Wednesday, January 02, 2008

On the Integrity of Oral Traditions

Scandinavian scholars, with their own saga heritage, have done much to show that books and for that matter the very art of writing itself has not always been thought of as an unmixed blessing in the advancement of human culture. In antiquity their value was questioned not so much by the illiterate, who were generally awed by the written word, but by men of letters who feared that an undue reliance on writing would lead to shoddy reasoning and cause the memory faculty to atrophy. A classic presentation of this view is to be found in Plato's Phaedrus. here, in the words of Socrates, we are given the dialogue between the god Thamus, king of all Egypt, and the god Theuth, who invented letters. In response to Theuth, who claimed that his invention will make the Egyptians wise and "improve their memories," Thamus responds:

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 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...

In calling written words an "elixir not of memory but of reminding," Plato is, in effect, saying that, at best, they serve only as mnemonics: after they are written, they are of no use except "to remind him who knows the matter about which they are written." They are, he goes on to say, both dumb and defenseless - bruited about by those understand them and by those who do not. They have no power to defend themselves. And so the wise will reject written words, employing them only as "reminders for himself when he comes to the forgetfulness of old age."
From Dov Zlotnick's fascinating article
(thanks, Mississippi Fred!)

Also, see my previous post on Oral vs Literate Societies.


Blogger Shoshana said...

Very interesting, especially considering the fact that I'm fairly certain that Plato used the written word.

January 03, 2008 8:35 AM  
Anonymous Miri said...

strong support for the very old tradition in classical education of making people memorize things. I wonder at what point the written word came to be thought of as an art form?

January 07, 2008 12:08 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

>I wonder at what point the written word came to be thought of as an art form?

I am not sure. Perhaps at least in the European world it came about during the Dark Ages when a lot of knowledge disappeared and was resurrected through scribes in monasteries copying works that they really didn't even understand?

January 07, 2008 7:30 AM  
Blogger Miri said...

hmm. when was Beowoulf written?

January 07, 2008 1:43 PM  

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