Plato’s Warning About Writing

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Our vision of history comes from past writings. But what about the time before writing was invented? And if writing was invented beforehand, could it have been possible for civilizations to ignore writing because they saw it as a vice?

Plato, one of the last who knew the pre-writing civilizations (and, hence, the Mill), wrote this in the end of Phaedrus. In the book, Socrates refers to a story that the Egyptian Thamus tell the god Theuth that writing, far from being a benefit, will plant forgetfulness in men’s souls that it will only seem to be wisdom and will tell men of things without really teaching them; they will thus seem to know much but in fact know nothing. They will have the conceit of wisdom, not genuine wisdom.

The response of civilizations after to this goes as follows: “Haha, Socrates was such a DORK!!! Plato was such a fuddy duddy! Writing was a proper invention the helped the world. It is like the fool who thinks computers will harm us, or the automobile will destroy us.”

However tempting it is to think this way, Socrates was anything but a dork, and Plato was no fool. We’re not talking about some nerd in history. This is PLATO, the guy who invented philosophy for us. So let us give him benefit of the doubt.

It is common to find people out there who have read a great deal of many books and believe this gives them the key to wisdom. Does it? And we know writers with many blogs where the template is always the same: Humanity is stupid, the blogger is super-intelligent, and the blog performs as an arena where our intellectual Columbus spews his ‘revealing’ comments.

“You, yourself, do this very thing, Mr. Pook.”

…Perhaps. But would others post a blog post like this? I’m trying to point out is that it is possible to read too much. Of all the books I have read, I wonder: would it have been more illuminating if I were fishing instead?

Most ancient literature was composed not by ink and parchment (or tablet) but rather through oral poetry and chants. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey was crafted from oral tradition, not writings. The Mahabharata, the great work of India, was also from oral tradition. So was the Finnish epic known as the Kaleva. Even the Old Testament probably originated from oral traditions.

I do not believe in the word ‘culture.’ Culture, the word, was invented by Kant and hasn’t obtained widespread use until after World War 2. “This is controversial. You are a radical Pook.” All Pooks are radical. Some are just more radical than others!

It is known that Finland, Estonia, and Lapland are a cultural island. Ethnically, they are related to the Hungarians and other Asian people (Siryenians, Votyaks, Cheremisians, etc.) They speak languages which belong to the Ugro-Finnish family whose languages are described as “agglutinative” and often characterized by vowel harmonization. This tradition has remained separate from most of the world until fairly recently. Yet, the parallels of the Kaleva and the Norse and Celtic mythologies are striking. There was no contact yet the transmission was oral.

But this would better put Plato’s warning into perspective. Dieterlen’s introduction to Marcel Griaule’s Conversations with Ogotemmeli deals with Dogon education and with the personal experience of waiting sixteen years before the sage old men of the tribe decided to “open the door.” Behold:

In African societies which have preserved their traditional organization the number of persons who are trained in this knowledge is quite considerable. This they call “deep knowledge” in contrast with “simple knowledge” which is regarded as “only a beginning in the understanding of beliefs and customs” that people who are not fully instructed in the cosmogony possess. There are various reasons for the silence that is generally observed on this subject.

Now, I could quote the full text, but the point can be easily made. In this African society in the year 1941, this tribe had a few elders who had the “deep knowledge.” These Westerners had to wait over a decade before being entrusted of obtaining this “deep knowledge” which was transmitted orally. This “deep knowledge” is, of course, the astral plane, philosophy, great legends, and everything else…in other words, the Mill. Not only did this African society hold such traditions about keeping the knowledge of the Mill to the elders, almost every ancient society was like this. Even with the invention of writing, Christianity kept knowledge within its Latin clergy not because of aristocratic temptations but because this ‘circle of elders transmitting knowledge orally’ has been the standard of all ancient civilizations. Today, we have no familiarity with Greek and Latin which has cut us off from those traditions (these traditions of those Greeks were, of course, the Pythagorean, Orphic, and Neart East traditions).

Was Plato right about writing? I think he was, at least in making it impossible for us to understand the ancients and the traditions of all civilizations concerning the Mill. “The mind has lost its cutting edge, we hardly understand the Ancients,” wrote Gregoire de Tours back in 600 A.D.

But the very error might be our reliance on writing itself. Writers are well aware that practically every plot possible has been told (plot as in matter of form such as ‘revenge plot’ ad nauseum). But there is one interesting difference I find in the ancient stories and politics to today’s stories and politics. Today, we believe in the Linear. Much of politics is debated around what is progressive. Evolution is, itself, a type of linear mode of thinking. As for plot, one thing the ancients did not have was time travel. Today, we have no problem thinking Marty McFly can go back in time and change history. But to the ancients, they would be unable to comprehend that because, for them, there was no linear time line. There were only cycles, only a circle. Odysseus could not travel through time like Marty McFly, but he could visit the Land of the Dead as well as those other strange islands of the living.

Writing is linear. The sentence has its beginning and its end. But the oral transmission, while also linear, depends entirely on memory. The “deep knowledge,” the Mill, is a pure structure of numbers bounded by times and rhythms…like music (as oral transmission, given through poetry, often became). Archaic thought is cosmological first and last and must be considered as a whole and not as a sum of parts whether it be astrology, forces, gods, numbers, planetary powers, Platonic Forms, Aristotelian Essences or Stoic Substances. The Mill cannot be analyzed in the usual sense. I can talk about seen objects but how to explain motions, change, and rhythm? Think of physics as that is seen primarily as numbers. How do you understand this ancient context of an irresistible circle of time if you consider time to be linear and think through writing?

Plato’s warning about writing was that it destined us to think in linear terms for everything and broke off any possibility of tapping into that ancient knowledge. “So what, Pook? We are better today than yesterday. We are healthier, have better technology, and live better in every way.”

True. But Mankind’s high state of living comes that we have more minds living today. With six billion alive, we can focus on the most specialized tasks. This was impossible when Mankind numbered four million, lived in ditches, and hunted rabbits. The Mill gave us Plato, gave us Science, gave us the Humanities, and may arguably have given us the religions.

How can universities, full of bookworms, be able to piece together wisdom that was transmitted orally? How can a linear mind grasp the ancient cyclical mind?

These are good questions (with no clear answers). It is a far cry from the conclusion we began with of Socrates being a fuddy duddy about new techniques. It shows that the Mill must be not be read but heard.