By Jon Taylor
In the Egyptian myth of Theuth and Thamos recounted by Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus, writing is said to be capable only of conveying opinion and not truth. Those who learn from written letters rather than being instructed “become hearers of much without teaching [and] will seem to be sensible judges in much, while being for the most part senseless, and hard to be with, since they’ve become wise in their own opinion instead of wise.” The difference between the cultivation of opinion and knowledge therefore appears to be in the method of instruction. The irony of such an argument’s appearance in a written dialogue is obvious, as the contemporary wisdom of Great Books programs as expressed by Leo Strauss declares that the great texts are in fact the best instructors available to students. The Phaedrus argues that though writing’s ability to properly instruct and educate is limited, the literary form of the dialogue is not only immune to these criticisms, but is a method of instruction able to ameliorate one’s ability to come to know what is through dialogue and engagement with the other.
Socrates never wrote and is only known to the contemporary student through Plato’s written dialogues such as the Phaedrus, Aristophanes’ Clouds, and the works of Xenophon.The contemporary student is quite accustomed to learning from texts, and thus Socrates’ criticism appears quite foreign. Nevertheless, the phenomenon identified in the Egyptian myth is one very familiar to the undergraduate student. Socrates condemns writing because the “offspring of that art [written works] stand there as living beings, but if you ask them about something … keep a solemn silence.” No matter how forcefully one might address the text, it will not respond to the specific inquiry of the reader. Unlike a professor who can be asked to slow down, address a particularly challenging concept or section, or simply provide an explanation in more accessible language, written instruction will not waver from its lesson plan. The written text cannot fully anticipate where its instruction will be insufficient for its reader; it is an object rather than an instructor.
Nonetheless, the student of written letters is not fundamentally ignorant of the truth. The student will possess a certain familiarity with the truth expressed through the written word despite their lack of genuine understanding. The myth of Theuth—if it can be understood as expressing the same definitions of knowledge and opinion as articulated by Socrates in other Platonic dialogues—provides a distinction between correct opinion and knowledge which understands opinion as a state between that which is and is not. These students who “recollect from outside with alien markings, not reminding themselves from inside, by themselves” are not expressly ignorant of the truth, but they are unable to give an account of what is beyond the opinion delivered to them through written speech. Such a state is perhaps more dangerous than outright ignorance, as a recognition of one’s familiarity with the truth may often be conflated with a knowledge of truth.
Opinion has the curious character of in-betweenness, being related to both wisdom and ignorance. While knowledge and opinion are similar, and can both lay claim to what is, “opinion is dependent on one thing and knowledge on another, each according to its own power.” As Glaucon and Socrates determine in the Republic, “[k]nowledge is presumably dependent on what is, to know of what is that it is and how it is.” Accordingly, opinion lacks that understanding of the how and why which is present in knowledge. Opinion is not, however, the opposite of knowledge, as to “that which is not, we were compelled to assign ignorance.” Rather, as Diotima puts it in the Symposium, “to opine correctly without being able to give an account is neither to know expertly (for how could expert knowledge be an unaccounted for matter?) nor lack understanding (for how could lack of understanding be that which has hit upon what is?).” Hence a correct opinion is directed toward and reflects the truth, but is not an understanding of truth as such. Any correlation of correct opinion with the truth is—in the Platonic Socrates’ view—little better than coincidence.
Correct opinion, however, is merely a part of—and not the whole of—opinion. According to its nature, opinion does not always reflect the truth: being between knowledge and ignorance, it has a whole spectrum of quasi-falsehoods and near-truths to claim as its own. Diotima’s formulation above presented by Socrates in the Symposium engages only with “correct opinion…somewhere between intelligence and lack of understanding,” and fails to engage with the risks of false opinion which Socrates addresses in greater detail in the Phaedrus. For example, Lysias’ non-lover speech engenders opinion in the reader, but certainly not correct opinion. Socrates’ fears about writing are therefore twofold: writing both engenders dependency upon opinion rather than expertise regarding what is and encourages the proliferation of false opinions. Opinion therefore admits of being an inversion of the Socratic maxim: It does not know, but it also does not know that it does not know.
There is no guarantee, therefore, of a written speech conveying correct opinion to the reader. While the person skilled in rhetoric who ignores good and bad in order to persuade the multitudes to do bad things instead of good ones intentionally misuses the rhetorical art, writing’s potential to have the same effect is not bound by the intentions of its creator. The rhetorical art does not compel anyone who ignores the truth to speak, but a written speech can be compelled to speak by anyone who encounters it regardless of context and regardless of its ability to be properly comprehended. Though a speech may, if understood correctly, say one thing only, once it’s been written, it rolls around everywhere to be read both by those who will understand and by those for whom it is in no way fitting. Unlike one who knows, a written speech “does not know to whom it ought to speak and to whom not.” Without its father’s assistance, a written speech may unwittingly be misinterpreted and taken to endorse the greatest injustice.
