Archeology of Ideas
On the Ecological Consequences of Alphabetic Literacy:
Reflections in the Shadow of Plato’s PHAEDRUS

by David Abram

This paper attempts to account for our current estrangement from the non-human environment in a way that makes sense — that is, in a way that takes seriously our direct, sensory experience of the world, and the transformations that have occurred in that experience. While some scholars have “located” the source of our human alienation in the early Judeo-Christian tradition, and others have located the origins of our estrangement in ancient Greek philosophy, environmental philosophers have all but ignored the sensory impact of the powerful technology that was formative for both of these traditions: the alphabet.

This paper will be published in three parts. The first takes its clue from Plato’s Phaedrus, summarising work that has previously been done, by such scholars as Eric Havelock and Walter Ong, on the cognitive changes effected by the alphabet. The second and third parts deepen the analysis of certain elements in the Phaedrus in order to address the impact of alphabetic literacy on the sensory relation between humans and non-human nature.

The Alphabet and the Idea

Toward the end of that piece of literature we call the Phaedrus, Plato’s Socrates gives a scathing critique of the technology of writing. He claims that writing can at best serve as a reminder to a reader who already knows the things that have been written. Against the assertion that writing makes humans wiser and improves their memory, Socrates, quoting the legendary Egyptian king Ammon, replies that writing in truth destroys memory, for men come to rely upon external records, instead of exercising their souls to remember. Further, spoken teachings, once written down, easily find their way into the hands of those who will misunderstand such teachings while thinking that they understand. Thus the technology of literacy brings not wisdom but only “the conceit of wisdom”, making men seem to know much when in fact they know nothing. Furthermore, we read here that “a written discourse on any subject is bound to contain much that is fanciful” and in any case “nothing that has ever been written whether in verse or prose merits much serious attention.”

Certainly it is strange to hear (even stranger to read) such strong remarks against writing from a thinker whose numerous written texts are among the most widely distributed and worshipfully read texts in the literate world. Here is Plato, from whom virtually all Western philosophers draw their literary ancestry, asserting that writing, unless misused, is nothing more than a pastime! What are we to make of such statements?

A simple way out of the dilemma that this part of the Phaedrus presents would be to apply Plato’s critique of writing to the very text where the critique appears, and to those passages alone, maintaining that here indeed is a piece of writing that should not be taken seriously. One might hope in this manner to let the disturbing criticisms of writing turn upon themselves and auto-destruct, thereby leaving the rest of Plato’s writings unblemished by his derogatory theory of writing, as inviting as ever to our worshipful gaze.

But it seems Plato intended something more. Surely when he wrote that in contrast to that which is learned personally in rigorous dialogue, “nothing that has even been written merits much serious attention”, he was fully aware that his own voluminous writings would fall under this caution. It is as though he purposefully meant to build into the very body of his writings a caution that would keep them from being taken too seriously. Not, perhaps, because he was uncertain about his own doctrines or had doubts about the genuine and serious worth of his philosophy. But simply because he had grave reservations about the written word and its ability to convey the full meaning of a philosophy that was as much a praxis as it was a set of verbal formulations. That he wrote as much as he did makes clear that he was powerfully drawn to the technique of writing, at which he was a master. Yet the remarks on writing in the Phaedrus give evidence that despite his devotion to the craft of writing, or perhaps as a result of it, he was deeply ambivalent regarding its apparent virtues.

Such doubts about the literacy and such assertions regarding its debilitating effect must have been legion in Athens around or just before the time that Plato was writing (as today criticisms of the computer and its influence on human awareness are rampant at a time when the new technology is spreading like wildfire throughout the world — interestingly, one of the strongest criticisms is that the computer spells an end to literacy!) and it is remarkable that Plato himself held to these criticisms despite the fact that he was an inveterate participant in the new technology.

