Is writing the highest form of speech?

The problem with books, I’ve been saying, is that we give them too much respect. Because we treat them as holy objects, we are less likely to change and update the form — and that, sorry to say, leaves books behind as the rest of media must progress. I just read two pieces that speak to the question of whether writing is, indeed, our highest form of speech worthy of such worship.

In the first, blogger Tom Matrullo quotes Socrates. His context, coincidentally, is the silence of Columbia J-school’s Nick Lemann in the conversation he caused. Matrullo blogged:

As the flood of responses and comments to Nicholas Lemann’s “On the Internet, everybody is a millenarian” article in the New Yorker continues to flow, bend, ripple and eddy, one can’t help but notice how Lemann’s piece simply stands there, mute, defunct. Sans capacity to comment, respond, defend, link. It’s Plato’s old distinction in the Phaedrus: blogs are the speaking voice, alive and self-present. Lemann’s article belongs to the world of print, of writing.

Socrates talks about the written word as a lesser form of shared knowledge. He praises conversation, teaching, humanity. Here, he is speaking about the “propriety and impropriety of writing.” He tells of an old god, Theuth, who invented many arts: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, “but his great discovery was the use of letters.” Theuth extolled his creations for the god Thamus, king of Egypt.

But when they came to letters, This, 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: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; 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 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. . . .

We believe today that when we put ideas in writing, they are thus preserved. But if the paper they are printed on disappears, so do the ideas. That is what I mean when I say that print is where words go to die. If, on the other hand, ideas are spread from person to person, implanted in their own thought, enhanced with questions and conversation, then they live. So the the written word can be a crutch, sometimes a feint. And now here is the Socratic kicker:

Socrates: I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves. . . .

Is there not another kind of word or speech far better than this, and having far greater power — a son of the same family, but lawfully begotten? . . . 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:. You mean the living word of knowledge which has a soul, and of which written word is properly no more than an image?

By George, he’s got it.

Socrates talks about sowing ideas:

Then he will not seriously incline to “write” his thoughts “in water” with pen and ink, sowing words which can neither speak for themselves nor teach the truth adequately to others?

He talks about writing “for the sake of recreation and amusement; he will write them down as memorials to be treasured against the forgetfulness of old age. . . .” Phaedrus calls this a noble pastime and Socrates agrees, then adds:

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.

And his thoughts are only stronger because others may question and challenge them:

But he who thinks that in the written word there is necessarily much which is not serious, and that neither poetry nor prose, spoken or written, is of any great value, if, like the compositions of the rhapsodes, they are only recited in order to be believed, and not with any view to criticism or instruction; and who thinks that even the best of writings are but a reminiscence of what we know, and that only in principles of justice and goodness and nobility taught and communicated orally for the sake of instruction and graven in the soul, which is the true way of writing, is there clearness and perfection and seriousness, and that such principles are a man’s own and his legitimate offspring; — being, in the first place, the word which he finds in his own bosom; secondly, the brethren and descendants and relations of his others; — and who cares for them and no others — this is the right sort of man; and you and I, Phaedrus, would pray that we may become like him.

Who better to endorse conversation than Socrates?

* * *

And then Simon Jenkins in the Guardian writes about the allegedly suffering art of conversation.

We are said to be losing the art of conversation. It is dying in a hell’s kitchen of mobile phones, BlackBerrys, iPods, emails, soundbites, chatshows and drinks parties. There it joins other civilities regularly pronounced dead, such as well-mannered teenagers, the tomato and the novel. Nowadays no one converses. People shout and text.

He summarizes social historian Stephen Miller from his study Conversation: A History of a Declining Art. “Storytelling, however good, is only half of conversation,” says Jenkins.

Miller starts with Socrates, Plato and Cicero, who first noted that free conversation, because it is transient and uncensorable, is the essence of free speech. It was always a threat to authoritarianism. Hence its fascination for the Enlightenment. To Montaigne it was intellectual callisthenics, the “fruitful and natural exercise of the mind” as opposed to the “languid, feeble motion” of reading. . . .

Historians of culture saw this golden age as destroyed by intrusive innovation. Cheap books and newspapers discouraged talk.

