Modern Plato

In Bolter’s text, Writing Space, he discusses how Plato’s dialogues transcend the tensions between “oral and written discourse” by “combining the permanence of writing with the apparent flexibility of conversation” (102).  He goes on to say that “Each [dialogue] was the record of an impossibly artful philosophical discussion, and whatever its proposed subject, each dialogue was also about the difference between philosophy as conversation and philosophy as writing” (102).  It is interesting that both philosophies are included in the dialogues because the dialogues were Plato’s way of working through the “period of transition in the history of literacy” (103).  Up until these dialogues, literacy was completely different; Plato’s dialogues combine the new–or remediated–form of writing as well as the traditional philosophical debates and orations that would have been more mainstream during the times.  This remediation of literacy is important because Bolter makes a subconscious (or maybe not so subconscious) statement that digital writing as a form of remediation is just another tension between traditional literacy and remediated literacy.

Bolter also discusses one of Plato’s works, Phaedrus, in great detail.  Plato “tells a story that seems to condemn writing as a vehicle for any true philosophy” (102).  Plato would have been used to rhetoric in the form of oration; writing as a form of rhetoric is a completely new idea for him, as is digital rhetoric for present society.  In the Phaedrus,

“Socrates and Phaedrus have been examining the nature of rhetoric and public speaking.  Towards the end of the discussion, Socrates tells the story of the Egyptian god Theuth, a great benefactor of the human race.   Theuth was an avid inventor, who gave us arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, draughts and dice, and the alphabet.  The king of Egypt was another god named Thamus, and so Theuth took his inventions to the king and explained the purpose and value of each.  Of the alphabet, Theuth said, ‘this invention…will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories, for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.’  But the king replied that writing would have just the opposite effect: ‘…this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory.  Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them.  You have invented not an elixir of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom'” (102-103).

The above extended quote brings up some very valid and still asked questions.  First, Theuth discusses the alphabet as an “elixir of memory and wisdom” but the king disagrees saying it will make the people “forgetful…because they will not practice their memory” (102-103).  This is a valid point today because does digital technology, especially as related to reading and writing, make us forgetful?  In a way it does.  We rely so heavily on technology that if something were to happen, many people in the present day would not be able to function normally.  They would not know how to use the libraries, our hands would be tired from writing by hand, etc.  Technology has become a crutch instead of an aid.  Another point that Plato makes is that “Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them” (103).  Again, this is true today.  If anything, we are even farther removed from writing because the external characters are behind a screen and part of computer processes that only a select few actually understand well.  The computer has nothing to do with who we are as human beings.  It may mimic the way our minds work in categorization, organization, and processing but it is a machine that is external, not internal.  It does discourage our memories because instead of learning how to work arithmetic problems out by hand, we rely on calculators to do the processing for us.  We also do not have to remember important facts because they are easy to look up and quick to find on the computer.  Yet another point that Plato makes is that Theuth has not “invented an elixir of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom” (103).  Indeed, digital rhetoric and processing is an “elixir of reminding.”  As stated above, we do not have to remember virtually anything because it is so readily available in many different ways: communication devices, laptops, notebooks, and desktop computers, to name a few.

I am not saying that these devices are bad in and of themselves.  However, it is important that society does not completely switch to a digital way of life.  So many things will be lost by doing so.  Technology is a fabulous aid and one with which I do not know what I would do without.  I rely on communication devices and computers and spell check and calculators way too much to do away with them; and honestly, that would be uncalled for.  Rather, it is important that we remember that technology is not complete and “true wisdom.”  It is instead, a way to help us navigate the newly digitized world.  Remediation is a good thing; things need to change in order to remain viable and important.  However, it is also important that we do not completely do away with print and other forms of media just because digitization is so much easier.

Plato discusses many questions that are still relevant today.  In fact, Plato was dealing with remediation just as we are today.  His points are valid and should be taken into consideration throughout this process of digital remediation.  Otherwise, the change will happen too quickly and we will only gain the “appearance of wisdom” rather than “true wisdom” (103).

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One Response to “Modern Plato”

  1. Nice digging into the text here — the tension between technology as aid and technology as crutch is fascinating and worth exploring more as the course continues.

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