True Stuff: Socrates vs. the Written Word

Previously, I shared a curmudgeonly 1889 article about the menace of electricity and the telephone and its spiritual cousin, a fifteenth-century screed lamenting the printing press. I’m collecting data here in service of a hypothesis that progress is universally despised, that the “get off my lawn you whippersnappers” feeling that we all occasionally experience is more tied to our makeup as humans than the technology and the changes themselves. These feelings, I posit, are universal, and perhaps make us feel disconnected — we see others doing things differently, and experiencing life in a different way, and we can’t understand it, or all we can see is what they’re missing. If only they would realize! But those people are not bad — they are simply native to the next thing, perhaps, and they experience the world slightly differently. And so the world turns.

When I mentioned that I supposed this curmudgeonly sentiment against progress was common all throughout history, some commenters pointed me to the Phaedrus, a Socratic dialogue of around 370 B.C.

In it, Socrates recounts to Phaedrus the Egyptian legend of Theuth, the god who invented “numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters.” Theuth presents the Egyptian king Thamus with his many inventions, and Thamus

…said many things to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts, which it would take too long to repeat; but when they came to the letters, “This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.”

But Thamus replied, “Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess.

“For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice 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. 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.” (Phaedrus 274c-275b)

To which Phaedrus calmly replies: “Socrates, you easily make up stories of Egypt or any country you please.”

Socrates continues:

He who thinks, then, that he has left behind him any art in writing, and he who receives it in the belief that anything in writing will be clear and certain, would be an utterly simple person, and in truth ignorant of the prophecy of Ammon, if he thinks written words are of any use except to remind him who knows the matter about which they are written.

Very true.

Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself.

Now tell me; is there not another kind of speech, or word, which shows itself to be the legitimate brother of this bastard one, both in the manner of its begetting and in its better and more powerful nature?

What is this word and how is it begotten, as you say?


The word which is written with intelligence in the mind of the learner, which is able to defend itself and knows to whom it should speak, and before whom to be silent.


You mean the living and breathing word of him who knows, of which the written word may justly be called the image.


Exactly. Now tell me this. Would a sensible husbandman, who has seeds which he cares for and which he wishes to bear fruit, plant them with serious purpose in the heat of summer in some garden of Adonis, and delight in seeing them appear in beauty in eight days, or would he do that sort of thing, when he did it at all, only in play and for amusement? Would he not, when he was in earnest, follow the rules of husbandry, plant his seeds in fitting ground, and be pleased when those which he had sowed reached their perfection in the eighth month?


Yes, Socrates, he would, as you say, act in that way when in earnest and in the other way only for amusement.


And shall we suppose that he who has knowledge of the just and the good and beautiful has less sense about his seeds than the husbandman?


By no means.


Then he will not, when in earnest, write them in ink, sowing them through a pen with words which cannot defend themselves by argument and cannot teach the truth effectually.

Socrates lays out an argument that the written word cannot defend itself in dialogue, and thus cannot effectively teach anything worth knowing. For only through banter, through back-and-forth discussion and rhetorical argument and the working out of problems, can true knowledge be conveyed. Reading mere words, in his mind, is akin to looking at a lake rather than swimming in it — or worse, looking at a lake and thinking that now you know how to swim.

Plato (the transcriber of this dialogue) expounds further on the concept in his Seventh Epistle:

After much effort, as names, definitions, sights, and other data of sense, are brought into contact and friction one with another, in the course of scrutiny and kindly testing by men who proceed by question and answer without ill will, with a sudden flash there shines forth understanding about every problem, and an intelligence whose efforts reach the furthest limits of human powers. Therefore every man of worth, when dealing with matters of worth, will be far from exposing them to ill feeling and misunderstanding among men by committing them to writing…

Anyone who has followed this discourse and digression will know well that, if Dionysios or anyone else, great or small, has written a treatise on the highest matters and the first principles of things, he has, so I say, neither heard nor learnt any sound teaching about the subject of his treatise; otherwise, he would have had the same reverence for it, which I have, and would have shrunk from putting it forth into a world of discord and uncomeliness.

Dionysios here is Dionysios the Younger of Syracuse, a brutal tyrant, who has written a treatise on philosophy. Plato argues that he must have done it for fame or glory, because it’s clearly a scam — philosophy can’t be taught in writing; it can only be felt, experienced, argued out and sensed.

In a way this is an argument very similar to that of Trithemius against the printing press — that a perceived flattening or automating of a form necessarily involves a loss; that truth (whether it be philosophy or Scripture) is best consumed and absorbed experientially. I think this is a great sentiment and one worth considering even now.