Imagine that: books as barriers. Jenkins then turns this around and you can guess where this is going. Put on your sunglasses and protective gear: a blast of blog, internet, and technological triumphalism is coming:

Miller is not a total pessimist. He quotes Hume, that “the propensity to company and society is strong in all rational creatures”. I think he grossly underrates Hume’s insight. Who would have predicted a quarter century ago that the passive act of watching television would be supplanted by the more active one of electronic interchange. We seem to be in perpetual conversation. The zombie army wandering London’s streets mouthing into space is conversing. The phone is no longer what it was to my parents, the means for some rushed emergency message. It is conversation. And what is a blog but a digital coffee house, lacking only respect for Swift’s maxim that nothing kills conversation like a bore?

And the beauty of this age is that technology and connectivity allow us to bring books and the ideas in them back into the conversation, sharing them, challenging them, teaching and learning from them with links.

  • Who better to endorse conversation than Socrates?

    Exactly! Who better! Except, Jeff, that Socrates didn’t conduct that dialogue!. It was constructed as a philosophical dialogue and written down by Plato. The reason why you can quote it is because it exists, in writing, and it doesn’t transmit what Socrates said, but uses Socrates as a character to transmit Plato’s ideas.

    Socrates did not write one word. And you know what, all of Socrates ideas died with him. Know one actually knows what Socrates said. I studied Philosophy, so I have read a bit about this. Sure, we think that Plato’s early dialogues (of which Phaedrus is not among) and some other dialogues by Xenophon do have some traces what Socrates’ ideas, but even these exist only because they were written down. You can only cite Phaedrus which supposedly critiques writing, because it was in fact written down

    And here comes the great Platonic irony. The great reason why Plato has not gone out of fashion is because his dialogues continue to speak, and often. No one position is ever fixed: how can Plato discredit writing, and yet at the same time do so in writing? Writing must, therefore, have a benefit. You have to understand that that entire dialogue is so completely tongue-in-cheek it resists such a superficial reading.

    When a culture dies, its ideas die, unless they are written down. Egypt, for instance, is a great example. No followers of its religion exist, and for thousands of years its culture was dead–until we deciphered its hieroglyphics, through which their philosophy, theology and poetic art came alive again. Greece itself comes to us, not through talking, but through their writing.

    Books were always in the conversation. And don’t take my philosophical critique too seriously, I do in the end agree with you about blogs and the Internet etc etc. However, the dialogue did exist, it just existed more slowly: Plato->Aristotle->Stoics->Cicero->Augustine->Aquinas->Descartes….. (of course this list is not exhaustive). Perhaps this is more apparent to those on the Continent, considering the way philosophy is taught in Anglo-American tradition.

  • If your point is that books should be online and thus easily linked to and/or commented upon I don’t think anyone will disagree.

    However, there is something about a written work which has been labored over for some period of time, polished and presented as a coherent whole which is missing from online conversations.

    Even with written works mechanisms have been found to incorporate commentary. Take a look at Jewish scholarship where the commentaries surround the text.

    Let’s not get carried away with the power of the instantaneous world, some ideas take time to develop. Of course you are going to teach journalism not scholarly research.

    The real threat these days is the suppression of information by the government with or without the co-operation of the media, as your comments on Keller illustrate.

  • Socrates never wrote a word. But if Plato and Xenophon had not written down his supposed conversations, then we would have little idea of what he thought and said. Perhaps Socrates reputation is all the better for this. Plato probably greatly improved on Socrates’ thinking.

  • Steven,
    Well said. That is why I want the best of both worlds. What I find fascinating is the discussion of the merits of writing and that’s all I’m concentrating on here so I don’t repeat a dozen long posts on the topic.
    Well, I am hearing many objecting to just that.

  • I agree with all of this… as one possibility for discourse, and probably an improvement on the “professional writer pontificates and you shut up and listen” model.

    But there are two reasons why books are good things that need to resist being sucked into the instant-comment mode of the blogosphere.

    One is, the nature of the discourse. To pick one example and I’m sure everyone can think of 100 more. Paul Berman researches Sayyid al-Qutb, he thinks about the nature of fascism, he writes a terrific book called Terror and Liberalism– and a blogger immediately posts:

    “so I gueSs Paul Buttman is now blowing George W. Bu$hitler”

    A good book really shouldn’t be thought of as being equal to that. Of course I know the opposite exists, the pompous empty book punctured in 250 smart blogged words. But generally speaking, a lot more goes into a book than a blog entry, and it’s not fair to regard them as equally weighted combatants.

    Second is, I resist the idea that books should be forced to adapt to our real-time commentary culture. Sure, most books are of the moment, but the books that really matter often take 25 years to be read and absorbed. And that’s a good thing.

