Socrates vs. Literacy

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Socrates_Pio-Clementino_Inv314.jpgReading is among the most important skills that people can learn. It is necessary in school and in most types of jobs, it is a valuable source of information, and it is a wonderful form of entertainment. As a librarian, I consider it part of my job to promote literacy and the enjoyment of reading. But literacy as we know it has not existed for all of human history. I wrote a post a few days ago on my other blog about the history of literacy. In the process of pulling together my facts, I came across a few fun tidbits that didn’t make it into that post. One of the most interesting was a list of reasons that the great philosopher Socrates opposed written language.

Socrates lived in Athens in the fourth century B.C. At that time, the Greek alphabet existed and many Athenians were literate, but reading and writing were not as widespread as they were a couple generations later. Socrates is known for his oral discourse. He would converse with people on the streets, mainly by asking questions. Most of what we know about him comes from Plato, who was his student. Plato wrote extensively, but Socrates himself did not record any of his philosophical ideas.

Socrates’ back-and-forth method of philosophizing leads to one of his concerns with the written word. Written language is more permanent and unchanging than the spoken word. In a conversation, you can ask questions and give answers, you can clarify what someone else meant, you can amend what you have previously said or inform others that you have changed your mind. Of course, you can do any of those in things in writing, but the original book or essay or facebook post still exists in its original, inflexible state. Of course, Socrates didn’t anticipate the internet, where conversation can happen via written word in real time, and where posts can be edited. If he had, maybe that would have somewhat satisfied him on this point.

However, another one of Socrates’ complaints is something that is even more valid in the days of the internet than it was in his own time. Socrates put a lot of emphasis on Truth with a capital T. He believed in the importance of knowledge, which didn’t just mean knowing facts, but having a thorough understanding of Truth. Knowing a lot of factual information was, in Socrates’ eyes, a superficial form of knowledge. But it is that type of knowledge that is most easily transferred via books. By making information readily available to all people, we encourage a look-it-up mentality which, to Socrates, is very inferior to the seeking of wisdom. Although Socrates is known to have a very egalitarian view, he feared the idea of making information accessible to the “wrong people”. Even worse, the written word isn’t necessarily true, but someone who is just quickly looking up a fact is easy to fool. That’s where the internet is worse than books. Since anyone can post things online, the internet is full of quick facts without context and false information.

Finally, when people learn to rely on written language, it affects their ability to remember oral language. Although the Greeks are remembered for their contribution to written language, they also had a very strong oral tradition. As in many non-literate cultures, they remembered their history and their folklore by telling and retelling the stories, and therefore, individual people had to develop the skill of remembering words with great accuracy. Many making that information more quickly accessible, writing things down decreases the need for that kind of memorization.

In my opinion, Socrates’ concerns are valid, but the advantages of literacy outweigh the disadvantages. It’s true that the written word is less flexible than the spoken word, but sometimes, that’s a good thing. It’s true that the ability to read makes it possible for people to gain very superficial knowledge, but superficial knowledge is better than ignorance. It’s true that relying on written language decreases the ability to remember oral culture—and that is perhaps the most compelling argument ever made against written language—but the ability to remember things with absolute accuracy is sometimes more valuable than the ability to remember things without any help.

In our own time and culture, it would be unheard of for someone to claim that literacy is a bad thing. I don’t think I’ve said anything controversial by disagreeing with Socrates on this point. But it is interesting to stop and think about his objections and just how sensible they are. As cultures change over the centuries and millennia, our methods for storing and sharing information have naturally changed, and they will probably continue to change. (I, for one, do not think that the print book is on its way out anytime soon, but perhaps in another two thousand years, it will be.) For any change as major as that, there will be downsides. And as far as Socrates’ concerns go, it’s interesting to note that we wouldn’t be able to remember and discuss his ideas if Plato hadn’t written them down.

A Good Friday Blog Post with Greek Words in It

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Jesus' arrestI noticed something fascinating and awesome during the Good Friday service today. It was in the Passion reading from John 18 and 19, and the particular verse was John 18:8, when the chief priests and officers have arrived in the garden of Gethsemane to arrest Jesus. Twice, Jesus asks them who they are seeking and they say, “Jesus of Nazareth.” John 18:8 is Jesus’ response the second time. In the ESV, the verse reads, “Jesus answered, ‘I told you that I am he. So, if you seek me, let these men go.’” The bit that made me notice something fascinating and awesome was the “let these men go” bit. I remembered hearing on Worldview Everlasting, my favorite youtube addiction, that there’s a certain Greek word that is often translated “forgiven” that can also be translated as something along the lines of “sent away” or “separated”, among other things. (Which is really interesting, because it means that the phrase “your sins are forgiven” is equivalent to “your sins have been sent away”)

Even after much searching, I have failed to find the Worldview Everlasting video in question, and I actually don’t remember exactly what it said or which verse it quoted. (Although I think it may have been Matthew 9:2) I did, however, find the Greek word in question.  It is αφίημι and the various forms thereof. For example, the last phrase of Matthew 9:2, “Your sins have been forgiven” in the ESV, is “αφίενταί σου αί αμαρτίαι”in Greek.  αφίενταί, according to a certain library book, is the present passive third-person form of αφίημι.  And the beginning of Matthew 6:12, “And forgive us our sins/debts/trespasses” (in the Lord’s Prayer) is “καί άφες ημίν τά οφειλήματα ημων.”  άφες  is the second-person imperative active form of αφίημι. I have here in front of me a book that has approximately a bajillion examples of places where forms of αφίημι are found in the Bible, with a variety of different English translations depending upon the context. The point is that it is indeed a word that means forgive/ let go of/send away, etc.

The other point is that John 18:8 is in that list. (Or at least, it’s presumably there somewhere; I can’t actually find it at the moment, and I am hereby acknowledging that, just in case I’m wrong that it’s a form of the same word.) According to the internet, in the Greek, John 18:8 reads, “απεκριθη Ιησους, Ειπον υμιν οτι εγω ειμι. ει ουν εμε ζητειτε, αφετε τουτους υπαγειν”, except that I left out all of the accent marks and stuff because I’m too lazy to deal with them. (Also, some things, like the breathing marks over leading vowels, don’t appear to exist on Microsoft Word. That’s annoying.) The part that the ESV translates “Let these men go away” is the part that says “αφετε τουτους υπαγειν” in Greek. (Incidentally, τουτους is a pronoun, not a noun, so wouldn’t it make more sense for the English translation to be “Let them go away”?) αφετε is evidently the second-person imperative form of αφίημι. That’s not speculation; I looked it up to be sure, and that is indeed what the plural second-person imperative of a Greek verb is supposed to look like.

So, to make a long story short, I have spent the last few hours using various books and internet resources to verify that the Greek word used in John 18:8 was indeed the word I thought and hoped it was. A better and much quicker way to verify this would have been to ask Pastor before I left church, because the fact that I don’t actually know Greek rather holds me back from knowing what stuff means in Greek. But, y’know, on Good Friday we’re supposed to leave church in silence, so that’s what I did.

crucifixThe interesting point that I have thus far failed to make is that it’s cool that the word used in John 18:8 is the same as the word translated “forgive” because of the reason Jesus was being arrested, and then crucified. At the moment of his arrest, Jesus told his captors to forgive/let go his disciples, rather than arresting them too, just as, through his death on the cross, Jesus forgave/let go us from our sins, rather than condemning us for them.

The point of all this, in summary, is that forgiveness and salvation come through Christ’s sacrifice. Yeah, that’s basically what I was getting at here.