Masters and Memories

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Daniella Choynowski


Topics in Media and Culture

Dr. Jerz

Masters and Memories: the Grecian shift from oral to manuscript culture:

Sitting at the feet of his teacher, Socrates, Phaedrus listened as his master warned him against the rise of manuscript culture. “For this discovery of your will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories” (Plato 362). For all the preliterate Greeks, knowledge was equated with memory. Meaning that “repetition must be guaranteed to be faithful or else the culture loses its coherence” (Havelock 69). Oral culture had been used for so long. It was a habit and a “bias of communication” for the Greeks (Havelock 42). The change meant, to the Greeks, that their culture would disintegrate because people would stop using their memories. His concerns that society would regress because of the lack of memory usage were countered by the way manuscript improved how the Grecians comprehended/analyzed, behaved, and reasoned. The student Phaedrus stays convinced of his master’s arguments against manuscript. Plato, in real life, departed from Socrates’ teachings. Most notable was the fact that Plato became a prolific writer, preserving many of his master’s teachings in written plays. The masters were so revered because of their storehouses of knowledge. They believed that the words should affect the listener so much that there would be no need for further preservation, for the words should stick forever. To Socrates, the introduction of manuscript meant the loss of respect for the masters and a loss of reverence for the words. Socrates’ concerns about the loss of respect for his teachings were trumped by the fact that Plato preserved them in manuscript form for further generations to study, thus making Socrates more revered and respected throughout history than he ever was in life.

In his study of preliterate cultures, Joe Napora uses the Indian culture as a model for pre-literate Greece. He found that when introduced to manuscript, the old people [masters] “were suddenly useless” (69). They were “no longer essential” (69). Perhaps Socrates feared that he and the rest of the Grecian elders would be considered useless now that any person, young or old, could know what he knew. He feared replacement, a loss of respect for himself.

Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa Theologica, compares Socrates to Christ and offers another reason to why the man did not write:

“Socrates and Christ, being teachers, did not connect their teachings to writing… on account of his own dignity, for the more excellent the teacher, the more excellent his manner of teaching ought to be…the most excellent of teachers should adopt that manner of teaching whereby his doctrine would be imprinted on the hearts of his hearers…he was teaching them as one having power. For which reason even among the pagans Pythagoras and Socrates, who were most excellent teachers, did not want to write anything” (McLuhan 98).

The words of the master were most important to Socrates. He saw manuscript as unnecessary, for what was said would always remain (at least he thought).But all men die, and so did Socrates. He was sentenced to death, drinking a mixture containing poison Hemlock. Who would hear his words now? Plato, “the quintessential literate conscious of his time,” had the foresight to manually preserve his master’s teachings (Biakolo 48). Over 19 of Plato’s early plays include Socrates discussing philosophy with a young student, never called Plato (although it is implied that the students represents him). Recounting his experiences, Plato wrote so that future generations could study Socrates’ teachings. Philosophy students and others today continue to study Socrates. So, in reality, manuscript did not cause a loss of respect for Socrates. It fostered further respect for the man and a higher reverence for his words.

Socrates’ other fear was that society would progress backwards due to the lack of memory usage. Grecian learning of knowledge, not new but preserved (“communal knowledge”), was done by listening to lecture and through oral recitation [poetry]. Poetry was recited “in heavily rhythmic, balanced patterns” in order to stick in people’s minds. The performance of poetry was known as what we now call “theater”. Theater was one of the centers of Greek life; it shaped “the tradition that guides social behavior” (Havelock 74). Unfortunately, many of the poetic performances are lost to us now; these stories were well known back then and there was no [foreseen] need to write them down. Euripides created over 95 plays, but many were not written down. Now, only 18 survive because “men have short memories” (Sundiata 443). Language had been action/ performance, and “until phonetic writing split apart thought and action, there was no alternative but to hold men responsible for their thoughts as well as their actions" (McLuhan 32). Man had no filter. Thought equaled action; if you felt angry, you took it out on the person. “Primitive (oral) thought is irrational, illogical, and unscientific (Biakolo 50).Perhaps this is why the term “savage”, which means pre-literate, took on a brutish, rash meaning. Speaking was “done in spurts called “idea units” at the rate of about one in two seconds, corresponding roughly to our thinking rate (55). One idea at a time was produced. The writing process was much slower. By the time it took to write one idea down, several more had already been formulated. “The result is that we have time to integrate a succession of ideas into a single linguistic whole in a way that is not available in speaking (Chafe 36). Writing split thought and action in that it caused us to think about our actions (because we had been inadvertently trained to think about what we were writing down). We now thought about how we should act in certain situations. Reasoning was essentially cause and effect; what affect would the action have on a person and the other people around them? Culture became more civilized because people discovered alternatives to war. So maybe we owe ethics to “the substitution of literacy for orality” (Havelock 3).