Where I think they misstep, however, is in their belief that it’s either/or: the old way is superior ergo the new format has no value. Though often conflated, in my mind those are two separate arguments; one can’t necessarily measure a new thing by how great the old thing was. (And of course, we wouldn’t have Plato’s records at all if he hadn’t written them down — which Socrates, true to his word, never did — and similarly, Trimethius had to have his treatise printed in order to achieve any sort of mass circulation.)

Interestingly, the speech-vs-text argument appears again in the 1880s, but in reverse: with the advent of the telephone, hands are wrung that communication will become rife with error and misunderstanding because unlike the telegraph, the newfangled telephone leaves no written record!

This is a particular problem in the case of business transactions that may end up in court, and also, curiously, in the rarefied world of railroad switching, where track orders are routinely communicated ahead of a train by an army of telegraph operators. Without written records of each communication, any errors that cause accidents down the line couldn’t be tracked to their source.

Luckily for the telephone, smart people were on hand with sure-fire solutions:

At the recent meeting at Detroit of the Association of Railroad Telegraph Superintendents. Mr. M. C. Selden of the Baltimore & Ohio read a paper upon the subject of the telephone in railroad service. The objection made to the telephone in comparison with the telegraph, that there would be no written record, is answered by Mr. Selden. He calls attention to the fact that the ordinary telegraph instrument gives no written record, and that the element of personal fallibility is present in its use; and that if a telephone message is written before sending and spelled out, as it should be if of importance, the receiver will have ample time to write it out while receiving it, and records are thus preserved at both ends of the line. In matters of less vital importance the telephone offers advantages which can not be approximated by the telegraph. — Railway Age magazine, 1894

In other words, to create a written record on the telephone, the sender should write down what he’s going to say, and the receiver should write down what he hears. Perfectly convenient!

In fairness, most of the documents I’ve been able to uncover only obliquely reference the supposed problem, and treat it as minor. Another suggestion:

Although the telephone is thus largely availed of as a time-saver, there is still a curious prejudice in many minds against telephoning telegrams all the way, without any intervention of the telegraph with its record — that supposedly holy talisman against errors in transmission. Considering the enormous amount of important business that is daily transmitted by telephone, without an appreciable percentage of error and at an immeasurably greater speed than that of the telegraph, it is remarkable that this unreasonable prejudice against telephoning written messages should still obtain in circles where there is sufficient common sense to use either the telegraph or telephone at all.

That it does still exist, however, is indisputable. No doubt this is largely due to the fact that the telephone companies, having had so far as much as they can do to attend to their immediate business of supplying telephone service pure and simple, have not yet taken any steps to cultivate a profitable field that lies ready to their hands, the transmission and delivery of local telegrams. In every large town there is plenty of demand for a cheap telegraph service, and the telephone company has just the plant and organization to furnish such a service. It will yet be many years before every man with whom occasional quick communication is desired by someone else has his own telegraph station in his own place, in the form of a telephone. Meanwhile the telephone company has its wires and stations, public and private, in all directions, its messenger force and its supervisory force, all the machinery, in short, with which to organize in a few days a rapid, efficient and cheap local telegraph service. At, say, 10 cents a message of twenty words of text, such a service would be profitable to the telephone company and would meet with a ready demand from the public. — The American Telephone Journal, Volume 6 (1902)

In other words, if folks think telegraphy is less convenient but more secure, then the answer is to make telegraphy just as convenient as telephones have become.

We have now, 100+ years later, 2000+ years later even, come full circle on this issue once again, with the issue of texting. I’ve noticed that most people of my generation and younger now prefer to text rather than talk on the phone, and this is borne out by some data:

The decline in voice communications is well documented. “The fall of the call is driven by 18 to 34-year-olds, whose average monthly voice minutes have plunged from about 1,200 to 900 in the past two years, according to research by Nielsen.

“Texting among 18 to 24-year-olds has more than doubled in the same period,” wrote Ian Shapira of the Washington Post earlier this year.

The Nielsen Co. also notes that folks below the age of 24 text more often than they call, viewing the out-of-the-blue call as tantamount to an intrusion. (Source)

But I know not everyone agrees. A quick Google was all it took to uncover more modern-day curmudgeons:

…People always say texting is more convenient than talking on the phone, but in many situations, it would take less time to do it the old-fashioned way. Why not just call the person and get the conversation over in five seconds rather than continuing a long string of text messages that takes 10 minutes? It’s called efficiency. — Minnesota Public Radio, January 2010

Which is not to minimize the legitimate issues with communicating via text — for example, sarcasm and tone of voice can often be misinterpreted.

