Category: Philosophical theories

Writing and orality in Plato

Although Plato is rightly considered as a talented writer, there are texts of his explicitly stating that true philosophy can only be transmitted orally.

The problem

In the philosophical tradition Plato’s dialogues have been, their compositional peculiarities notwithstanding, models of philosophical writing. Plato sets himself against the poets, yet chooses a way of writing that resembles a play. In this way he succeeds in infusing his texts with the dialectical juxtaposition that he considers to be an essential element of philosophy, and the liveliness exhibited by these texts has doubtlessly contributed to the continuous relevance of Platonic thought. Plato, however, states in two important texts, the Phaedrus and the Seventh Epistle, that philosophy is stifled or betrayed within the context of written exposition, since it can only be transmitted orally. Thus the question is evidently raised: do Plato’s dialogues embody his true philosophy or do we have to seek this philosophy in the so-called “unwritten doctrines”, i.e. his views that he never put down in writing, but which he is supposed to have taught to his student in strictly oral fashion?

The evidence of the Phaedrus

Having presented the myth regarding writing, according to which the Egyptian king shows that the invention of writing did not lead the Egyptians to wisdom, the Platonic Socrates attributes three disadvantages to the logoi set in writing: they are static and unequivocal, they cannot defend themselves, they do not choose their receivers (275d-e). By contrast, oral speech seems to be free from these drawbacks. The written word, even in its best and most serious version, is an “image” of the spoken word, it is a “reminder” and “most fine pastime”. The philosopher will resort to writing “by telling stories about justice, beauty and virtue” (276e), in order to keep his memory from failing. The true activity of philosophy, nonetheless, for the same topics is achieved:

when one employs the dialectical art and, having found a fitting soul, plants and sows in it words of true knowledge, which are able to help themselves and him who planted them, which are not fruitless, but yield seed from which there spring up in other minds other words, and thus always retain in them the immortal seed and make their possessor happy, to the farthest possible limit of human happiness. (Phaedrus 276e-277a)

Thus Plato essentially undermines himself as a writer: he warns us against finding his true philosophy in the text of his dialogues. This interpretation is not incorrect, yet it remains inadequate. Firstly it overlooks the masterful reversal that takes place as the condemnation of writing shifts into a peculiar defence of it. The written word is presented as the noblest solitary activity of the philosopher, infinitely preferable to participation in banquets and to similar gatherings.

More importantly, however, Plato does not limit himself to noting the superiority of orality, but underscores certain requirements for the transmission of philosophical knowledge to be properly carried out in general. Should these not be met, the pathology of the written word becomes a pathology of discourse [logos] tout court, in its written or oral mode.

Therefore, true philosophy (1) is defined as a process of teaching and learning, which always presupposes a teacher [eidota] and a student [manthanonta]. (2) Its subject matter consists in the main political and ethical norms: “what is just, what is beautiful, what is good”, and dialectic is its method. (3) Philosophy is cultivated by “sowing animate and fertile” logoi, i.e. by the live presentation of pliable arguments and theories that can be examined, reformulated and transformed through dialogue. Finally (4) such sowing and fertilising [of logos, of discourse] can only take place on suitable and fertile ground, i.e. in “the fitting soul” of “the student”. Finding the suitable soul and knowing its true nature affects the form of the philosophical arguments and theories to be presented (277c), because philosophy is a form of leading a soul through education [psychagogia].

These requirements must be met by the entire “genus of logos”, by the written and the spoken word, by the philosophical discourse of teaching, by the (proper) rhetorical discourse of persuasion (277c) and by the political discourse of legislation (277d).

The Seventh Epistle

In the Seventh Epistle, considered genuine by most Platonists, Plato takes a further step. He first states that for beings’ essence itself, the subject matter of his true study, he has never written nor will ever write any text, and then claims that it “cannot at all be expressed in words”, that it is impossible for it to find adequate expression not only in written form, but in any verbal form. He describes the true path of philosophy as a course of life that is strenuous, daily and long-lasting, a course guided by a knowing teacher and that constitutes a joint search potentially leading to the sudden illumination of man’s soul (341c-d). Such course involves constant cognitive investigation and testing, ascending to and descending from forms of discourse, representations and concepts; these are by definition confined within the impotence of linguistic expression and its inherent uncertainty and are, thus, doomed to speak of the quality of beings and not of their essence (343b3).

There is a difficult way leading to true knowledge. This knowledge is produced in the soul through being-together [synousia] with the object of study, through the creative relationship between teacher and student, by means of the application of the dialectical art. Such knowledge is betrayed, however, when one attempts to give verbal expression to it, due to the impotence of words, of logoi. Such an exposition in explicit formulations, which would aim at revealing the essence of beings, would by definition be vulnerable to refutation, especially to ill-willed and eristic refutation. Hence Plato’s decision not to offer in writing a presentation of the central part of his philosophy is justified, along with his reluctance to express it even orally.

Stressing the ineffable nature of true knowledge may lead to the mystical reading of the philosophical digression of the Seventh Epistle. Such a reading, however, bypasses the text’s emphasis on the daily, strenuous, intellectual effort and the functionality of proper dialectical mechanisms of testing. There is no human knowledge beyond “words” (logoi). Logoi, albeit inherently defective, are intimately linked with the fate of human beings. True knowledge is achieved through words and, in order to be communicated to others, takes by necessity the form of words once again. This is a complex process involving the spiritual contact and collaboration of teacher and student, as well as full devotion to intellectual investigations and the dialectical method that, even though lies within logos, remains an open and pliable path, capable of taking up in some way the self-critique of logos. The crucial philosophical mistake, according to Plato, lies in thinking that true knowledge can be firmly established in a fixed system, in a definitive doctrine -- necessarily in verbal form.

Conclusion

Plato’s conviction is that philosophy is mainly a “lesson”, i.e. live giving and receiving of positions and arguments on issues of vital importance. The Platonic dialogue is the text that comes closest to an oral exchange and seems to overcome to some extent the drawbacks of writing. Plato does not believe that philosophy could ever have the form of systematic doctrine, i.e. of a rigid and final system, even if such a system was to find oral and dialectical expression. The reason for this is twofold: on the one hand, language is inherently incapable of expressing the essence of things and, on the other, philosophy always emerges in the soul of the manthanon, of the particular human being who comes to learn. This is why the Platonic dialogues do not mainly offer fixed positions, but ways of posing important problems and testing solutions for them. The dialogues are, therefore, protreptic in intent, invitations to philosophising, in which the reader potentially needs to adopt the role of the learner.

Author: Vassilis Kalfas
  • Frede, M. "Plato’s Arguments and the Dialogue Form." Smith, N. , Klagge, J. eds. Methods of Interpreting Plato and his Dialogues, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy. 1992.
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