The Socratic Conundrum or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Alphabet

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By Mark Nelson

Socrates never wrote anything down. Had Plato, his student, not diligently recorded his words, they would have been whisked away by the sands of time. A while back, I stumbled upon a fascinating tidbit, the fundamental reason why the great teacher eschewed writing. Socrates and Plato lived in Athens in the fifth century BC, a period commonly known as its golden age. This was a time when the Greek alphabet was taking hold. Plato embraced it. Socrates rejected it. Both had their reasons. I find myself fascinated by that fleeting yet remarkable period of time. Imagining their discussion is irresistible.

PLATO

You have such an amazing mind. It probes every subject imaginable. Aren’t you curious about this new invention, writing?

SOCRATES

Of course, I am. I questioned many of our citizens who have learned it and discovered a troubling phenomenon. It produces fundamental changes in their psyches by deceiving them.

PLATO

How is that?

SOCRATES

They confuse symbols with truth. They lose the distinction between representation and reality. That is why I’ve never written anything down.

PLATO

But can’t you—

SOCRATES

It’s not that I’m unable. I’m unwilling.

PLATO

I enjoy reading–

SOCRATES

I have no problem reading. How else would I realize a written account of a conversation is but a shadow of a conversation?

PLATO

Ah! The Cave analogy–

SOCRATES

Even more than that, relying on writing would diminish me.

PLATO

In what way?

SOCRATES

The seeking of knowledge, which is the pinnacle of our aspirations as we seek the divine, is no longer a true debate.

PLATO

How so?

SOCRATES

If one side has some writing to his advantage, is that not a form of cheating?

PLATO

Precedent as cheating? I don’t think–

SOCRATES

Even our memory is affected. Our ancestors could recite the words of Homer. Our children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Would you agree that a man who carries stones in order to build his house will become stronger than a man who merely orders another to do the work for him?

PLATO

Yes, most certainly.

SOCRATES

Would you agree that a man who orders another to do the work of such an important task is in danger of becoming soft and lazy?

PLATO

Not necessarily. The citizens of Athens could never have constructed this grand city only by the labor of their own hands.

SOCRATES

That is a fair point. Let us discuss the military. Is not every citizen also a Hoplite, bound by duty to defend Athens against its enemies?

PLATO

That’s true.

SOCRATES

What word would you use for a man who thought nothing of letting another perform such a sacred task?

PLATO

Parásitos.

SOCRATES

So would I. Would you agree a man’s mind is his greatest treasure?

PLATO

Yes.

SOCRATES

Does it not follow that if it makes some sense to delegate the construction of one’s house to another, no sense at all to delegate the protection of one’s polis to another, it should be inconceivable to delegate the nourishment of one’s psyche to another?

PLATO

It does.

SOCRATES

Is it not reasonable to conclude the youth of our city have been seduced by writing into relegating the care of that which they should cherish the most? Why should they bother with the labor of true thinking when another has already done the work for them?

PLATO

That does sound logical.

SOCRATES

If that is the case, why have you been scribbling on a scroll the whole time we have been talking?

PLATO

Because neither of us will live forever.

You’d think an argument from over two millennia ago would be settled by now. Not really. Around 1440, Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of mechanical movable type printing set in motion a chain of events that he almost certainly didn’t foresee. He faced bankruptcy and was exiled. By the time of his death in 1468, his invention had achieved only a modicum of success. As we all know, his legacy hardly disappeared into obscurity. As the fifteenth century drew to a close, printing presses were in operation throughout Western Europe producing what we now call incunabula. For the first time, the common man had access to books. Intellectuals had access to even more of them. It’s hard to deny the argument that the printing press fueled the Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution.

The old guard took notice of the impending threat to their monopoly on knowledge. Michael Servetus, a Spanish Renaissance humanist who lived during the first half of the sixteenth century, was well-versed in science, law and literature. He published books on science and theology, such as the first French translation of Ptolemy’s “Geography,” “Errors of the Trinity” and “The Restitution of Christianity.” The third work contains a groundbreaking discussion of pulmonary circulation. For his contributions, Servetus was rewarded with being burned at the stake in 1553 by order of Geneva’s city council. The Pope ordered Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible burned in Catholic-dominated areas of Germany in 1624. The impending threat certainly wasn’t lost on the Ottoman Empire, which banned the printing press from 1483-1727—that’s 244 years—with the death penalty imposed on lawbreakers. None of that stemmed the tide of change. So, why all the fuss over this particular invention, a machine that performed the simple task of rendering letters on paper? To answer that question, let’s resurrect Socrates and Plato once again and assume they have been filled in.

SOCRATES

First, in all fairness, I must give the citizens of Athens their due. Hemlock is a much easier passage to death than being roasted alive, like poor Servetus.

PLATO

Yes, yes…your ‘Apology’ was a great speech. Obviously, the citizens of Athens didn’t share my opinion. But for all men, is not a death sentence sufficient punishment?

