Obviously, as an author, I am totally in favour of writing, of literacy. But I also think that we have lost some of the great aspects of orality, the way knowledge is memorised by non-literate people, including indigenous cultures and the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers.

We can no longer hold even a fraction of all that is known in memory – we need books and computers to do that. We need literacy. However, I believe that if we taught the memory arts in school, that students would have a stronger framework on which to build their book learning in every subject.

I want to see orality skills taught alongside literacy.



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Author: lynne

I am an Honorary Researcher at LaTrobe University. I am the author of 19 books, the most recent being 'Spiders: learning to love them' (Allen & Unwin), 'Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies' (Cambridge University Press, 'The Memory Code' (Allen & Unwin, AUS; Pegasus Books, US and Atlantic Books, UK), 'Memory Craft' (Allen & Unwin, AUS; Pegasus Books, US) [and foreign translations, audio versions and so on]. My latest book is co-authored by Margo Neale. 'Songlines: the power and promise' and published by Thames & Hudson with the National Museum of Australia.

4 thoughts on “Socrates on the risks of writing”

  1. I have heard nothing of indigenous Australians having contact with writing before 1788, and much later in remote communities. I believe that had they had contact with writing and then had the time to adapt orality to include literacy at their own pace within their own cultural framework, the outcome would have been very different. The Greek adapting to full literacy without oral mnemonic methods happened over hundreds of years, in fact, some argue that the mnemonic technologies I talk about were not completely lost from European cultures until the Renaissance. By a slow adapting to writing, the knowledge of the culture was not overwritten as it has been so often with colonisation of indigenous cultures and teaching literacy with no respect for maintaining orality.

    I have also been told a little about mnemonic stones that are highly secretive. But the conversation soon turned away from them at the request of an indigenous male present. It has been a hard decision what should be included in my writing and what not. I chose to leave out any details of the discussion of these stones and not followed up on them. I make constant reference to the role of restricted information in knowledge systems and how important it is that critical survival information is kept restricted so that it is not watered down by constant repetition in unrestricted circumstances. It is all about avoiding the so-called Chinese whispers effect. One of my key indicators of a memory space in the landscape is public and restricted performance sites. Stonehenge is initially a very open space, but over hundreds of years becomes more and more restricted. When the huge stones arrive – those which are so familiar now – about 500 years into its story, then a massive public performance space appears in the landscape 3 miles away at Durringtom Walls.

    Secret men’s and women’s business has a very practical purpose as well as the spiritual and social aspects. We must respect it.

    I really wanted a photograph of a churinga in the book. The ultimate portable memory space. Even though there are lots of photographs on the Net, I was asked by indigenous advisors not to include one as these are highly restricted objects. I was told it would be fine for me to sketch one form sketches in old books, though, so that is what I have done.

    Thank you for your interest!

  2. Just read your comments in Jane Belfrage’s Facebook page, then had to read your blog. I wonder whether any evidence exists of indigenous Australians having known about writing prior to 1788, and having actively chosen rejecting writing? Such evidence could go a long way towards enabling more positive social and intercultural outcomes at the present time, especially in conjunction with your work. Many years ago, I read in a Canberra homebirth network newsletter, about an indigenous miniature memory tool used by midwives for turning a breech delivery, and subsequently also encountered other stories of similar stones belonging to the men I am not at liberty to discuss. I look forward to your forthcoming publication.

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