Is the dullest pencil better than the sharpest memory?

This morning, a colleague of mine (fond of puns and other forms of word play) said, “The dullest pencil is better than the sharpest memory.”  Plato would probably disagree.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates relates a myth about the Egyptian god Theuth and his discovery of – among other inventions – writing.  Theuth goes before Thamus (the king) explaining each art and its value.  Of writing, Theuth claims, “O King, here is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory; I have discovered a potion for memory and for wisdom.”

Thamus disagrees.  According to Thamus, writing will only give the appearance of wisdom because people will rely on writing (exterior to the self) instead of their (interior) memory:

O most expert Theuth, one man can give birth to the elements of an art, but only another can judge how they can benefit or harm those who will use them.  And now, since you are the father of writing, your affection for it has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are.  In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is eternal and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own.  You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality.  You invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing.  And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.[1]

 Writing is thus good for reminding, but not for remembering.  When we write, we store a memory outside ourselves and the text (or, today, sometimes the photograph or youtube video) replaces memory.  But where does that leave us today?  We are used to relying on technologies external to the self (or the communal self).  We need writing.  We need it to remember.

 In Hebrew class, my professor’s introduction to the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible went (roughly) something like this:

Before the Masoretes came along, the text of the Hebrew Bible wasn’t pointed with vowels for vocalization.  The readers knew how to read the text aloud only because they learned it from their teachers, who had learned it from their teachers.  But once the text was pointed, as long as you knew how to read the system of vowels, you didn’t need the teachers for that any more.

In other words: if you can read the ink on a page and comprehend what it says, you don’t need anyone to pass on oral information that was heretofore stored in a human being.

For every technology there is an exchange, a gain and a loss.  If you can read and have a Bible, you can read the Bible on your own.  You can study it for yourself.  But then, you are also less likely to read it together with the faithful as you would have had to do before mass production of the written word.  If you forget the details of a passage, you can whip out your Bible and look — but, then, if you lived in a primarily oral culture, your memory might be a little sharper and you might not have forgotten the passage as easily (or, if you did, you would have to rely on the sharper memory of another human being).

But we cannot become an oral society even if we wished to (and I am not suggesting that we should want to).  Where do we go from here?  We are swiftly becoming a culture which has moved on even from the technology of text to the technology of image, but this image is not the image of our ancestors.  This is not the cult image of a deity or a visual icon made for communal orientation toward the divine, or even a common ideal.  This image is the personal image, the image I can conjure at home on my computer or on the train with my iPhone whenever I want.  Because of mass production, each image gives the appearance of being the same image (I can view “the same” youtube video on my computer in PA as my sister can view in NJ).  But it is not the same image — it is a copy — and when I view it, it becomes my personal image.  If I experience any communion with my sister, it is not in viewing the image, but in later face-to-face dialogue about the image(s).

 Is the dullest pencil better than the sharpest memory?  Is the the ability to store more data in the palm of your hand than you can hold in your brain desirable? 

These are unrefined thoughts.  But of course, because of the medium, no one expects them to be refined.  Almost anyone in the world who owns a computer can read my blog, but because the internet is designed for quick, unthoughtful interaction, no one expects the highest quality of writing.  It is my text, my image, set up for everyone to see — copied, mass produced.  What would Thamus say?

[1] Plato, Phaedrus, trans. by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1995), 78-80.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Is the dullest pencil better than the sharpest memory?

  1. thinkhardthinkwell

    Ricoeur has a great discussion of the Phaedrus in “Memory, History, Forgetting,” in relation to the historiographical operation.

  2. Nick Bellando

    Did you ever read Derrida’s take on this one? He used the word “pharmikon” (=potion / drug) to show that writing can act as a drug to bring healing or as a drug to endumben the masses, and then he questions speech in the same way as writing is questioned — I think the conclusion for the Christian has something to do with Paul’s “combining Spririt with Spirit,” i.e. we can communicate only by grace, as we are one in the Spirit as Jesus prayed that we would be – though somehow I feel that texting in the Spirit has a proper place in life only occasionally…

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