The shortcomings of writing are therefore ultimately derived from an inability to properly practice the rhetorical art. Socrates denies that a text could ever truly be a teacher in the manner which Strauss describes because the teacher must use the rhetorical to match the form of their speeches to the form of the soul of the pupil, and this struggle is absent from the instruction of written letters. Without the true art of rhetoric, she who knows the truth will not be able to persuade by art, and so without the active engagement of the instructor with the pupil, the art of rhetoric cannot be performed correctly.
As stated above, a written text may always be made to speak, but it can never be made to listen or engage. A written text “indicates one thing only, and always the same.” The form of the reader’s soul cannot be determined by a written piece, and as a consequence neither can the form of speech that would be most appropriate to the student. The instruction of the written speech is therefore limited to one form of speech and will at best be unable to persuade the reader, and at worst inadvertently persuade the reader of the opposite of its true intention. Because of this inability to lead the soul, one cannot consider writing to be able to argue with a view to what is correct, as it is fundamentally ill-prepared to engage in the proper art of rhetoric. Socrates suggestion is that even if a student may appear persuaded by instruction derived from written letters, because the true art of rhetoric cannot be practiced as part of the instruction, the student can never be persuaded of the truth. The best the student can hope to achieve is the affirmation of an opinion.
However, Socrates’ criticism of writing appears in a written work. Plato was not only aware of Socrates’ apparent distaste for writing, but reproduced it in his own work, indicating that while Plato’s Socrates may pose the problem, Plato himself may present the solution. Plato’s decision to write dialogues suggests that dialogues are written works that counteract the problems of writing and reconcile the soul of the reader with the kind of speech appropriate to it. The dialogue itself is the form of speech “brother of this one [a discussion between friends embodied in the world] … that is written with knowledge in the soul of him who understands, with power to defend itself, and knowing to speak and to keep silence toward those it ought.” The dialogue is able to accomplish such a feat through its use of dramatic setting and characters, the obscurity of Plato within the form of the dialogue, and the representation of varying forms of souls the reader is challenged to interpret, judge, and inhabit.
A dialogue does not simply raise questions and give answers in the form of correct opinion. Often the reader is given no definitive answer at all, as in aporetic dialogues like the Euthyphro or the Theaetetus.Plato intentionally obscures himself in the dialogues so as not to provide one with an easily accessible opinion to attribute to him. Opinions are presented not simply in the words, but also the deeds of the interlocutors, and are meant to be examined and judged as such. One can come to know the truth through engagement with Socrates in the form of a dialogue, but must do so through a sort of imagined argumentation. No one point can be taken as absolute truth without personal examination, and even then, Plato’s Socrates often leaves just enough unsaid that the reader must come to the conclusions herself rather than have it transmitted directly through the written word. The dialogues force the reader to treat the text as if it were alive and capable of being interrogated.
More specifically, the Phaedrus provides a model for engagement with written texts which may address Socrates’ concerns. Throughout the dialogue, the speech of Lysias is examined and re-examined. In the Theaetetus, Socrates appears to resurrect Protagoras for a time in order to more fully defend his position on knowledge. Like the speech of Lysias, the views of Protagoras lack the assistance and defense of their father. In order to help “his [Protagoras’] offspring,” Socrates comes to embody the renowned sophist so that his ideas can be properly interrogated. The same occurs in the Phaedrus, as Socrates attempts to recreate the speech of Lysias for the purpose of further investigation. As Socrates and Phaedrus engage with the text, they reanimate it to the point that it becomes a third partner in their dialogue. Despite Socrates’ critique of writing, he appears to offer a model of engagement with the written word which transforms text into speech. Though the text cannot get its father’s assistance, it becomes the duty of the reader to attempt to offer that help to the text in place of the father.
With the speech of Lysias, then, Socrates inverts the role of the rhetorician, and attempts to understand the form of the speech based on an engagement with the soul of the speaker. Such a process still appears to be a part of the art of rhetoric, but in reverse, as an understanding of the soul of Lysias is necessary for Socrates to then make a speech as Lysias. The same process seems to occur in the activity of properly reading a Platonic dialogue. Jacob Howland says that
the dialogues mimic the complex form and vitality characteristic of actual conversations. To understand the dialogue, then, one must understand the conversation as a whole. This means that one must in some sense enter into the souls of its participants, in order to see how each speech fits the nature of the speaker and responds (or fails to respond) to the speeches, deeds, and dispositions of the other participants.
