Columns by Nicholas Carr

The Oral World vs. The Written Word

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.

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