Write it down!

To disapprove of writing is something of a tactical mistake, from a memetic point of view. Most of the ancient arguments against writing must have been lost because, well, nobody wrote them down.

Socrates, at least, managed to have his cake and eat it. Part of his Phaedrus is devoted to outlining the limits of writing — but since Phaedrus itself was written down, we can at least follow his arguments.

Being Mr. Dialogue, Socrates loathes the fact that writing can’t answer questions; a text gives “one unvarying answer” whatever you ask it. Also — an argument surely understandable by anybody who has studied classics or philosophy — he worries that written texts will be passed down through generations of people who never really understand them.

Finally — and part of the reason I’m posting this — Socrates fears writing will undermine memory. He recounts that an Egyptian king, Thamus, was approached by the god Thoth. Thoth offered Egypt all kinds of knowledge, including writing. King Thamus turned down the gift of writing, lest it destroy Egyptians’ memories:

[Writing], said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied:…. this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. 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; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

Socrates, then, is the moderate anti-scribe, the one who scraped into history because his disciple, Plato, was willing to commit something to paper.

If you want the extreme of the anti-writing faction, try Pythagoras. Not only did he avoid writing anything, he made sure his followers did the same. For a century or more, many people built their life around his maxims (“acusmata“), handed down orally within the cult of Pythagoras. Disciples abjured not just writing but even speaking, beginning with 5 years of total silence and continuing to keep some ideas secret within the sect. This “Pythagorean silence” had the effect that, according to one Greek writer, people “marvel more at the silence of those who profess to be his pupils than at those who have the greatest reputation for speaking”.

Well, perhaps. The above, like everything we “know” about Pythagoras, is a compote of rumour and guesswork. Pythagoras only narrowly avoided the oblivion usual for those who avoid writing. We know little about the likely core of his work — as a religious leader, a philosopher of reincarnation, and founder of a lifestyle of ritual and self-discipline. Instead he is now remembered for a theorem on triangles which he probably didn’t even invent. Bad luck, Pythagoras — try writing a book in your next reincarnation, mmkay?

I can’t help wondering, though, how many other Pythagoras-like figures there have been in history. People of great immediate influence, whose lives left no longer mark because they distrusted writing. Probably they account for the vast majority of pre-modern thinkers. I’d say we should remember them, but we can’t.

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