Saturday, March 04, 2006


"At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality."

-Plato's Phaedrus, Jowett trans.

While not Seneca, Plato's illustration using Egyptian myth is a well-known (classical) argument against the rise of a literate society. Plato lived during a key turning point in history: the transition from an oral to a literate culture. Many have argued that we are living during a similar transition from literate to "post-literate" culture. If you don't like video screens in churches (so goes the argument), then you are resisting the transition just as Plato resisted the transition in his day.

The last post spoke of the value in mastering a few volumes versus simply possessing countless titles. As we reflect on Seneca's warning, it becomes evident that Plato wasn't ALL wrong. Some of his criticisms are valid. The question is economic: "If there really are costs to pay in a transition from oral to literate (or literate to 'post-literate'), are they worth the benefits we will receive?"

Seneca's admonition seems to partially justify Plato; there is evidently a tendency toward the fulfillment of Plato's prediction. We can't just dismiss Plato as "old-fashioned" and standing against the tide of modernizing forces. As individuals living in a literate culture, we shouldn't just assume that our way is right ipso facto. Nevertheless, I am convinced that a literate culture is superior because the benefits for society of literacy outweigh the costs.

If it is true that we living during a time of transition from literate to "post-literate," there will be advocates for change and those who resist it. We can't forget (no matter where you find yourself in the cultural battle) that the transition CANNOT be boiled down to "old-fashioned" versus "contemporary." There are benefits and costs involved in the transition - things you gain and things you lose. Let's slow down and consider both sides, since it is evident that Plato's "cost" has been vindicated as legitimate. Maybe the "old-fashioned" of our own day aren't just being difficult; maybe they just don't believe the benefits are worth the costs. Plato and Seneca have demonstrated one thing, if nothing else: there ARE costs. If you think there are only benefits with no costs, then you aren't being contemporary and modern, but foolhardy and blind.


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