Classics 217 Plato Essay 3 - Classics 217 The Purpose of...

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Classics 217 The Purpose of Plato’s Attack on Writing in Phaedrus Plato’s attack on writing in Phaedrus can be partly interpreted as the philosopher’s conservative rejection of a contemporary intellectual trend in Greek culture—the increasing reliance on written works. The long-established method of transmitting knowledge had been through speeches and oral recitation passed down through generations. As laws, records, archives, and books started being printed, individuals did not need to remember works, but could simply rely on books as a reference. Within his assault on texts, Plato advocates for the preservation of spoken discourse. Interestingly, Socrates builds a circular defense of oral transmission based on “what I’ve heard from our ancestors” (274), or the story of Theuth and Ammon. This is not recorded history, but myth, the epitome of oral tradition. It is highly probable that the story is not factual. Yet Socrates holds up the story as unquestionably true, and rebukes Phaedrus’s mockery of “made up tales from Egypt” (275). To Plato, the prophetic myths contain truth because they are passed down through generations, morphing and acquiring different aspects with each telling. Oral traditions are universal and archetypal, containing within themselves the imprints of each past generation of listeners. Even if they came from “an oak,” myths provide memory, while writings are only a pale imitation, or a remedy ( pharmakon ) for memory. The oak is an apt image because it is firmly rooted to the ground, as opposed to writing, which is open to misinterpretation and can “roll about all over the place” (70) without the author there defending it. In addition, the tree continues to grow and provide fruit and shade for many years. Spoken discourse also morphs and offers different insights depending on the audience. The image of the oak also recalls the tree under which the two
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men sit as they conduct their discourse. Just as the dialogue represented by the oak allows the
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Classics 217 Plato Essay 3 - Classics 217 The Purpose of...

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