Phaedrus: muddling of medium and memory

Plato expressed many concerns about the potential harm writing would have on society. He viewed the use of this new technology as an inhuman way to process knowledge. It was mechanical, devoid of feeling. Interaction with text provided no feedback or response to queries. In addition, reliance on the external storage of information would be detrimental to memory and the ability to gather and retain data.

Oral language requires the infusion of patterns and mnemonic devices for the information to be successfully retained. “Metrical exigencies and the constraints of human memory compelled the oral poet to take recourse to formulae, standardized themes, epithetic expressions, stock or “heavy” characters, and a copious and repetitive style” (Biakolo, 1999). The need to reiterate and exaggerate details to account for the limitations of the human brain, restricts the amount and variety of detail permitted in oral productions. Written prose eliminates the need to retain all information, opening up the possibility for more intricate, and potentially creative compositions. According to Chafe and Danielewicz, “the level of written language is also higher because it is richer, less hedged and more explicit” (Biakolo, 1999). “The new way to store knowledge was not in mnemonic formulas but in the written text. This freed the mind for more original, more abstract thought” (Ong, 1982).

Chandler agrees that “clearly, there are fundamental technical differences between the medium of writing and the medium of speech which constitute ‘constraints’ on the ways in which they may be used” (Chandler, 1994). The reader and writer are often separated and do not interact. Both reading and writing are solitary actions and usually lack community involvement. “For Plato, only speech, not writing, can produce the kind of back-and-forth—dialogue—that’s needed to get at the truth” (Baron, 2009). In his dialogue with Phaedrus, Socrates states

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 (Plato, 1925).

An orator can immediately respond to their audience to provide clarification or expand on their dialogue. While the written word can reach a wider audience, the ability to communicate with the author and avoid misinterpretation becomes more challenging.

As the technology of writing has continued to evolve, newer inventions have facilitated dialogue between writer and reader. The ability to compose and send letters, editorial comments in newspapers and other written publications, email and text messages are some examples of how feeling and feedback can now accompany written communication.

Plato continues his critique of writing by outlining the negative impact it will have on brain function, most notably memory.

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 (Plato, 1925).

The weakening of memory does not need to be inherently evil. The need to memorize everything is minimized when information is accessible in print. Memory has instead become external and information and knowledge enhanced. The mind may focus on higher level thinking, synthesizing data and extending understanding. Where to access information and remembering where relevant data has been stored become more important.

Plato further iterates through Socrates that “in the garden of letters he will sow and plant, but only for the sake of recreation and amusement; he will write them down as memorials to be treasured against the forgetfulness of old age, by himself, or by any other old man who is treading the same path” (Plato).

There will always be those members of society who take things to excess and become immersed in the world of words. This is not the norm and entertainment is not the sole purpose for literacy. The ability to record findings and share research has led to countless discoveries and inventions. Communication has been expanded with writing. “Without modern literacy, which means Greek literacy, we would not have science, philoso- phy, written law or literature, nor the automobile or the airplane” (Biakolo, 1999). Ironically, the thoughts and criticisms of Plato would not be “remembered” if it was not for print, the invention of writing and his ability to communicate with paper.

Baron, Dennis. (2009). A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. Retrieved, 27 September, 2013 from:

Biakolo, E. A. (1999). On the theoretical foundations of orality and literacy. Research in African Literatures, 30(2), 42-65.

Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online]. Retrieved, 20 September, 2013 from:

Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

Plato. (1925). Plato in Twelve Volumes. Vol.9, trans. Harold N. Fowler. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

This entry was posted in Commentary and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *