I was looking at my posts the other day and I just have to say something about the irony of being “modern Platonist” and actually writing.

What I am referring to is an episode in the Phaedrus, where Socrates uses a myth about two Egyptian gods to illustrate a point about writing and its shortcomings. The basing point is that the gods Thamus (Ra, supreme god) and Thoth (god of invention) are having a conversations. Thoth points out that his most ingenious invention yet is writing, because it offers a cure to human forgetfulness and mortality (i.e. what you have to say will be preserved after your death in writing). Thamus, however, is not quite as ecstatic. He says that quite differently from curing human forgetfulness, it would plunge humans into even greater darkness. His point is that by using writing, people will not actually learn anything, they will simply write everything down and just scan whatever they need at the time and move on.

After telling the myth, Socrates goes on to explain (in writing) about how writing is a very dangerous thing to use, because it cannot defend itself. Especially something like dialectic, where you have two different, opposite, sides arguing against each other. The idea is that even though Socrates may have defeated whoever in reasoned argument, you may be more persuaded by the other argument and, in trying to learn wisdom, you learn wickedness. Of course, you can see that there must be a catch. If one of the great masters of logic writes about how writing is dangerous and you can see it, then either there is something wrong with his whole philosophy, or you are missing something. I wrote a paper about this issue only a little bit ago and would have pulled from it, but I cannot find where I saved it. Oh well, memory will have to do.

In most ancient languages, there is two words for looking, looking at something and looking along something. Usually, for paintings (and I know this is not always the case) you look at them. The most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa, does not contain much reading between the lines, it is magnificent, but there is no meaning underneath what you see (that’s not to say that it is bad in the slightest, one thing that annoys me about modern art is that there is a supposed “hidden” meaning to everything). In reading Plato, however, if you read any dialogue once and believe you understand it, you know that you don’t. Once you see what Plato is doing in the Phaedrus, you find that his cautioning words about people not understanding the text is very well put.

One dialogue useful for decoding what Socrates is saying in the Phaedrus might be the Apology. At some point, Socrates says that he is not the first who has been condemned not because he had broken the law, but because he has broken the convention of the people and that he will not be the last. Now, how does Socrates break convention? By words. So, then, his words break convention? The answer is yes. Now, who could hear Socrates’ words when he was living? Everyone, he spoke in the market and his teachings were available to all who had ears. And, were his teachings misinterpreted? One would have to think so, because part of Socrates’ indictment is corrupting the youth, because of a wave of young men who thought they were following Socrates’ teachings by harassing anyone they came into without a point. One more point, were there “onlookers” at dialogues? Yes, there were and, usually, they were the only ones who gained wisdom, since whoever argued against Socrates would either get mad or fake agreement in order to get away.

The point is, then, that Plato speaks to two audiences. One of them will misunderstand him, the other will understand. Socrates says that writing cannot defend itself, however, need can spoken word, in most cases. Even though Socrates does get to have a defense before the Boule, his defense only works for those who already buy into his philosophy. Clearly, Socrates himself does not believe his defense will do miracles and even says that he is surprised about how close the vote was. One would have to think, then, that his defense was not meant to be before the Boule, but for his friends who were present (at some point in the Apology Socrates mentions that a lot of the people who followed him  were either there or their family members were there). In addition, in the Crito, Socrates says that Crito’s opinions should not be geared toward the many (hoi polloi), but toward those who understood what Socrates stood for.

When we come back to the issue of writing, it provides no defense for itself. It is, however, not for those who look at it, but who look along it. It is not meant to be read as a historical account, but as a roadmap. When one reads the dialogues properly, they are in conversation with Socrates, they are offering counterexamples and are being answered by him. If you engage yourself in such a way, then not only is it really hard to not understand what Plato is trying to communicate to you, but you are also personally guided into the Forms.

I guess that’s, in a much dumbed-down version, what I am trying to do. Most of the points I make in most of my papers are not original to me, neither is this the first time anyone has ever mentioned them, whether I have read them or not, but what I can do is be the middle-man between you and Plato and help you to see him a little more clearly.


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