In fact, for everyone who’s sent an email or Facebook message that’s provoked the opposite reaction than you intended (myself included), I don’t mean to add insult to injury here, but…

Socrates is laughing at all of us.

21 thoughts on “True Stuff: Socrates vs. the Written Word”

  1. Hm… Okay, so that’s communications progress… How about people whop objected to industrialization, or transportation?
    Are there records of people who objected to the airplane, car, train, horse-drawn carriage, and what-not? I know one of the most amusing quote’s I’ve ever heard is in regard to the steam-ship: Something along the lines of “It’s ridiculous to think to send a boat across the sea by lighting a fire beneath her decks.”
    Are there objections to the gun from back when it was invented?

  2. John Brunner put it best: “There are two kinds of fools. One says, ‘This is old, and therefore good.’ And one says, ‘This is new, and therefore better.'”

  3. I just started my degree program for a Masters of Library Science, and already I’ve had about 100 arguments (almost EXACTLY about 100, in fact) over the evils perpetrated by advances of technology and those who profit from those advances. I am so glad that I can just smile and remember that someone had these same conversations going back as far as — I am sure — the advent of spoken language.

    …Heck, maybe THAT’s why we needed to invent language. How else would we argue about how much better it was before we even had language?

  4. We have the last laugh on Socrates. After all, we only know of what he said because Plato took the trouble to write it down.

  5. Right after reading the last line, I thought to myself, “There he goes, putting words in Socrates’s mouth.” And then I laughed at my own, and tweeted this post to my friends.

  6. Of course, what Socrates is really saying is that books are no good because they don’t have comment threads…

  7. This reminds me extremely directly of an article i read recently about when Bell Labs originally created the tape recorder. It was science fiction type of stuff, being able to quickly and easily record sound, but they shelved the technology and kept it secret for 60 years because the possibility of recorded telephone conversations was potentially a huge privacy concern. According to them. years later we seem to have decided tapes are okay to exist.

  8. Certainly in the case of comic strips Socrates is spot on. When committed to paper or other permanent media, they are lifeless. They are best enjoyed orally: “In the first panel, there’s this guy in an old suit riding a pennyfarthing. He says to a beggar who is petting a capybara, ‘Excuse me, can you provide me with directions to City Hall?’…”

  9. It’s too bad we don’t have the curmudgeonly comments of geezers who thought that spoken language was flat and un-nuanced compared the much deeper and more intimate communication of gesture, grunts, and pheremones.

  10. Plato was only using Socrates as a mouthpiece by the time this was written. At least, as far as scholars are concerned, though his earlier works using Socrates as a protagonist were more historical account. Which, of course, is the source of endless confusions.

    I guess Plato proved Socrates’ point.

  11. I think Socrates has a bit more valid of a point than a lot of the other ‘this new confangled thing is bad’. I certainly think books are awesome, but they haven’t been able to completely replace teachers in the many years they’ve been around. How many of people earned a degree by simply reading a book? You are certainly going to read a lot of books, but you always have a teacher playing the role of arguing the on the side of the book. Or look at a thesis. Do you get your phd because you wrote it, or do you obtain it once you’ve engaged in dialogue with other great minds and have successfully defended the ideas presented within? As one who holds a degree in music, it is normally pretty easy for me to see when a guitar player has never had a teacher, but only a book to learn from. Exactly as Socrates claims, the book can’t tell them when they are doing something wrong so they ingrain their bad habits. Anyways, I fear I’m getting to the point where I’m getting dangerously close to rambling, so I’ll wrap it up. I feel that books are a great tool to put ideas in your head and make you think, but at the same time, until you actually test that knowledge you haven’t necessarily learned anything. You are just parroting. I love books, but I will defend Socrates because I think this stick in the mud thing is becoming a which hunt and you want just someone famous you can burn.

  12. I would point to Nick’s comment, above. People should not point so easily to “Socrates this” and “Socrates that”.

    There are endless discussions about this dialog. A fresh view about writing vs speech can be found by earlier writings of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida: L’écriture et la différence, De La grammatologie, La Carte Postale (“The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond”!) showing the difficulties of various subjects, often in a playful way, including Plato/Socrates.

    Yes, I studied (the History of) Philosophy. Very rare joyous moment, to show off. 🙂

  13. @Eric

    Of course I don’t believe that books can replace the act of teaching. But neither do I believe that books have no value, which if we take it as written, Socrates does seem to be saying. (Certainly he, or Plato on his behalf, may have been exaggerating to make his point.)

