The spoken and the written word

Socrates_teaching

So Socrates loved good conversations, which he called dialectic, and disdained bad conversations, which he called eristic, as I described in the previous post of this series on Socrates. But that actually opens up lots and lots of fascinating and difficult issues.

For instance: the relative value of the spoken and the written word.

Since I happen to write words for a living, I spend quite a bit of time pondering this, as you might imagine.

Socrates never wrote a single word. He did not believe in it. Why waste your time killing words (since to write them down was, to him, to kill them) when you could send them back and forth in intimate conversation such as the scene (with him on the left) above?

His student Plato was more schizophrenic on the point. He agreed with Socrates but also, obviously, felt that he should write things down to make them immortal, to reach more people, to make Socrates’ wisdom ‘scalable’ in our lingo. So he compromised, you see: He “wrote” by transcribing … conversations!

One generation on, and we get to Aristotle, who clearly did not agree at all, and wrote what we would consider genuine philosophical treatises. No qualms about the written word at all!

Why did Socrates disdain the written word?

He sort of tells us in one of his (ie, Plato’s) dialogues, the Phaedrus. He takes several shots:

  • He tells a legend from Egypt, in which a god gives a king the gift of writing as an aid to memory. The king, however, observes that writing things down is likely to be a remedy for reminding, at the expense of remembering, and thus will lead to less wisdom, not more.
  • He then compares writing to paintings, which “remain most solemnly silent” whenever you question them, and just say the same thing over and over, stupidly and dumbly. People wise and ignorant alike will look at them and understand and misunderstand them. And they (the words/pictures) cannot talk back, defend themselves, explain themselves.

So text has several problems, in Socrates’ opinion:

  1. It is not a conversation, not dialectic, because it cannot go back and forth and climb toward something higher, such as a truth.
  2. An author has no control over what idiots or assholes might read his text, whereas somebody in oral conversation does control with whom he speaks.
  3. Words outside of their original context (ie the intention of the person using them, and the way a listener might hear them) can mean anything, and thus nothing at all.

Ultimately, Socrates disdained writing for a subtler reason that unifies all these points: It’s just not what life is about!

Instead, life is about communing with others and discovering yourself and truths in conversation. Not about recording this or that, or propagating this or that. Socrates believed that you can’t find yourself when you write, only when you converse.

Where does that leave us writers?

In a tight spot, it would seem.

Then again, we have moved on 2,400 years, and few things are becoming clearer. Here is how I would converse with Socrates on the matter if he were to visit us today:

The need for conversation…

First, I would tell him that he is mostly right, even and especially for writers. Only a tiny part of “writing” consists of typing words–5%, if I had to guess. The other 95% consists of living, experiencing, interviewing, discussing, talking, reading what others have written, and so on. The ideas and stories that end up on pages don’t come out of nowhere. They still come out of conversations.

… but also for order

But writing, which should never replace conversation, has something to contribute: order. Real conversations–and Socrates’ own dialogue with Phaedrus is a great example–run all over the place, like foals on a meadow. That’s the fun. But it can also be frustrating when you want structure and discipline about one particular issue. Writing can simply be a way of forcing yourself to structure the thoughts that came up in conversations.

Why not written conversation?

This is one bit that Socrates overlooked. You can converse in written form.

Some of the greatest conversations in history have been exchanges of letters. Just think of Voltaire and Frederick the Great.

Today there is a fascinating technological twist. In 400 BCE, it was impossible to imagine ‘place-shifting’ (via tele-phony, far-hearing) or time-shifting conversations. But time-shifting is exactly what we do when we …. blog!. I write words, and those then turn into conversations in the comments below, or on other blogs that link to them. So the words are not dead at all. They can talk back. Writing can be conversation.

Indeed, by time-shifting the back-and-forth of a real conversation, the dialectic can become better. All of the people who talked to Socrates must have felt, a few hours later: “Doh! If only I had said…..” Well, now it’s possible to take a moment to think–without the distractions of, say, a famously ugly face such as Socrates’, or body odor, or wind, or sun–and then to come back with a clearer thought.

The inevitability of context

But Socrates was right on at least one point: The written word without context, as provided by conversation, is treacherous. Just take this notorious example, which we call the 2nd Amendment:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Does that mean that a people has the right to keep an armed militia, or that every shmuck in the people individually has a right to bear everything from a pocket knife to nukes, whether there is a militia anywhere to be seen or not?

Socrates would find the author and … converse!

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6 thoughts on “The spoken and the written word

  1. Were Socrates to reincarnate, today would be perfect, since, with it becoming more and more easy to make home videos, and with You-tube and its like, he would make home videos of himself in conversation with others, which we could all watch on You-tube.

    Socrates would therefore be perfect for the audio-visual society we are becoming, in which the spoken word is making its return at the expense of the written.

    Who is today’s equivalent of Socrates? Noam Chomsky, perhaps?

  2. Another wonderfully thought provoking post. Some random reactions/contributions

    – A great quote from Proust about writing – it enables “that fruitful miracle of communicating in the midst of solitude.” In his time (no tele-phony) many conversations were conducted via the back and forth of writing letters.

    – re Techno-optimism – yes blogs and comments can help – but many are just engaged in a monoblogue.

    – Re Chomsky is a notoriously combative debater (and he doesn’t only rely on reasoned argument – he is fine with attacking his opponents personally – to weaken their case). He seems to have a war-metaphor for debate.

  3. The YouTube Socrates: interesting twist.

    Proust: I like that quote. The solitude of writing, with the paradox that you’re still communicating, is what I enjoy about it.

  4. Writing, as you say, requires us to put our thoughts in order and choose our words carefully. Once this habit is ingrained within us (and looking at the amount of writing we do these days-blogging, commenting on blogs, e-mailing and text and online messaging, it is quite possible that most of us write more than we speak in a day) could it be transferred to our verbal conversations too? In short, does writing actually improve our verbal communication?

    • I’ve been thinking about that, Susan. I think it can. But so much of this “writing” that we do is disorderly, chaotic, unstructured, that it often does not. (I say this after looking at a few hours’ worth of accumulated email in my inbox. Almost all gibberish.)

      So the one word I’d add to your hypothesis is: good writing improves our verbal communication.

  5. Very nice article.
    I kindly agree on it: “People wise and ignorant alike will look at them and understand and misunderstand them. And they (the words/pictures) cannot talk back, defend themselves, explain themselves.”

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