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.