The Curse of Thoth, Part I: Literacy and the Fall of Man
Regardless whether we evaluate technology positively or negatively, the most powerful piece of technology ever invented by the human race was the written word. It relieved us from the burden of experiencing genuine truth by giving us the means to manufacture truth as an object independent of ourselves. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but it can still be double-edged. The following is not a condemnation of writing per se. Rather I use it as a point of departure for an evaluation of technology in general, and a warning that simply because a man owns a tool does not necessarily mean he will put it to good use.
Today’s reading from Plato comes from the Phaedrus (274c-275b), in which Socrates conveys his meaning best by way of a parable. The god Thoth, or Theuth, is the Egyptian equivalent of Hermes (hence their later synthesis as Hermes Trismegistus). In this tale, Theuth visits the pharaoh Thamus bearing the gifts of “number and calculation, draughts and dice, geometry and astronomy, and furthermore, letters (grammata).” He comes as a Prometheus of sorts, bringing fire to mankind, a benefaction charged with mixed blessings. I pick up the passage at this point, translating as literally as possible:
ἐπειδὴ δὲ ἐπὶ τοῖς γράμμασιν ἦν, ‘τοῦτο δέ, ὦ βασιλεῦ, τὸ μάθημα,’ ἔφη ὁ Θεύθ, ‘σοφωτέρους Αἰγυπτίους καὶ μνημονικωτέρους παρέξει: μνήμης τε γὰρ καὶ σοφίας φάρμακον ηὑρέθη.’ ὁ δ᾽ εἶπεν: ‘ὦ τεχνικώτατε Θεύθ, ἄλλος μὲν τεκεῖν δυνατὸς τὰ τέχνης, ἄλλος δὲ κρῖναι τίν᾽ ἔχει μοῖραν βλάβης τε καὶ ὠφελίας τοῖς μέλλουσι χρῆσθαι: καὶ νῦν σύ, πατὴρ ὢν γραμμάτων, δι᾽ εὔνοιαν τοὐναντίον εἶπες ἢ δύναται. τοῦτο γὰρ τῶν μαθόντων λήθην μὲν ἐν ψυχαῖς παρέξει μνήμης ἀμελετησίᾳ, ἅτε διὰ πίστιν γραφῆς ἔξωθεν ὑπ᾽ ἀλλοτρίων τύπων, οὐκ ἔνδοθεν αὐτοὺς ὑφ᾽ αὑτῶν ἀναμιμνῃσκομένους: οὔκουν μνήμης ἀλλὰ ὑπομνήσεως φάρμακον ηὗρες. σοφίας δὲ τοῖς μαθηταῖς δόξαν, οὐκ ἀλήθειαν πορίζεις: πολυήκοοι γάρ σοι γενόμενοι ἄνευ διδαχῆς πολυγνώμονες εἶναι δόξουσιν, ἀγνώμονες ὡς ἐπὶ τὸ πλῆθος ὄντες, καὶ χαλεποὶ συνεῖναι, δοξόσοφοι γεγονότες ἀντὶ σοφῶν.’
And when it came to letters, Theuth said, “this invention, oh king, will make the Egyptians wiser and improve their memory. For I have discovered a stimulant (pharmakon) of both memory and wisdom.” But Thamus replied, “oh most crafty Theuth, one man has the lot of being able to give birth to technologies (ta tekhnēs), but another to assess both the harm and benefit to those who would make use of them. Even you, at present, being the father of letters, through good intentions spoke the opposite of its potential. For this, by the neglect of memory, will produce forgetfulness (lēthēn) in the souls of those who learn it, since through their faith in writing they recollect things externally by means of another’s etchings, and not internally from within themselves. You invented a stimulant not of memory, but of reminder, and you are procuring for its students the reputation (doxan) of wisdom (sophias), not the truth (alētheian) of it. For having heard much, but without learning anything, they will seem to you to be knowledgeable of many things, but for the most part really ignorant, and difficult to associate with, having become wise-seeming (doxosophoi) instead of wise (sophōn).”
The language of this passage demonstrates well the traditional Greek view toward the utility of knowledge, that theoretical knowledge (knowledge for its own sake) should be preferred to applied knowledge (technology). The written word, like all other technologies, is designed to manipulate nature and abstract us from it by having us profess our faith (pistis) in truths written rather than experienced. The written word is an hallucinogenic drug (pharmakon), whose side-effects are forgetfulness (lēthē), which is the opposite of truth (alētheia, lit. a-lēthē, the negation of forgetfulness). The degree to which we translate theoretical knowledge (truth, wisdom) into applied knowledge (technology) is the degree to which we diminish ourselves and magnify the system we created, to the point where the system defines us rather than vice versa. Over the past century this nihilistic ethos has successfully colonized the modern mind:
In the past the man has been first…in the future the system must be first.
-F.W. Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management (1911)
By granting precedence, reliance, and dependence upon the written word as the source of wisdom, external rather than internal, we treat is as a structure metaphysically separate from ourselves. But this structure is not wisdom, which is an eternal sense. Rather it is knowledge, an historical sense, which divides our nature and reality into arbitrary categories of space and time. It divorces us from authentically living a culture, or a philosophy, a way of life, and rather it set us apart from it, as objects of study divorced from subjective experience. Instead of living it, we just talk about it, all the while very little gets done to maintain it as all sense of truth and identity is continually passing away into the chemicals and circuitry of a postmodern, pluralistic, moral wasteland of atoms and void.
By granting precedence to the edifice of the written word, the image of wisdom (doxa sophias), we as a species naturally adapt to our environment and become like to it, becoming pseudo-intellectuals, appearing wise (doxosophoi) rather than being it.
This is why the esoteric mysteries cults existed and writing used to be the preserve of first the religious (hence the hieros, “sacred,” in hieroglyphics) and then intellectual (the original Academy) priesthoods. For the degree to which the technology of writing colonizes down the social strata into the base of the pyramid of Being, is the degree to which each person colonized becomes her own factory of truths and her own religious establishment. The logical conclusion of this is total societal atomization. This result, likely never to be fully reached, will be good or bad depending on the degree to which that society invests in education. The more a person is educated, the more capable and deserving she is of sovereignty in that society. But a society such as the United States, which has on the one hand high literacy but on the other hand an alarmingly disproportionately small investment in education compared to, say, the military, turns this seemingly liberatingly literate people into ones vicious, alienated and ripe for the sickles of technocratic tyranny.
The aegis against this threat is humanism, the doctrine that we must remain in control of the systems we created, and recognize that eternal wisdom and values come from within ourselves and not from the Frankenstein’s monster that has come to dominate our collective consciousness. Let us not be Victor over nature. Let us be nature, and live according to it.
Let us not descend into a cave where all is judged by appearances due to a superficiality in our values, reflecting the shallowness of our thinking in a desperate attempt to see to the bottom of things in order to satisfy our need for truth. For at the bottom of these shallows, of the ever-receding tide of human wisdom, is nothing but mud. This is what the thousand-year odyssey of the human mind has accomplished. We pruned Intellect of all its branches into infinite possibilities and removed all choice but to follow one single road called progress. Our search for truth caused us not to delve deeper into the depths of the infinite, but rather by retreating to the shallows to plant our feet firmly on the bottom. Perhaps it won’t be long before we forget even how to swim.