[Air-l] Plato meets the Blogroll

Logie logie at umn.edu
Tue Jul 8 13:44:26 PDT 2003

On Tuesday, July 8, 2003, at 09:35  AM, Ed Lamoureux wrote:

> This is not too different from what Plato said/wrote in the PHAEDRUS 
> concerning what would happen to the Greeks due to the full 
> establishment of writing (away from oral).  "It [writing] will cause 
> us to forget" (roughly) . . .
> and in a way, it did. In the oral age, "literate" Greeks had 
> encyclopedic memories. Within 250 years after Plato, teachers of 
> rhetoric had to teach memory systems.

I've thrilled to the running discussion of Plato's _Phaedrus_ on this 
list. Rhetoricians claim the _Phaedrus_ as a foundational text (as do 
those in a lot of other disciplines) and I've always seen Socrates' 
inveighing against writing as presenting a wonderful paradox, given 
that we have it only because Plato wrote it down (Derrida makes this 
point, among others, in the remarkable and intense "Plato's Pharmacy").

I often assign the dialogue in classes addressing technology and 
literacy, and in addition to Socrates' complain about writing's effect 
on the Greek art of memory, I also am fond of a passage in which 
Socrates' complains about writing's ability to distance words from 
their inventors.

In the terrific Nehamas and Woodruff translation, the passage reads:

> Socrates:  You know, Phaedrus, writing shares a strange feature with 
> painting. The offspring of painting stand there as if they were alive, 
> but if anyone asks them anything, they are solemnly silent.  The same 
> is true of written words. You’d think they were speaking as if they 
> had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been 
> said because you want to learn more, it gives just the same message 
> over and over. Once it has been written down, every discourse rolls 
> about everywhere, reaching  just as much those with understanding as 
> those who have no business with it, and it does not know to whom it 
> should speak and                         to whom not. And when it is 
> faulted and attacked unfairly, it always needs its father’s support; 
> alone, it cannot defend itself or come to its own support.

I always follow this passage by asking students whether they believe 
Internet texts are more or less distant from their "parents" than print 
texts. In the early days of hypertext hype, most students were 
initially persuaded that hypertexts, especially link-rich web texts, 
were far more responsive than print texts. Today they are more wary. 
acknowledging that the "rolling around" has reached high speeds, but 
uncertain as to whether web texts are significantly better at defending 
themselves when interrogated.

My hope is that collective interest in the _Phaedrus_ will prompt 
Penguin to again print its pocket-sized version of the (perfectly 
serviceable) Hamilton translation, which was available in the 1990s for 
the exceedingly fair price of $1.49. Alternatively, a scanned version 
of the Jowett translation hovers at: 



John Logie
University of Minnesota

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