CriticaLink | Plato: Phaedrus | Guide to Sections 274 B - 277 A

Socrates: What's left, then, is aptness and ineptness in connection with writing. . .

To understand the critique of writing in the last sections of the Phaedrus, it is important to recall that for Socrates all phenomena that make up perceptible reality, including abstract entities such as justice and beauty, are only transient, imperfect copies of the eternal, perfect Forms that serve as their archetypes.

As with the complex myth of the charioteers that illustrates his concepts of metempsychosis and anamnesis, Socrates again turns to a fictional narrative to convey his philosophical problems with the practice of writing. He tells the legend of the Egyptian god Theuth, inventor of numbers, arithmetic, gambling, and "letters" (grammata in Greek)--the foundation of writing. Theuth goes to the god Thamus, ruler of Thebes, to present his inventions and argue for their usefulness to Egyptians. Writing, he claims, is an "elixir" (pharmakon in Greek) of memory and wisdom, because it allows people to record and later to recall their thoughts.

Thamus disagrees, arguing that writing will in fact weaken memory because people will rely for their knowledge on written signs that are external to them. Not surprisingly, Thamus seems to share Socrates's understanding of true knowledge as anamnesis--the soul's inner recollection of the vision of the Forms.

Not only does writing, like other representational practices, produce merely a "copy of a copy", it is monologic. Socrates's philosophical method is based on a particular type of dialogue called elenchus, the back-and-forth question-and-answer that we know as the "Socratic method". This process of reaching understanding depends on the link between the speaker's words and the speaker's soul--Socrates sometimes referred to himself as a "midwife" of knowledge, and his ability to bring others to an understanding of philosophy is often described as maieutic, from the Greek word for "midwife."

If we follow out the metaphor of Socrates as an assistant at the birth of ideas, ideas put down in writing are stillborn, cut off from the life force of the souls that created them. While he seems to recognize the entertainment value of writing, Socrates does not believe that written words, alienated from the living presence of their speakers and thus twice removed from the ultimate origin of their meaning in the Forms, can approach his own dialectical method for conducting philosophical inquiry.

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