  14. Allow me to point out that Phaedrus was the name chosen by the narrator of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” in his college course on Socrates. In his class, he destroyed the professor by actually reading the text and pointing out its inconsistencies.

  15. I actually wrote a paper on this a while back. I agreed with reader-response theory in that a lot more goes on when you read than what Plato gives credit. This isn’t to say there aren’t problems with the written word, but our minds are wondrous things.

  16. hi,
    there is a possible interpretation by niklas luhman on the new/ol and better paradigm out there:
    in the times before the printing press, older books were better, because copying was made by dictate and the more often they were copied the more mistakes came in.
    after the printing press, newer books were better, because with each print more mistakes could be extinct.

  17. Robert Anton Wilson described this sort of phenomena by putting people on a sliding scale of neophobia to neophilia and wrote about it a fair amount. Particularly in “Prometheus Rising” and in The Illuminatus! Trilogy with Robert Shea. Though I don’t think he came up with the terms, he did like the theme. From The Illuminatus! Trilogy’s appendix: “Every fact of science was once Damned. Every invention was considered impossible. Every discovery was a nervous shock to some orthodoxy. Every artistic innovation was denounced as fraud and folly. The entire web of culture and “progress,” everything on earth that is manmade and not given to us by nature, is the concrete manifestation of some man’s refusal to bow to Authority. We would own no more, know no more, and be no more than the first apelike hominids if it were not for the rebellious, the recalcitrant, and the intransigent. As Oscar Wilde truly said, “Disobedience was man’s Original Virtue.”

  18. What always gets me about discussions like these is the insistence that one or the other is good and/or “better”.

    Socrates has a good point. Reading alone does not confer true knowledge. However speaking alone cannot disseminate and preserve knowledge to those able to learn it the way writing can. One does not need to be “better” than the other, for they are entirely able to coexist, and, in fact, should.

    Speaking is for teaching, but writing gives us things to be taught. It gives us record of past teachings and histories, and it disseminates new findings to everyone. Not to mention the effect of writing on the availability of global news! Can you imagine how science would bog down if the only way to access the research of others was to go to conferences? Furthermore, it is important to note that the amount of knowledge during Socrates’ time pales to that we have now. Could Socrates have remembered, off the top of his head and consistently for decades of time, every physiological, anatomical, pharmaceutical fact and pathological mishap that could occur to the human body? Maybe he could have, but don’t YOU feel better, knowing that if your doctor lets slip some minute detail, he can go fact-check it in his books? Don’t you feel better, that if your veterinarian (who has to remember everything the doctor does about more than one specie) can double-check his information before trying to save your pet?

    Discourse is how knowledge builds. Writing enables the communication of this discourse over time and space and gives a record of its findings. They are not optimized by exclusion of one or the other, but maximized when used together.

  19. The advantage of writing is that it is extelligence, external and easily transferable. With intelligence, if the person who knows something gets removed (dies, wanders off, hit on head with a club) it is lost and you have to start fresh.
    With writing, you can no longer lose everything unless Muslims or Christians burn your entire goddamn library (as they are both wont to do)
    I have always held Socrates as the ‘patron saint’ of wisdom. I may have to revise that and switch to legendary librarian, Hypatia.
    Maybe philosophy is okay with rebuilding over and over but I like what we have done with biology (Darwin), physics (Newton, Einstein) and such.
    Reading is what enables you to stay balanced on the shoulders of giants

  20. I really like this blog and the posts before were very interesting, but I think you’re missing the point here. The Greeks did not have such a historicistical approach in their thinking of thamself and the world i.e. in philosophy. This is why the critic of written world is not a critic of progress. To understand why Socrates is against you must already understand the Socratic (Platonist) metaphysics. In few words: (1) the ideas exist (simply, eternally) per se (2) the things in the world are representantion of ideas. On the level of speech it goes like this: (1) the ideas exist per se (2) when trying to talk about the truth, you’re already representing what exist eternally in an temporal, finite way (3) the written word is a representation of something that’s a representation (a spoken word) and because of this much more uncorrect towards the first idea.
    That’s why Plato writes dialogues. For those, who didn’t have the possibility to live with and be thought by Socrates.

    (Sorry for my english)

  21. The fundamental point, with regards to texting, that the curmudgeons miss is that the newer generation regards phone calls as a /commitment/. It can be difficult to, socially inept as we are, end a conversation in a timely manner without any side taking offense. A text, on the other hand, makes no commitment whatsoever, especially with the recent technologies which have greatly improved its speed.

    Of course, this has little to do with the point, but I wanted to explain that to someone.

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