Plato writes on the dangers of writing.

Author:Boyle, Joan

Antisthenes, a student of Socrates, had a friend who complained that he lost his notes (hypomenmata). To this Antisthenes countered, "You should have inscribed them in your mind (psyche) and not on paper." (quoted in Thomas 1989, 33)

Our aim here is to address the apparent paradox of the claim by Plato, himself a writer and educator, that serious thought (episteme), cannot be put into writing, but is solely the fruit of dialectic and its conclusions. In other words, important matters (the ingredients of wisdom) are best inscribed in the mind or soul (psyche), and this, only after close discussion with wise confidants. Plato is quite definitive when he says, one should never "dare to write even the least thing about such matters" (Epistle VII, 342a). We will in two ways address the paradox of this philosopher writer who writes on the dangers of writing: first, by placing writing within its context, as it is viewed in Greek society of the early fifth and late fourth century, and second, by laying out Plato's view of writing as expressed in the Epistle VII and the Phaedra. In this way we aim at breaking down the seemingly paradoxical nature of Plato's position.


The political life of Syracuse is the context at the heart of Plato's Seventh Epistle, and is partly the focus of this paper. By 353 BC Plato had made three trips to Syracuse. During his first visit after Socrates' death he met Dion, the son-in-law of the tyrant, Dionysius I, and because of Dion's interest in philosophy Plato maintained a long relationship with him. When Dionysius I died, his son, Dionysius II, took power and Dion, who was then one of the young ruler's advisors, arranged for Plato to be invited back to Syracuse because the tyrant was said to be enthusiastic about learning philosophy.

At the beginning of the Seventh Epistle Plato describes his arrival in Syracuse where his first task was to prove whether the young Dionysius was, as he said, "on fire with philosophy". To his disappointment he saw at once that the young tyrant was one of those "whose heads are full of half understood doctrines" (340b). In the letter Plato goes on to describe the qualities of genuine philosophers, lovers of wisdom in quest of true knowledge, and he compares them to those who are not philosophers, those having, as he says, "only a coating of opinions like men whose bodies are tanned by the sun". Once these see how much work and selfdiscipline philosophy requires, they retreat and give up the task (340 c, 341 a). Such, Plato has discovered, is the young Dionysius.

In this letter, written about eight years after Plato's third visit to Syracuse, Plato says he has heard that the tyrant dared to write a book putting forward as his own, ideas he heard from Plato. Not only is Plato irritated by the notion that a second-hand report might be thought to represent his doctrine, but he is even more disturbed by the claim that serious philosophical matters could be expounded in ordinary writing just as any other subject. He maintains:

"There is no writing of mine about these matters, nor will there ever be one. For this knowledge is not something that can be put into words" (341 c) Dionysius' book then, provides the immediate case-in-point for Plato's reserves about putting into writing the essence of philosophical insights and it is also a subject he had already taken up in the Phaedrus, using the voice of Socrates.

How did the Greeks view writing at this time? In the archaic period Greek city-states used writing very sparingly except for private inscriptions and the beginnings of written laws. Even in the fifth century books are still rare, but by the end of the fifth and the middle of the fourth century books had become more widespread and consisted of papyrus rolls, often more than twenty feet long. Writing is without punctuation and word division, perhaps because in the flow of speaking there are no divisions and the inscribed word, especially written literature, is mainly read aloud and written to be heard rather than read...

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