What do Martin Luther, Socrates (“The Greatest Conservationist of All Time”, Spayde, 2002), Diderot (“The Age of Voltaire”, Durant, 1965) and Goethe (“Rousseau and Revolution”, Durant, 1967) have in common? All four men were brilliant conversationalists. The act of conversation was hugely important for centuries, to the point of being called an art form. But when we think of art, we think paintings, music sheets, books, etc. The words we speak are not normally preserved, unless we use the written word.
When you bring the written word into the equation, you must take Socrates out of the list. Our buddy Wes Cecil reminds us that written materials “are important to us, [but] not nearly as important to [the Greeks].” Then, in Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, he has Socrates say people learning to write “implants forgetfulness in their souls” and creates “the conceit of wisdom”. However much of the Socrates in Plato’s dialogues resembles the real Socrates is debatable. It is true there are no written works by Socrates himself. But we being writers, how should we respond to this line of reasoning? What is the relationship between written and spoken word?
I feel I need to defend the written word, even against geniuses such as Plato and Socrates. It is true that writing can replace memory, but it doesn’t have to. A student taking notes in class does so for two reasons. One, to help him/her memorize. Two, if he/she forget, he/she have something to come back to, to reinforce the information. We must avoid falling into a false dilemma. It is not as if writing is bad. It is not as if speaking is bad. Neither are going away and both have value.
Actual conversation, even if an art form, seems to be a dying one. Think about news programs. Often, someone interviews two people who disagree. Both parties tend to talk over each other, and feelings get contentious. The interviewer as to act as a referee. But the word “conversation”, Wes Cecil explains, comes from a Latin word meaning “to live with”. It is very hard to live with someone whom you are angry at–whom you can barely listen to without interrupting them.
True conversation is supposed to be respectful. This is where we struggle as a culture, for respectfulness does not mean you cannot disagree with the person. Many of us feel personally attacked when someone disagrees with us. I have made this mistake before. But becoming offended over a disagreement is the death of conversation. Variety makes the world go ’round. We should separate the person and their ideas. Conversation is, at its best, an exchange of ideas. That must be why Plato wrote dialogues and not boring treatises. The universe is not made of easy answers. Conversation helps you come closer to the truth than you would by yourself.
But what is left to us is the written material. Goethe’s Faust, Diderot’s Alembert’s Dream, and Luther’s Large Catechism. Conversations with Eckermann is Goethe’s conversation written down and Table Talk is Luther’s conversation written down. If we had no letters, or if the conversations had not been jotted down, we might not know either men were great conversationalists.
Going back to Socrates, how do we know of him then? Other people wrote about him. Being the maverick that he was, he attracted a lot of attention from admirers and detractors. Besides Plato, there are two other major sources: the philosopher and historian Xenophon and the playwright Aristophanes.
There is irony then in Plato’s, or Socrates’, denouncement of writing. Think of all the history that would be–to paraphrase W. H. Auden, “undeservedly forgotten”–without letters, treatises, pamphlets. Then there was Johannes Gutenberg! This admirable German invented the printing press, probably one of the most important inventions in the history of mankind. This allowed the written word to spread. With this came the spread of literacy and ideas. With the spread of literacy and ideas came something new entirely: a well-informed populace. A well-informed populace creates a better world.
What is important is communication. The written-word and the spoken-word are both different yet effective ways to get ideas across. When we cease to communicate, a part of us dies. I worry that a part of us is dying as a type this. But I realize I am starting to sound melodramatic, so let me explain.
We are getting use to quick phone calls and text messages. We drive around in cars and kill time by surfing the web. We can talk to thousands of people all over the world. We spend less time hanging out with friends, entertaining a few intimates at home and going to picnics. Heck, my first post here was on letter-writing and how that intimacy has been lost.
Then you have the question of visual media. Most of us watch YouTube videos, go to movie theatres and watch television or Netflix. It reminds me of something Holden Caufield says in The Catcher in The Rye. He is talking about his brother B.D., a writer, and he says:
He used to be just a regular writer when he was home…Now he’s off in Hollywood, B.D., being a prostitute. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies. Don’t ever mentioned them to be.
Holden’s brother is a prostitute, for no other reason than writing for Hollywood. But Holden’s dismissal of cinema is not completely unwarranted. People being surrounded by visual mediums takes away from the language aspect of communication. Personal exchanges tend to be something like this:
Jill: Hey, how’re you?
Jack: Good, and you?
Jill: I’m fine, what’s up?
Jack: The usual.
We all tend to do this now. So, to cure ourselves, we should all try to speak, read and write more often. Send a short hand-written note to a friend. Read a thought-provoking book cover to cover. Try to talk intimately with someone. Remember, The pen truly is mightier than the sword.