Actually the Greek alphabet had been developed several centuries earlier, perhaps around 720 - 700 B.C.E. (Havelock, 1963) but it was only in the latter half of the fifth century and the first half of the fourth century that the alphabet spread through the Greek culture. That is, it was only in Plato’s day that the alphabet was incorporated within Athenian life to the point where we might truthfully speak of Athens as a “literate” culture; it was only during Plato’s lifetime that alphabetic literacy became a cultural reality. (Ong, 1982)

The significance of this fact has not been well recognised by scholars of Plato, or by philosophers in general. It is the assumption of this paper that despite his cautions (in the Phaedrus) regarding the hazardous effect of writing upon the search for wisdom, Plato is already, unbeknownst to himself, deeply under the influence of alphabetic literacy. In the fifth century B.C.E., it was already possible to view the effect which such literacy had upon the art of memory, as what had previously been both a collective and a personal discipline of the body, accomplished through the countless repetition of ritual poems, songs, and ceremonies, was transferred to an external and fixed artifact.

But it was not yet possible to discern the influence of literacy on other modes of contemplation and thought, which indeed today still seem to us to progress with an inevitable and unfolding logic of their own, independent of evolving technologies. Today we simply cannot discern with any real objectivity the manner in which our thoughts and conceptualisations are being shifted by electronic technologies, for the thinking that seeks to discern such a shift is itself subject to the very effect that it strives to thematise. Nevertheless, we may be sure that the shapes of our consciousness are shifting in some fashion attuned to the transformation in these technologies that engage our senses — much as we can begin to discern, in retrospect, how Western thought was born of the meeting between the human senses and the alphabet in ancient Greece.

Earlier in the Phaedrus, for instance, prior to his discussion of writing and its ill effects, Plato presents, through the character of Socrates, a finely wrought allegory explaining his notion of learning as a process of recollection. Many scholars believe that this doctrine was inspired by earlier Pythagorean doctrines regarding the eternal and unchanging world of number and numbered proportion that lies behind the changing world to which the senses give us access, as well as by Socrates’ association of the individual “psyche” or soul with the thinking, reasoning self.

Socrates had taken a term that was previously used to name the invisible life of the body (a sensuous although ineffable power which was felt to have a mysterious independence of the body — as does the invisible air that we breathe in and out: the word “psyche” devolves from the older root “psychein” which meant “to breathe” or “to blow”) and assimilated it, for the first time, with the verbal, speaking intelligence (Cornford, 1932 and Guthrie, 1950). That aspect of an individual which developed and honed its awareness through verbal dialogue and dialectic was here identified with an aspect that was already thought to be independent of the body.

In Plato’s work this thinking, reasoning soul was stripped of its sensuous quality entirely and given a thoroughly non-sensory, immortal existence corresponding to the eternal nature of an utterly transcendent and incorporeal realm homologous, perhaps, to that of the Pythagoreans. For Plato, however, this realm “beyond the heavens” (Phaedrus 247) was the place not only of number but of all true ideas or thought-patterns. Socrates, in his dialectic, has sought to stir a reflection upon the essence, the unchanging truth of various word-concepts like ‘justice’, ‘piety’, ‘courage’ — that is, he induced a reflection upon these spoken words as concepts, existing in themselves, and independent of their use in particular instances. Plato glimpsed that these word-essences of the Socratic dialectic were somehow akin to the objects of mathematical knowledge previously immortalised by Pythagoras; henceforth all such essences of thought-objects were installed within that fixed domain outside the changing world of the senses.

“It is there that true being dwells, without colour or shape, that cannot be touched; reason alone, the soul’s pilot, can behold it, and all true knowledge is knowledge thereof.” (Phaedrus 247 C)

The thinking, reasoning soul is that immortal part of man that alone can attain to this pure domain and experience it directly; indeed, being immortal and incorporeal itself the soul is most at home in that world, is of the same nature, and it is only through a process of forgetting that the soul falls from that divine world and becomes embodied in this temporal, earthly form. Any genuine learning that we may experience is nothing but the gradual recollection, by the embodied or forgetful soul, of the pure, bodiless forms of that world it once knew. The allegory in the Phaedrus thus recounts the manner in which a human soul may be stirred by the sensual experience of beauty from its complete immersion in this world of matter and change, and may thus begin to remember, and be drawn toward, that more perfect, fleshless beauty that is its rightful destination: the eternal world of the ideas.