In inhabiting the souls of the participants, one is better able to understand the deeds, and not simply the words, of the dialogue. In order to do this, however, one must engage in the art of rhetoric, as in order to enter into the souls of the participants as Howland prescribes, one must know the souls of the learner as the rhetorician does. To interpret is to think rhetorically. In attempting to determine why Plato has portrayed these characters in such manners as they are and what that information is supposed to transmit to the reader, the reader has placed themselves in the position of Plato just as Socrates places himself in the position of Lysias or Protagoras.
Obviously, such a practice is not possible with every form of writing. Plato’s Socrates is correct to identify an inability to communicate the truth in many forms of written text. In order to withstand Socrates’ criticisms, Plato’s dialogues must be complex. As is evident by the apparent contradiction of Plato’s Socrates defaming writing in one of Plato’s written dialogues, Plato understands the problem of written instruction and knows how to rectify it. The reader of dialogues can occupy the space of both reader and rhetorician because Plato provides the reader with all the dramatic information necessary to identify the kinds of souls of the participants. Plato’s arguments are always obscured, but the dramatic character of the dialogues invites the reader to consider things both as a fellow interlocutor, but also as a writer. The dialogue of Plato’s work is therefore not only horizontal but vertical. The reader is made privy to the horizontal discussion between the characters, but is also participating in a vertical dialogue with Plato by simultaneously occupying the roles of reader and fellow rhetorician.
The literary form of the dialogue therefore appears to be Plato’s response to Socrates’ criticism of writing. Through the use of dramatic setting and characters, the dialogue is able to better replicate those kinds of discussions in which Socrates would engage in Athens. By appealing to the reader in this way, the written dialogue comes alive, representing and responding to various forms of souls with various forms of speeches. The dialogues do not say the same thing to whoever read them because they are active conversations in which the reader is both a participant and composer. Furthermore, the dialogues do not provide the ends to conversation, but the means to continue them with others. Dialogues do not supply those wise in opinion with correct opinion, nor ingrain false opinion. Rather, they train the reader to discern for themselves and engage with Socrates in their own dialogues. The Phaedrus serves not only to justify the practice of reading the Great Books to its readers, but in a certain sense justifies their study to Socrates himself.
Burger, Ronna. Aristotle’s Dialogue with Socrates: On the Nicomachean Ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
Howland, Jacob. “Re-Reading Plato: The Problem of Platonic Chronology.” Pheonix 45, no. 3. (1991): 189-214.
Plato. Phaedrus. Translated by James H. Nichols Jr. London: Cornell University Press, 1998.
——. Republic. Translated by Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 2016.
——. Symposium, Translated by Seth Bernadete. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
——, Theaetetus. Translated by M. J. Levett. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1990.
Smith, Thomas W. “The Protreptic Character of the ‘Nicomachean Ethics.’” Polity 27, no. 2 (1994): 307–30.
Strauss, Leo. “What is Liberal Education?” Address delivered at the Tenth Annual Graduation Exercises of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, Chicago, June 6, 1959.
Socrates and Aristophanes. Chicago:
Chicago University Press, 1966; 1980.
 Plato, Phaedrus, trans. James H. Nichols Jr. (London: Cornell University Press, 1998), 275a.
 Plato, 275a-c.
 Leo Strauss, “What is Liberal Education?” (address, Tenth Annual Graduation Exercises of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, Chicago, June 6, 1959); “For all practical purposes, pupils, of whatever degree of proficiency, have access to the teachers who are not in turn pupils, to the greatest minds, only through the great books. Liberal education will then consist in studying with the proper care the great books which the greatest minds have left behind — a study in which the more experienced pupils assist the less experienced pupils, including the beginners.”
 Leo Strauss, Socrates and Aristophanes, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1966; 1980), 3.
 Plato, Phaedrus, 275d.
 Plato, 275a.
 Plato, Republic, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 2016), 477b.
 Plato, 478a.
 Plato, 478c.
 Plato, Symposium, trans. Seth Bernadete (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 202a.
 Plato, 202a.
 Plato, Phaedrus, 260c.
 Plato, 260d.
 Plato, 275e.
 Plato, 275e.
 Plato, 275e.
 Leo Strauss, “What is Liberal Education?”
 Plato, Phaedrus, 260d.
 Plato, 275d.
 Plato, 261a.
 Plato, 261b.
 Plato, 276a.
 Plato, Theaetetus, trans. M. J. Levett (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1990), 165e-168c.
 Plato, 165e.
 Jacob Howland, “Re-Reading Plato: The Problem of Platonic Chronology,” Phoenix 45, no.3 (1991), 193.
 Aristotle is a good example of a thinker works are “written with knowledge in the soul of him who understands, with power to defend itself, and knowing to speak and to keep silence toward those it ought” without being dialogues (276a). See Ronna Burger, Aristotle’s Dialogue with Socrates: On the Nicomachean Ethics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008) and Thomas W. Smith, “The Protreptic Character of the Nicomachean Ethics,” Polity 27, no. 2 (1992): 307–30.