    I grant that I’m talking about the exception, the cream of the crop. Most books are as disposable as most blog posts. But the culture of the book has its advantages, too, and let’s be careful not to toss them away.

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  • Northern Observer

    This is very interesting when it comes to the realm of poitical speach in contemporary America. What we have now is a completely closed political discussion between the American Right and the rest of America. The American Right talks and argues but it is incapable of converstaion and argument outside of iteslf. This is deliberate, and it is all tied in with the rise of Goldwater and movement conservatism. Eventually this internal Right wing converstion became strong enough to dictate what the rest of America would talk and think about. I think the tipping point was the re-election of Reagan in 1984. The point where the internal Right Wing thoughts became most of America’s thoughts.

    This is why non-Republicans have organized themselves into a talking medium, the blogs, a space where right wing talking can not shout out thought, although some fanatical right wing trolls certainly try to misdirecet and vandalise conversations by picking fights in comment threads. Notice how most pro republican blogs do not have comment threads. That way no feedback can occur. They don’t need it as they did 30 years ago since their foundational ideas and concepts are well understood. A person with a republican frame of mind has learned to know what to think about an event when it occurs. He has internalised the view.

    Once the non-republican conversation established enough weight to push back the Republican converstation, then the American public will be able to hear a political converstion again. Until then we will have two sealed spheres with chaos in between. The right wing sphere sealed by choice and the non-republican sphere sealed by necessity.

  • A century ago, educators believed that reading and comprehension provided the basis for language education, and that speech and writing flowed from a strong reading base. Reading, writing, and oration/discourse were considered to be interrelated, with writing and discourse seen as equals, but lesser to reading. But over time, the emphasis on the spoken word and discourse lessened.

    Another thing to consider: written language makes possible many key elements of our society. For example, our legal system depends on written laws and other texts that can be accessed and understood by all, and that don’t change. While court cases depend on discourse, the law itself depends on written words.

    I think it’s silly to position one aspect of communication and language above another. All are important. Perhaps networks allow for the rebirth of of discourse.

  • I was once told about friend who, in order to reach a high shelf, had to stack a few books on the ground and step on them. A friend that was with him, who happened to be a Buddhist priest, tactfully and sublimely stooped to offer a word and gesture of pennance to the books (and their encapsulated writing/efforts/wisdom) for his dishonouring them with the sole of his foot. The priest’s point was that if one disgraces a book with their feet, they thus disgrace the author of the books. In short, books are worthy of respect because a book’s author lives through his work, and that is in itself a beautiful thing. I offer a prediction that books, real paper-and-binding books, will be around a lot longer than any new media technology. They were around before electronic communication, and they will be around after it.

  • Jeff,

    McLuhan, among others, said the alphabet and print fostered and encouraged a fragmentation, a process of specialism and detachment whereas wired technologies foster and encourage involvement. While others have made the obvious comment regarding Socrates (never wrote a word) what has been missed was his notion that learning required thinking and thinking required active discourse. The book brought an end to a once great oral tradition that began, perhaps, with Homer (who also never wrote a word).

  • Jeff,

    Plato/Socrates had an ax to grind with the art of writing for a good reason — literacy enabled democracy, and as a man who favored aristocracy (literally the “rule of the best”), this phenomenon which held people accountable to something other than the ever-changing whim of the sovereign and those whom he favored could only come back to bite the ruling class in the ass. In fact, one of the most important words in the realm of ancient Athenian jurisprudence — graphomai, to indict — literally means to “write someone up”. Did you know that the Athenians of old were more litigious than us Americans? I’m sure that Plato was all too mindful of the fact that his mentor Socrates was put to death by the Athenian justice system, which in the hands of a democratic mob was a very dangerous tool indeed! No wonder the guy had it in for books.

    Aside from his antidemocratic tendencies, Plato was not too terribly fond of “free speech”, either — something I mentioned in a previous thread about teenage sex and Elvis.

  • That we bother to lament the demise of talk is a good sign. It is a way to keep the conversation going, after all. And, how could we mourn that? Even if we don’t agree?

  • David,

    While there is much to be said for “conversation”, it is simply untrue that the ancient medium of writing somehow discouraged involvement and collaboration between peers. The premodern book included not only the original text but layers upon layers of commentary as well — what began simply as marginalia blossomed over the centuries into ever-expanding rings of commentary, a proto-blogosphere of critics arguing across both time and space. Whereas this conversation was dutifully reproduced as each manuscript was copied (the scribes often weighing in themselves as they did so!) through antiquity into the middle ages and even the advent of moveable type, modern publishing houses deemed it ancillary to the texts themselves and banished it from all but the most esoteric of print runs. Even a legitimate scholar has a difficult time today recovering the totality of this exchange!

