February 21, 2011

This, said Thoth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Thoth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific 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.

On the whole, there’s probably something to be said for writing; Homer didn”€™t need it, but when the alphabet arrived it carried his poems, and classical civilization, on for a very long time. But the great gift of letters may have also brought with it some of the seeds of decay.

By the end of antiquity, the only things the Romans bothered writing down were woolly theological tracts and excruciatingly detailed tax records. The barbarians who filled the vacuum of their imploding empire had no letters or towns. They did, contrary to what you may have learned in school, have better swords, better technology, better government, a higher standard of living, and clearer minds.

It’s a sad truth that every advance that pushes civilization onward also in some way diminishes us as individuals. It is true for practical as well as intellectual skills, the physical as well as the mental. Consider young George Washington, hardly an isolated case in the brilliant world of can-do, self-sufficient, 18th-century America. At the age when his modern counterpart is receiving a worthless B.A., Washington could manage any farm job, live in the wilderness as comfortably as an Indian, build a cabin, survey and plat a county, or lead a militia into battle.

What writing took away from our mind’s faculties, we can only guess. Robert Graves wrote of the Irish ollamhs, master poets in pre-Christian times who were required to know by heart and recite on command some 350 long-verse romances and histories, memorize the laws of the country and expound on them, and know the genealogies of kings and the derivations of all words. An ollamh was learned in all the arts and sciences, and as a poet was required to extemporize on any subject in any meter while accompanying it on the harp (not to mention the ability to kill rats or raise a blister on your nose with a poetic curse).

Writing took a great part of our mind and put it outside us. We”€™re adjusted to that by now, and obviously we couldn”€™t survive without it. When Schmidt’s demon comes to work for us, we won”€™t need memory for much of anything, and what crumb of it remains will eventually atrophy and die. Civilization may look smarter than ever, but the people in it? When the next barbarians come, they may well find old King Thamus was right when he predicted:

…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.



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