If men learn this [writing], it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks...[someone using writing] must be exceedingly simple-minded...if he imagines that written words can do anything more than remind one who [already] knows...
Plato (370 BCE)
Socrates is recounting a myth from Egypt, purportedly from the time of the Hieratic script shown in the photograph, and promoting the view that writing can be no more than a reminder for those who already know, as writing is itself ‘dead’. He wants to affirm the vitality, growth and interactive richness of live human dialogue, from which writing may deflect us. Just as language is able to
The enzymatic leverage of language is a powerful tool for thought.
so writing can enormously expand our linguistic resources, it can promote a burgeoning of ideas, of connections, and
Part of the complexity which enriches language.
but can only do so insofar as it magnifies and makes more efficient the work already being done by language. There is a modern echo here. Now at our finger tips lie vast oceans of information, many types of question can be answered immediately. But if we mistake such information for understanding Disentangling elements of understanding. we may become not only more forgetful, but indeed simple-minded
The Phaedrus is one of Plato’s richest dialogues in which the discussion of writing (at 274/5) is an aside. The quote is from the Hackforth, Cambridge translation of 1952.
The panel was photographed in the Cairo Museum while it was still in Tahrir Square. This beautiful Hieratic writing was used in Egypt at the same time as the more familiar hieroglyphics. Its purpose was to allow much faster records to be made and so, although roughly the same symbols are used, they are greatly simplified. Thus it is still essentially pictographic, and requires learners to know many hundreds of key symbols, but in the texts, the pictures alluded to, are no longer recognisable. The “Hiero-” stem of both these words indicates the sacred or holy context in which writing was first used.
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