    As for Homer, some have argued that it was Homer himself who ended the great epic tradition by “remixing” the oral poetry of old into something altogether new by means of the written word. This would make him not a traditional rhapsode or a self-conscious author but something in between.

  • Northern O:
    Your point is a bit off topic, but well taken. One thing that most people don’t realize is that getting the right wing themes promoted didn’t just happen.

    The effort was aided by the creation of a series of well-funded “think tanks”. Some detailed research on this will reveal that most keep their donors obscured as much as possible, but that when enough digging is done it turns out that the same key players surface again and again. Names like Scaife, Ahmanson and Olin are often the principle sponsors.

    So while the left was using the ideas of open debate in the academy the right was setting up a series of propaganda organs disguised as academic institutions. This was combined with several influential poltical magazines which also owe their existence to wealthy plutocrats like William Buckley.

    The power of this technique can be seen in the history of the estate tax debate. Just 18 super wealthy families have provided most of the funding for the pseudo-scholarly barrage that has occurred over the past decade. They can afford to spend $100 million on the effort when the returns from abolishing the estate tax are in the range of $80 billion.

    So the ideas didn’t win out on their merit, they were pushed on the public by a well-funded, secretive effort.

  • Books get too much respect in this culture? Did I hear you right? Good Lord–you’re going to be teaching young people in the fall? I shudder at the thought of it…

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  • John Ettore– I know what Jeff means from his perspective. There’s a mentality in the media that your ideas don’t have credibility until they’re in a book– which is why one of the first thing big bloggers try to get is a book contract. Never mind that for instance Kos has half a million readers for his blog, and had about 50 for his book. Yet many times filling the sacred book format– 200 pages etc.– means saying the same thing over and over, and lacks things other media offer, such as interactivity and the ability to update. (The day it’s published, a book represents what the author was thinking about something… a year ago.) I think it will be a healthy development if some people can gain credibility for their ideas from other forms of publishing, and the book loses a little of its stature in certain applications.

  • Whereas Socrates did mistrust the printed word, to use him to defend blogging is a huge step in reasoning. If Socrates were to look at the “blogosphere” he would not prasie it. In fact he would use the same scorn as he uses on the written word.

    I have no love of the printed establishment, and your right to say that the printed form may be outdated. But to elevate blogging to the same stature as civil debate and conversation is plain wrong. What goes on with blogging – publish a post, recieve a comment, publish reply to comment – is a correspondence. It may be called a psuedo conversation at best. To converse with someone is in essence to know them. Socrates does not just engage with anonymous people, these were people he knew, people he could relate to. The internet offers no such knowledge of the conversers, and as such the anonymity that is there is a barrier to true conversation. The post and reply format only mimics conversation.

    The moment that this is considered conversation, particularly as Socrates revered it, is the moment that society has fallen.

  • JF

    Socrates comes across as a cantankerous old fart anyhow who didn’t exactly display a fondness for conversation with anyone other than himself. So can you really say he was pro any form of communication in practise?

    His conversations were not the two-way debates you might expect. Socratic dialogue in Plato typically involved Socrates asking a leading question, a suitably curt yes/no type response from his respondee, then paragraphs of flowery prose as Socrates shows off. (Thank you Stephen C for outlining the irony of this much more eloquently than I can)

    Shouldn’t books and newspapers be regarded as a conversation anyway? Certainly academic journals are or were when I studied. I think the real distinction here is that previously authors would only countenance discussion within the narrow confines of certain publications and from certain authors or journalists of a similar stature, not from any Tom, Dick, Harry or Jeff on the internet.

    Good journalists should be humble in their approach and willing to engage with others. I work in PR – I live and breathe my subject every day and have far more intimate knowledge of it than anyone external to my business can hope for. Granted I’m paid to give my company’s view so have an agenda, but the best journalists I deal with are willing to listen, to look at the facts and debate (just as the best PRs should). The form of that interaction is irrelevant – be it in books, journals, newspapers or blogs – but the willingness to have it is the key.


  • penny

    Notice how most pro republican blogs do not have comment threads

    That’s crap. You don’t get out much. I can link to dozens of conservative sites with comments. Ever notice that the Kos site and DU require registration, preview, and censor comments?

    Just curious, but is anyone discussing the Greeks a St. John’s College grad?