Ironies Abound

Socrates, despite having a reputation as the foremost Greek philosopher who challenged the religion, philosophy, culture and the government of his time, is not credited as the author of any literary works. Instead, Socrates’ philosophical views were passed on through two of his students who learned at the feet of the master through oral discourse. In A History of Western Philosophy Bertrand Russell discusses the two philosophers who wrote extensively about Socrates – Xenophon and Plato. Plato has earned a stronger reputation because of his skillful writing. However, Plato often utilized the character of Socrates as a mouthpiece for his own opinions in order to hang his more subversive opinions on a man who had already been convicted and executed. Xenophon, on the other hand, presents Socrates as an honourable man who is less subversive. “There has been a tendency to think that everything Xenophon says must be true, because he had not the wits to think of anything untrue.” (Russell, 1971) Is Plato’s Socrates from Phaedrus a close approximation of the historical Socrates or is he entirely a literary invention facilitated by the invention of writing? Is this what Socrates means when he talks about writing presenting only a semblance of the truth? The irony is that Plato uses a fictitious Socrates as a literary figure to denounce writing, when in fact, Plato (the actual author) passed on the (alleged) words of the speaker (Socrates) through the written word.

The copy of Phaedrus that I read has been edited, re-edited and translated a few times in the last two and a half millennia. Moreover, in light of Russell’s comments about Plato’s fictitious Socrates, the authenticity of Socrates’ words in the text are even further removed from the historical figure. Despite this detachment from the alleged speaker, the invention of writing which contributed to the production of my copy of Phaedrus introduced me to some great new thoughts on love, beauty, forms of madness, rhetoric and writing. How can it be argued that writing is an invention that facilitates reminiscence at the cost of true memory, skill and knowledge? The Socrates of Phaedrus offers his strongest criticism of writing through the words of a mythical figure, Thamus, who says: “The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth.” (Plato) The oral discourse (if it ever occurred) has been transcribed, edited, translated and edited again. But has this distanced it (or me) from the truth? Plato’s Socrates himself favours the discovery of underlying truths and forms in order to gain knowledge. Has the process of writing the oral discourse violated the form and the content of the dialogue? Or does Plato’s Socrates presage McLuhan’s “medium is the message” quote.

Plato’s Socrates himself offers an argument that is relevant to this discussion. He states that oration is like medicine applied to the souls of the audience and a good orator must understand the categories and nuances of the soul. In a similar vein, Innis quotes Hegel regarding Pericles: “Of all that is great for humanity the greatest thing is to dominate the wills of men who have wills of their own.” Oral discourse, speech making and engaging with an audience is the arena wherein the embattled (communal) soul is won and lost. Mark Antony’s speech from Julius Caesar is a fitting example of oration as an instrument of subjugating the wills of the audience. Antony ascends the podium as the grieving ally of a slain (alleged) dictator and through the power of his oration he wins over the audience. Notable in his speech is that throughout the speech Antony shows Caesar’s character as opposed to what they say. Moreover, Antony’s trump card throughout the speech is Caesar’s will, written on parchment, wherein he bequeaths great gifts on the citizens of Rome. Is the written will (I found the pun on the word will as used by Pericles interesting) simply a rhetorical device used by Antony to stir up the mob or does it carry a weight of authority above and beyond simple words. Does this exemplify the codification of law in Rome’s movement from a Republic to an Empire as discussed by Innis? Since it is this written will that finally wins over the crowd, does this victory symbolize the emergence of literacy over orality? Can the written word, when used to codify laws, have access to the communal soul and move them? Is the individual soul an invention brought on by the emergence of literacy?

Lastly, Homer’s list of ships from the Illiad is a great example of how orality differs from literacy. The written list is painful to read. However, I can imagine a skillful orator employing the additive and aggregative power of orality, as well as connecting to the community through a listing of ships from regions that the audience could identify with. Ong discusses the history of the oral tradition and the emergence of literacy from a cultural perspective. Most notable are his discussion of the characteristics of orality, such as the power that the speaker exercised through the oral word, the situational nature of oral communication, as well as the immediacy of the audience (a term that has no equivalent in literary cultures) to the source of an ethereal entity – the spoken word. To a large extent, Ong is paying due homage to the complex communication of oral societies, which have been unfairly regarded as primitive. However, his discussion highlights differences in patterns of communication and also stimulates an examination of learning and communication (e.g. his example of how you would explain the concept of a horse to somebody who has only seen cars) that we do not often analyze in a literate culture. Does literacy separate us from the source of information and knowledge? Do words operate only as symbols that represent sounds which are more closely aligned with thought? If so, how would a return to an oral culture (if that was even possible) change our patterns of thinking, communicating and learning?

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Homer. (1991) Illiad (Reprint Edition). Penguin Classics

Innis, Harold. (2013) The Bias of Communication. University of Toronto Press

Ong, W. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York, NY:

Plato. (2202) Phaedrus. Oxford University Press, UK

Russell, Bertrand. (1972) A History of Western Philosophy. Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Shakespeare, William. (2004) Julius Caesar (Reissue Edition). Simon & Schuster, Inc

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