We have provided this very brief outline both to show what we presently take to be the relation between the thought of Socrates and that of Plato, and to illustrate the dependence of Plato’s metaphysics upon alphabetic literacy. Here is our position: that the eternal and fixed forms to which Plato’s metaphysics refer are inextricably tied to visible and fixed shapes of the alphabet, and to the written words formed by combining those shapes. The immortal soul or intellect (termed ‘NOUS’ by the later Plato and by Aristotle) is, we believe, the counterpart, within the individual awareness, of the external numbers and letters upon which the individual was learning to focus his attention.

Anyone who learned to focus his eyes upon the separate letters over and over again, associating each shape with a specific sound with such concentration and perseverance that the images finally began to speak, spontaneously, from within his own mouth, gained access to a strange new region of experience, acquired a new kind of verbal awareness that felt peculiarly independent of his body and his body’s situation. This new experience of soul, this reflective self, this “mind” which even today seems so independent of the body and its lumbering vicissitudes, is precisely this new synaesthesia, the new juxtaposition and overlap of the senses brought by learning to read, or to write, with the alphabet.

The written words, made by arranging several letters in the correct sequence, now seemed to speak as soon as they were looked at (try looking at a written word without seeing what “it says”). These scratched, scrawled, or printed images did indeed exist independent of the body and its particular spatial and temporal constraints, and, although not outside of time and space altogether, they established and inhabited a mode of temporality and spatiality far less subject to the flux of change than any mode previously known to the body. Relative to any individual’s life the letters of the alphabet had — indeed still have — a virtually timeless and placeless quality. They could seem, to culture previously steeped in the fluidity of an oral universe, to be utterly unchanging forms, a most profound magic, as fixed and eternal in their significance as the stars.

To be sure, there were many writing systems employed by the human species prior to the alphabet, many of them remarkably intricate and precise, and some of these are still in use today. However, none of these systems — whether pictographic or “ideographic”, whether syllabaries or rhebuses — accomplished what the alphabet did, establishing a precise representation, not of the things referred to but of the actual sound gestures made by the human mouth when speaking, and utilising such a small quantity of symbols that virtually anyone could quickly learn the entire set.

The alphabet was apparently developed by a Semitic people around 1500 BC, and, remarkably, it was only invented once. Every alphabet in the world is derived, in some manner, from that original Semitic innovation (Ong) which is thus that which I am employing to write this paper. The Hebrew and other Semitic alphabets did not have letters for vowel sounds; these sounds were originally supplied by the reader according to context. (Still today the Semitic alphabets do not have separate letters for these sounds, although late in the history of the Hebrew aleph~bait “vowel points” — little dots and dashes written above or below the letters — began to be utilised in certain texts to indicate the appropriate vowel sounds.) The Greeks were the first to establish specific letters for the vowels themselves, rendering the literal representation of oral speech even more complete. Havelock (see Preface to Plato) believes that it was this innovation that gave ancient Greek culture its intellectual ascendancy, and indeed launched the particular enterprise of abstraction and methodical reflection we now call Western philosophy.

In fact much of what I have so far proposed in this paper regarding the intertwining of Plato’s project with alphabetic literacy has been admirably demonstrated by Havelock, Ong, and others. Further, Havelock has perhaps shown that Plato’s epistemology and metaphysics were not only dependent upon the advent of alphabetic literacy in Greece but were necessitated by it! According to Havelock, Plato’s teachings and writings established certain new ways of speaking which were absolutely necessary if the new technology was to continue to spread.

The full transition from non-literacy to literacy in ancient Greece was made possible only by this establishment of a way of speaking and of thinking that was virtually free of the earlier linguistic conventions and habits necessary for remembering and communicating within oral culture. In Havelock’s view the agency which “summoned into being these new powers of language and thought” and thus effected the full transition to literacy was the serendipitous “partnership” between the literate Plato and his teacher Socrates who, although an oralist, utilised modes of thought and reflection made possible by the new technology to interrogate and disrupt oral patterns of discourse. From this perspective, Plato’s derogation of poetry, and his exclusion of poets from the ideal republic of his vision, are perhaps best understood as a rejection of traditional oral, or non-literate, modes of awareness in favour of the new thinking informed by alphabetic technology, despite the fact that Plato himself seems unaware of this motive.

Author: David Abram lives in California. He is the author of a bestselling book Return To The Senses.

Source: This article was sent to us by David Abram.
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