Socrates told his friend Phaedrus that writing was like ‘sowing words which can neither speak for themselves nor teach the truth adequately to others.’ (tr. Jowett)
He championed the role of the dialectician, who is able to use the back-and-forth of penetrating conversation to draw forth true understanding — much as a midwife aids in the delivery of a child. He stated that written words cannot be defended or explained — cannot be challenged and refined. Those who read the writing of others may absorb knowledge, but they cannot fully examine the meaning if the author is unavailable for questioning. They cannot make another’s truth part of their soul.
Socrates, to our knowledge, never did write anything down. He left that to others. But what if they had not? In what ways might our world be diminished? He likens the dialectic to planting seeds that not only increase individual happiness, but that are immortal. Presumably a truth grown in the soil of one’s soul can be passed on to others through this same method — the dialectic as an oral tradition of wisdom transferred from one person to the next.
Which is all well and good on an individual level, but perhaps not so much on a cultural one. Successful societies build on previously attained knowledge and achievements. As Newton said, ‘we stand on the shoulders of giants’. As individuals, we cannot possibly contain and share all the knowledge and discoveries and wonders human beings have managed to accumulate and pass down through the ages. In our writings, our books and our libraries, we can at least make a determined effort.
But what of Socrates’ objections? Perhaps it is significant that the discussion of writing and rhetoric is tacked on to the end of a long discussion about the nature of love. The first two speeches argue against love, stating that a rational state of non-love is a much more sensible basis for a relationship. But Socrates’ final argument speaks in praise of love as a ‘divine madness’ — a gift from the gods that should be embraced. And when lovers hold virtue above common desire — recognizing the reflection of the divine in their hearts and in the perfections of their beloved — they transcend the limits of individual existence. Through love they touch upon the Absolute and the seeds of truth are sown in their soul.
So in speech and writing, as in love, it may not be that any of them can be called good or bad. It is how they are done that matters. Whatever voice comes from the heart and expresses truth with unselfish passion, it cannot help but awaken an echo of the divine that resides in all of us.