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Socrates and the Druggists

If Socrates were here today, what story would he tell about the invention of the internet, of the television, of the radio?

Socrates and Jesus had a few things in common. For instance, they were both storytellers. Let us listen in on this tale that Socrates tells in his dialogue with the youth Phaedrus:

At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Thoth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him. He was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt…To him Thoth came and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to benefit of them…Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some and censured others…But when it came to letters, “This,” said Thoth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.” …Thamus replied, “O most ingenious Thoth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or harmfulness of his own inventions to the users of them…for 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 elixir which you have discovered is an aid not to the 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.”

Perhaps it was wise that Thamus dismissed Thoth’s invention, perhaps not. The very fact that he paused to consider the question, or that Socrates calls us to consider it, is fascinating. And while dismissing writing sounds ludicrous to the modern hearer, note that neither Socrates nor Jesus passed down any written documents. Perhaps we have become so addicted to the elixir, the pharmakon, that we can no longer imagine life without it.

Socrates, in the Phaedrus, later suggests that there may be a better word, “a son of the same family, but lawfully begotten,” that transcends the written word. “I mean an intelligent word graven in the soul of the learner, which can defend itself, and knows when to speak and when to be silent.” Phaedrus replies, “You mean the living word of knowledge which has a soul, and of which the written word is properly no more than an image?” Socrates, then, does not mean to warn Phaedrus of words generally but simply of the danger of substituting books and writing for real understanding and meaningful discourse.

Of course, both Socrates and Jesus could read and write. Socrates also acknowledged in the Republic that the best students ought to be taught to do so. Hence both grammar (the study of letters) and dialectic were part of his recommended education of the rulers. And while Socrates expresses his doubts to Phaedrus about the beneficent effects of rhetoric, it eventually does enter the Western curriculum through Aristotle. Moreover all three of these verbal arts, the Trivium, are praised by St. Augustine, one of the great fathers of the church. “Now, the art of rhetoric being available for the enforcing either of truth or falsehood, who will dare say that truth…is to take its stand unarmed against falsehood.”

If Socrates were here today, what story would he tell about the invention of the internet, of the television, of the radio? WWTD? What would Thamus Do? Moreover, what would Augustine do? It seems that Augustine believed that the language arts, the Trivium, the arts of the word, ought to be studied. Rhetoric ought to be employed in the service of truth. But might there also be a slight danger inherent in its use? St. Paul noted to the Corinthians that when he came to them, he did not preach the gospel with wise or eloquent words. Are there times in which the very use of rhetoric obscures the truth of what is being said? Might rhetoric at times become a pharmakon, a drug, just like writing? Could fine sounding speeches so delight us that we forget to consider whether there be a ‘living word’ behind them?

As our school considers its technology policy we seem to find ourselves on the horns of a similar dilemma. We live in an age of powerful elixirs and opiates. Which is which? And as Socrates (or Thamus) notes, the age which discovers a thing may be the generation least able to discern whether the invention is itself useful or harmful. Is the internet making us smarter or dumber? Are power point presentations helping us be more attentive or less? Will mastering the content of textbooks make students wiser or more dull and insufferable?

Marshall McLuhan, the father of modern media studies and coiner of the phrase “the medium is the message,” drew much inspiration from the classical tradition and from the Phaedrus in particular. He acknowledged that most of his groundbreaking 20th century cultural analysis arose from the ideas in his Cambridge doctoral thesis. His topic: the pervasive hidden influence of the trivium. McLuhan’s commentators have helpfully expanded his maxim for us, “the medium is the message (and beware, there are bad spirits on the other end.)” Form matters. The concern is not so much what we watch on TV, but that we watch TV. That we sit for hours and watch the magical dance of an electric box is a profound cultural departure, but no more so than the advent of Gutenberg books. What older cultural forms do we trade in when we use new ones? Perhaps Thamus was right, perhaps not. But at least he botherered to ask the question. Should we keep the Trivium? As a Geneva teacher my answer is, of course, biased. Should we embrace online learning? Biased again.

I watch TV and use the internet. You are reading my computer-aided writing. But what if I sometimes handwrote letters too? What if I still played guitar simply for the joy of it? What if the students not only did well on tests (at least sometimes), but could also recite the Apostle’s Creed from heart? What if they took exams only for the lesser matters but had to sing of the truth of the greater ones? What if each new form that we utilized did not completely displace the older one? What if we recovered Socrates’ ideal, that the ultimate test of a student’s education could not be measured by writing at all but only by discerning what words took root in that student’s soul and whether he offered a ‘living word’ to others?

But nobler far is the serious pursuit of the dialectician, who, finding a congenial soul, by the help of science sows and plants therein words which are able to help themselves and him who planted them, and are not unfruitful, but have in them a seed which others brought up in different soils render immortal, making the possessors of it happy to the utmost extent of human happiness.

Lofty thoughts, I imagine. But it does sound something like another tale told by one who valued word and wisdom, who spoke of seeds and soil, who, though called the Word, left no writings.


This article was originally published by The Geneva school and is reposted with permission.

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