          Now that the “warehouse of storage, no longer acoustic but visible material, was extendible…the documented contents need no longer relate only what was familiar and so easy of recollection” (109-110). The brain was limited in its capacity. There was constant pressure to memorize the oral knowledge; old knowledge had to be pushed out of the brain to make room for new knowledge. This is why memories are faulty, in that they can only hold a certain amount of information. Our minds remember what we think is important. Our judgment can be faulty. What is important can be very different from what we think. In David Olson and Angela Hildyard’s observation, two groups of people responded very differently to a story. The differences depended on how the information was received. The listeners paid “primary attention to the theme of the story, building a coherent representation of what it meant” (Biakolo 57). They followed the main concept, but missed out on all the little details, which gave clues as to why the plot took certain twists. “The readers, on the other hand, are able to pay closer attention to the meaning of the sentences, recalling more incidental but mentioned details” (57). The reader was able to better recall specific events which were detrimental to the story. The words, when written down, took on deeper meanings than their oral counterparts. The subtexts, what the words say but don’t say, can offer insight to what may have been a vague speech. They are “deeper conceptual sources” (51). Man, because of the methods of preservation, had been “little given to analysis” (49). Now that man had texts to examine, he was now able to pay closer attention to the concepts contained in the information. We could re-read if something was not clear, whereas speech vanished the second it was uttered.

          “The removal of pressure to memorize…has as its first effect some removal of the corresponding pressure to memorize...has as its first effect some removal of the corresponding pressure to narrativize all preservable statement. This had freed the composer to choose subjects for a discourse which were not necessarily agents, that is, persons” (Havelock 101). Man was now free. Beforehand, the tightly packed storage system of the mind had not had room for thoughts of “individualism and the self, conflict and skepticism, or detached and abstract thought” (Biakolo 49). The mind was the same for almost everyone, for they all had to learn the same history, the same facts. Thought was based in memory, which was based in “the law of participation” (49). Everything was taken as fact. There had not been time to discern whether a “fact” could be false. There was now time to ponder, since all other knowledge was preserved and available to us to consult in a concrete form. “Once the reader found himself set free to compose a language of theory, with its abstract subjects and conceptualized predicates, he also realized that he was employing new mental energies” (Havelock 49). New theories, new ways of thinking were born. Instead of taking everything at face value, man was now free to question to world. Instead of observing the way things were, man could now delve into why they were. By investigating, man could discover the basis and causes for actions. Instead of assuming that the Gods controlled everything, man discovered why and how things worked. In finding out how something worked, man could now learn how to foster it, if it was good, and eliminate it, if it was bad. This is how medicine came to be. Using reasoning, man found the cause of an ailment. Experimenting with variables, he could test what would stop it. An ailment did not necessarily mean death because cures and treatments were discovered. If a family member moved away, it was not necessarily goodbye forever. Communication could now be spread to other regions. New laws came into practice as theories on how to improve life were tested and proven to work. The old ones had kept society at a stand-still. Man did not have to assume that life always had to be that way it was; could it be better?

Socrates was right and wrong. Manuscript did not cause him and the rest of the masters and their works to lose respect, but allowed them to be revered throughout centuries. And while we have stopped using our memories as libraries, but for a good reason: when manuscript culture freed people’s minds, they were able to explore new and different subjects. The new accumulation of knowledge was too much to store in people’s minds; an external storage system had to be developed. As new knowledge emerged, society grew. Man had time to question why and how the world and its elements worked. “Without modern literacy, which means Greek literacy, we would not have science, philosophy, written law or literature, nor the automobile or the airplanes” (Biakolo 43). Books preserved what the mind did not have the capacity to hold, allowing society to move forward. “The foreign and unfamiliar no longer constituted a threat to a stable grasp of reality, because the ever-expanding frontiers of knowledge demand newer and newer measures of the true, the good, and the beautiful” (45).

Works Cited

Biakolo, Emevwo. "On the theoretical foundations of orality and literacy." Research in African Literatures. 30:2 (summer 99): 42-86. EBSCOhost. Seton Hill University Greensburg, PA. 7 Mar 2008

Chafe, Wallace. “Integration and Involvement in Speaking, Writing, and Oral Literature.” Spoken and Written Language: Exploring Orality and Literacy. Ed. Deborah Tannen. Norwood: Albex, 1982.

Havelock, Eric. The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Guttenberg Galaxy. Toronto: University of Toronto
Press, 1967.

Napora , Joe. "Orality and Literacy, Intimacy and Alienation: the internal, external, contradictions of teaching composition ." Changing English: Studies in Reading & Culture 9:1(Mar 2002): 67-76. EBSCOhost. Seton Hill University Greensburg, PA. 7 Mar 2008

Plato. "Phaedrus." Writing Material: Readings from Plato to the Digital Age. Evelyn Tribble and Anne Trubek. New York: Longman, 2003. pgs. 360- 364.

Sundiata. "Two versions of an oral tale." Writing Material: Readings from Plato to the Digital Age. Evelyn Tribble and Anne Trubek. New York: Longman, 2003. pgs. 443-452.

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