SOCRATES

I warned you of the dangers of writing.

PLATO

I will admit I did not have the foresight to realize simple words could be put to such nefarious purposes.

SOCRATES

I suspected as much. That’s the difference between a disagreement, a fight and a feud. The first lasts a day, the second years and the third generations. The difference between the three is time, compounded by what we choose to remember. A flaw in our nature allows us to endure the pain of an injury without fostering a corresponding understanding of the cause. I have heard that our fellow Athenians have transformed ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’ into this new invention you praise. Is it really a noble idea to turn oratories into letters on papyrus?

PLATO

Would you not agree that good has come of writing as well as evil?

SOCRATES

I do, but that is not my point. That good may come from murdering an evil man does not excuse the crime itself.

PLATO

That doesn’t answer my question.

SOCRATES

Allow me to elaborate. I feel responsible for my words. I do not want them to outlive me. If I am not present to explain their meaning, how can I ensure they are not misinterpreted?

That’s a reasonable question, which deserves a reasonable answer. I wish I had one. What I can say is: for all the entreaties by various schools to employ the Socratic Method, they can only emulate it. The original mode of storing experience, coalescing it and synthesizing thought has been obliterated. For better or worse, humankind has evolved intellectually in such a fashion that we are mentally incapable of replicating it. It’s no different than my using the materials and brush strokes of Botticelli and believing I’ve captured his creative essence. All I’ve done is mimic the old master by creating a painting which is basically an inspired forgery.

This conundrum within a conundrum is far from lost on me. The modern world would have little knowledge of Socrates without the writings of Plato. Plato wrote of a man who refused to write in order to convey the wisdom of a manner of obsolete intellectual discourse. And yet, the modern world is enriched because Plato did what he did for whatever reasons suited him at the time.

Fast forward to now: What would Plato or Gutenberg think of the Internet? For that matter, what would later generations of writers, such as Shakespeare, Twain or Hemingway think of Facebook? More importantly, what is the learning process of the youth of today? It’s clear Google is a disruptive technology. As a web developer, I use it on a daily basis. However, I’ve noticed a side effect. My memory has been compromised. I no longer have the need to retain information I can summon with the touch of a few buttons. I do wonder about what appears to be an involuntary rewiring of my brain. What must it be like to grow up in an environment where Google is ubiquitous, a world in which transient memory displaces long-term recall? I have to admit I don’t know but ask, “Is there a point where not enough is going on upstairs and true creativity stops or at least is greatly diminished? Should that occur, are the ideas coming forth merely derivative?”

Words are now commodities, mass-produced widgets accompanied by selfies. Professional journalism is fading into the past, like a palimpsest. Who needs it with the proliferation of blogs? In a way, it’s beneficial. The flow of information has become democratized. I’d say this line of thinking is great on paper, were not that very metaphor another indication of how out of step I am with the times. I will offer a bit of hard-earned wisdom about the human condition I learned from my wife. When we e-published our novel, The Dreamcrown, I embraced the marketing strategy of offering it at no cost for a trial period. She pointed out, “What people are given free, they often assume has no value.”

That got me thinking about the concept of value. What do you keep and what do you throw away? It all comes down to value—a cost/benefit analysis, if you will. By creating this fanciful, hypothetical dialogue, I’ve essentially dressed up a cost/benefit analysis as entertainment, hoping to point out both perspectives as valid. It’s easy to side with Plato. Writing was the way of the future. However, Socrates offered an insight which has been all but forgotten with the passage of time. A central tenet of history courses is the idea of progress. I don’t dispute the achievements that have led to the world in which we live today, nor that we live a fundamentally better existence than our predecessors. What I would like to note are the changes that have resulted from said progress, that it’s not all benefits. We have changed the notion of what it means to be human. We take in sights and sounds just as the ancient Greeks did, but the story we construct from them is different on a metaphysical level. Reality is a construct, not an absolute. Notions—I use that word in its Platonic sense—of being, knowing, time and space may seem abstract, but they factor into how we perceive and comprehend the world around us and change the fabric of what our minds weave. We have been enriched but diminished as well. Our capacity for recollection is a fraction of the ancients’. The form of communication Socrates practiced on the streets of Athens is lost to us. Most of us are unaware of what has been left behind. Others may consider these atrophied abilities as an acceptable price of moving forward.

I’m not so naïve as to believe our collective march to the future can or should be halted. I simply recommend that all of us pause, be aware of the tradeoffs inherent in the journey and ask ourselves, “Is what I’m giving up really worth what I’m getting?”

MarkNelsonMark Nelson is a computer and sci-fi nerd who enjoys yoga and nature walks with his friends. While his day job as a web developer pays the bills, in his spare time, he writes essays and co-writes sci-fi novels with his wife, Lisa. Together, they ePublished The Dreamcrown and are working on their second novel. 

 

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