The Oral World vs. The Written Word

By Nicholas Carr on 6.18.10

Early in the fourth century BC, when the practice of writing was still novel and controversial in Greece, Plato wrote Phaedrus, his dialogue about love, beauty, and rhetoric. In the tale, the title character, a citizen of Athens, takes a walk with the great orator Socrates into the countryside, where the two friends sit under a tree beside a stream and have a long and circuitous conversation. They discuss the finer points of speech making, the nature of desire, the varieties of madness, and the journey of the immortal soul, before turning their attention to the written word. “There remains the question,” muses Socrates, “of propriety and impropriety in writing.” Phaedrus agrees, and Socrates launches into a story about a meeting between the multi-talented Egyptian god Theuth, whose many inventions included the alphabet, and one of the kings of Egypt, Thamus.

Theuth describes the art of writing to Thamus and argues that the Egyptians should be allowed to share in its blessings. It will, he says, “make the people of Egypt wiser and improve their memories,” for it “provides a recipe for memory and wisdom.” Thamus disagrees. He reminds the god that an inventor is not the most reliable judge of the value of his invention: “O man full of arts, to one is it given to create the things of art, and to another to judge what measure of harm and of profit they have for those that shall employ them. And so it is that you, by reason of the tender regard for the writing that is your offspring, have declared the very opposite of its true effect.” Should the Egyptians learn to write, Thamus goes on, “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.” The written word is “a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance.” Those who rely on reading for their knowledge will “seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing.” They will be “filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom.”

Socrates, it’s clear, shares Thamus’s view. Only “a simple person,” he tells Phaedrus, would think that a written account “was at all better than knowledge and recollection of the same matters.” Far better than a word written in the “water” of ink is “an intelligent word graven in the soul of the learner” through spoken discourse. Socrates grants that there are practical benefits to capturing one’s thoughts in writing—“as memorials against the forgetfulness of old age”—but he argues that a dependence on the technology of the alphabet will alter a person’s mind, and not for the better. By substituting outer symbols for inner memories, writing threatens to make us shallower thinkers, he says, preventing us from achieving the intellectual depth that leads to wisdom and true happiness.

Unlike the orator Socrates, Plato was a writer, and while we can assume that he shared Socrates’ worry that reading might substitute for remembering, leading to a loss of inner depth, it’s also clear that he recognized the advantages that the written word had over the spoken one. In a famous and revealing passage at the end of The Republic, a dialogue believed to have been written around the same time as Phaedrus, Plato has Socrates go out of his way to attack “poetry,” declaring that he would ban poets from his perfect state. Today we think of poetry as being part of literature, a form of writing, but that wasn’t the case in Plato’s time. Declaimed rather than inscribed, listened to rather than read, poetry represented the ancient tradition of oral expression, which remained central to the Greek educational system, as well as the general Greek culture. Poetry and literature represented opposing ideals of the intellectual life. Plato’s argument with the poets, channeled through Socrates’ voice, was an argument not against verse but against the oral tradition—the tradition of the bard Homer but also the tradition of Socrates himself—and the ways of thinking it both reflected and encouraged. The “oral state of mind,” wrote the British scholar Eric Havelock in Preface to Plato, was Plato’s “main enemy.”

Implicit in Plato’s criticism of poetry was, as Havelock, Ong, and other classicists have shown, a defense of the new technology of writing and the state of mind it encouraged in the reader: logical, rigorous, self-reliant. Plato saw the great intellectual benefits that the alphabet could bring to civilization—benefits that were already apparent in his own writing. “Plato’s philosophically analytical thought,” writes Ong, “was possible only because of the effects that writing was beginning to have on mental processes” In the subtly conflicting views of the value of writing expressed in Phaedrus and The Republic, we see evidence of the strains created by the transition from an oral to a literary culture. It was, as both Plato and Socrates recognized in their different ways, a shift that was set in motion by the invention of a tool, the alphabet, and that would have profound consequences for our language and our minds.

In a purely oral culture, thinking is governed by the capacity of human memory. Knowledge is what you recall, and what you recall is limited to what you can hold in your mind. Through the millennia of man’s preliterate history, language evolved to aid the storage of complex information in individual memory and to make it easy to exchange that information with others through speech. “Serious thought,” Ong writes, was by necessity “intertwined with memory systems.” Diction and syntax became highly rhythmical, tuned to the ear, and information was encoded in common turns of phrase—what we’d today call clichés—to aid memorization. Knowledge was embedded in “poetry,” as Plato defined it, and a specialized class of poet-scholars became the human devices, the flesh-and-blood intellectual technologies, for information storage, retrieval, and transmission. Laws, records, transactions, decisions, traditions—everything that today would be “documented”—in oral cultures had to be, as Havelock says, “composed in formulaic verse” and distributed “by being sung or chanted aloud.”

The oral world of our distant ancestors may well have had emotional and intuitive depths that we can no longer appreciate. McLuhan believed that preliterate peoples must have enjoyed a particularly intense “sensuous involvement” with the world. When we learned to read, he argued, we suffered a “considerable detachment from the feelings or emotional involvement that a nonliterate man or society would experience.” But intellectually, our ancestors’ oral culture was in many ways a shallower one than our own. The written word liberated knowledge from the bounds of individual memory and freed language from the rhythmical and formulaic structures required to support memorization and recitation. It opened to the mind broad new frontiers of thought and expression. “The achievements of the Western world, it is obvious, are testimony to the tremendous values of literacy,” McLuhan wrote.

Ong, in his influential 1982 study Orality and Literacy, took a similar view. “Oral cultures,” he observed, could “produce powerful and beautiful verbal performances of high artistic and human worth, which are no longer even possible once writing has taken possession of the psyche.” But literacy “is absolutely necessary for the development not only of science but also of history, philosophy, explicative understanding of literature and of any art, and indeed for the explanation of language (including oral speech) itself.” The ability to write is “utterly invaluable and indeed essential for the realization of fuller, interior, human potentials,” Ong concluded. “Writing heightens consciousness.”

In Plato’s time, and for centuries afterward, that heightened consciousness was reserved for an elite. Before the cognitive benefits of the alphabet could spread to the masses, another set of intellectual technologies—those involved in the transcription, production, and distribution of written works—would have to be invented.

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The above is an excerpt from Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains. With The Shallows, Carr makes the convincing case that every information technology carries an intellectual ethic—a set of assumptions about the nature of knowledge and intelligence—from the oral tradition to the written word, and now the Internet.

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