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The origin of writing according to Plato: the myth of Theuth

Plato, in the Phaedrus, tells Socrates a myth that explains the invention of writing.

Socrates tells that Thamu was once sovereign in Naucratis of Egypt and that Theuth, the inventor god, went to his sovereign to show him his latest creations. He had invented calculus, reasoning, geometry, astronomy, the game of dice and chess and also grammata, that is, the letters of the alphabet, writing. He was especially proud of this latter invention and believed that it was necessary for all Egyptians to have it. According to Theuth, thanks to the writing, the Egyptians would have been wiser and their memory would have been stronger: it was in fact the remedy for wisdom and memory.
But Thamu was not of the same opinion: curbing Theuth’s enthusiasm, he maintained that in reality, because of writing, men would have been wise, but wise and that it would have been impossible to deal with them. Not a strengthening, but an impoverishment of memory would have been the first consequence of the abandonment of orality in favor of writing:

“In fact, they will produce forgetfulness (lethe) in the souls of those who learn, for lack of exercise of memory; precisely because, trusting in writing, they will remember the things of the outside, from alien (typoi) signs, and not from the inside, by themselves : therefore you have not discovered a pharmakon for the memory (mneme) but for the memory (hypòmnesis). , they will seem, scholars, even though they are mostly ignorant; it will be difficult to be together with them, because in the opinion of wisdom (doxosophoi) instead of wise. ” (274th to 275th)

Plato’s controversy with writing, also witnessed elsewhere, is a mirror of the times: the pure orality of the archaic age is now leaving room for aurality, that is, for the presence of orality and writing, and the reaction of those who are anchored to Orality can only be distrustful. Plato, like Socrates, considers learning as an interpersonal exchange of knowledge. Further on, still in the Phaedrus, Socrates will say that a book is like a statue: if questioned, it does not answer. Yet he left many writings, unlike Socrates. But it is not necessary to think of inconsistency in Platonic thought. In Phaedrus, simply Plato takes note of the revolution represented by the affirmation of writing and highlights the limits of the graphic medium as opposed to dialectic.

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