Volume 11, Issue 2, Spring 2007
Lawrence J. Hatab
Writing Knowledge in the Soul
Orality, Literacy, and Plato’s Critique of Poetry
In this essay I take up Plato’s critique of poetry, which has little to do with epistemology and representational imitation, but rather the powerful effects that poetic
performances can have on audiences, enthralling them with vivid image-worlds and blocking the powers of critical reflection. By focusing on the perceived psychological dangers of poetry in performance and reception, I want to suggest that Plato’s critique was caught up in the larger story of momentous shifts in the Greek world, turning on the rise of literacy and its far-reaching effects in modifying the original and persisting oral character of Greek culture. The story of Plato’s Republic in certain ways suggests something essential for comprehending the development of philosophy in Greece (and in any culture, I would add): that philosophy, as we understand it, would not have been possible apart from the skills and mental transformations stemming from education in reading and writing; and that primary features of oral language and practice were a significant barrier to the development of philosophical rationality (and also a worthy competitor for cultural status and authority). Accordingly, I go on to argue that the critique of writing in the Phaedrus is neither a defense or orality per se, nor a dismissal of writing, but rather a defense of a literate soul over against orality and the indiscriminate exposure of written texts to unworthy readers.