Reading 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.