colloquia

The unreliability of the text as a locus of memory must have been a familiar notion to the younger Pliny when he wrote to Tacitus consigning his uncle to textual immortality. As I imagine it, it would have been through Quintillian or even Tacitus himself that young Pliny would have encountered the writings of Plato, including the passage known as the Phaedrus. Here Socrates explicitly questions the validity of writing as a vehicle of memory or even of meaningful discourse. He tells a story of how at the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god named Thoth. He invented many arts, such as arithmetic and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of writing. In those days the god Thamus, the king of the whole land, lived at Thebes. Thoth came to him and showed off his inventions, spelling out their benefits. Thamus enquired about their uses, praised some and criticized some. When they came to letters and writing, Thoth claimed that they would make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories. It is a pharmakon (drug or medicine), he claimed, both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: ‘O clever Thoth, the parent of an art is not always the best judge of the usefulness of his own inventions. And in this case you who are the father of writing, have been led to attribute to it a quality which it cannot have, by a paternal love of your own children. This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The pharmakon (poison) 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.’ Phaedrus’ response to all this is to point out, ‘Yes, Socrates, you can easily invent tales of Egypt, or anywhere else.’

I am not advocating a Socratic or Platonic view in this matter, and would indeed be hard-pressed to say what such a view might be – this particular passage has attracted a great deal of argument over centuries. It has been studied by scholars of many persuasions and their audiences, in seminars, lecture halls, colloquia and workshops. What has sometimes interested these thinkers is the very ambiguity of the text itself: it hinges on a play on the Greek word pharmakon, which means both a medicine and a poison, a holy man and a scapegoat. A little further on, Socrates says: ‘I can’t help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is sadly like painting. The creations of the painter may look alive but if you ask them a question they say nothing. And when they have once been written down they are tossed about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and don’t know who they should reply to and who not, and if they are maltreated or abused they have no parent to protect them and they cannot protect or defend themselves.’

Rather than the fatherless and defenceless text, Plato’s Socrates commends the logos, or living Word, which he describes as ‘another kind of word or speech far better than this, and having far greater power – a son of the same family, but lawfully begotten. It is the living logos (speech, word, story, discourse, argument) of knowledge which has a soul, and of which the written word is properly no more than an image: the spoken word.’ Thus Plato presents the logos as the son of the father, dependent on him not only for defence, but for presence at all. Writing, on the other hand, is intimately tangled with the absence of the father, ‘being quite unable to defend itself or attend to its own needs.’

As Phaedrus is quick to point out, Socrates’ story about Thoth is a lie. The word-play is not susceptible to translation, and the pun would certainly not have occurred in Egyptian. In any case, Plato, in going against his master’s explicit instruction, has turned Socrates’ logos into a text.

Yet with all this in mind, the young Pliny is still far happier with the notion of merely textual immortality than with none at all.

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