The letter kills but the spirit gives life (1): The Paradox of the Seventh Letter and the Platonic Method
Biological life and death are superficial aspects of real life and death. That’s my understanding of the New Testament and many spiritual traditions. When Paul of Tarsus says that “the letter kills but the spirit gives life” his point is that the moral law brings real death to any who violate it but that the Spirit of God can bring real life to that person.
In these two posts I want to think with you about another aspect of real life and death: the ways in which literature and philosophy can bring life and death. First (of course), philosophy.
We all know about the Socratic Method. When Plato praises spoken dialogue over the written word, I am suggesting here, he means to lead us by example to a different method for doing philosophy, which we may label the Platonic Method.
Plato asks the question of spirit versus letter in the Seventh Letter and the Phaedrus. I’ll begin by reminding you of his thoughts on the matter, thoughts which seem to lead to a paradox. First, from the Seventh Letter.
“There neither is nor ever will be a treatise of mine on the subject [of the good and the just and the honorable]. For it does not admit of exposition like other branches of knowledge; but after much converse about the matter itself and a life lived together, suddenly a light, as it were, is kindled in one soul by a flame that leaps to it from another, and thereafter sustains itself. … I do not think it a good thing for men that there should be a disquisition, as it is called, on this topic.”
“No man of intelligence will venture to express his philosophical views in language, especially not in language that is unchangeable, which is true of that which is set down in written characters.”
Now from Phaedrus. Socrates tells how a famous old god named Thoth brought many arts to the people and explained their virtues to Thamus, the god who was king ofEgypt.
“When they came to letters, this, said Thoth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Thoth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”
Socrates agrees with Thamus.
I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence.
The silence of letters, the unresponsiveness of letters to enquiry, is at the heart of Plato’s criticism in both texts. As Mevlana says, silence is the most certain indicator of death: there is death in letters, and that explains their silence in the face of the most earnest enquiry. They do not display intelligence. They do not display even artificial intelligence: the greatest book is stupider than the simplest robot.
Plato’s attack is not on the word. It is on the written word. The word, the Logos, is the expression of the Spirit, as much for Plato as for Paul of Tarsus. The written word, the letter, is the dry and lifeless residue the Word has left behind. Thus Phaedrus will praise “the living word of knowledge which has a soul, and of which the written word is properly no more than an image.” Socrates concludes that “he who knows the just and good and honourable … will not seriously incline to “write” his thoughts “in water” with pen and ink, sowing words which can neither speak for themselves nor teach the truth adequately to others.”
The denigration of the written word on the grounds of its unresponsiveness to the reader is what generates the Paradox of the Seventh Letter. Plato writes a disquisition in which he says “I do not think it a good thing for men that there should be a disquisition.” He writes against writing, and he writes many hundreds of pages. We ought to learn something by unraveling the paradox, for Plato couldn’t possibly have missed the irony as he wrote.
Part of the answer is that the Seventh Letter is not the sort of thing he preferred to write. He wrote dialogues (like the Phaedrus) rather than disquisitions. – True, but how do the dialogues escape Plato’s criticisms of disquisitions? A dialogue can’t answer if you respond to one of the characters, any more than a disquisition can.
One attractive idea is that a dialogue invites the reader to participate. This is what we advise our students of Plato to do. – True, but we also advise readers of Aristotle’s and Russell’s disquisitions to do the same.
Another attractive idea is that Plato’s dialogues call on us to imitate Socrates and to interrogate our own preconceptions as he interrogated Meno and Euthyphro. – True again, but any philosophical disquisitionist calls on us to imitate him as well in his ruthless self-examination, for example Descartes in his Meditations or Chisholm in his chisholming. And in fact we see a lot more self-criticism in Descartes and Chisholm than we see in Socrates. As Nietzsche says, Socrates gave the agon-loving Greeks one more agon – one more contest or competition – constantly looking for a prot-agonist so he could be an ant-agonist, perhaps seeking the ultimate agon in which Soul confronts Death. Not much of a model for one seeking life.
Perhaps a sounder suggestion is that Plato invites us to imitate not Socrates but Plato himself. Socrates only participated in dialogues; Plato created them. Socrates took one side; Plato gave expression to both sides, in imagination creating each of them. So when he gave us not only Diotima but Aristophanes in the Symposium he created two myths about love that will never die, and one was a myth he did not even accept.
Alfred North Whitehead reveres Plato, but he does so for the wrong reason. He writes in Process and Reality
The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them. His personal endowments, his wide opportunities for experience at a great period of civilization, his inheritance of an intellectual tradition not yet stiffened by excessive systematization, have made his writing an inexhaustible mine of suggestion.
Footnotes, though, are only words. Written words. If Plato’s heritage were only words, the words wouldn’t be worth reading. Yes, the words of philosophers contain “a wealth of general ideas” which are a mine for anyone looking for ideas. But philosophy is the search for wisdom, not the search for ideas.
My conclusion: there is life in Plato’s dialogues because they encourage dialogue within the mind of the reader. If you are capable of holding a conversation with yourself the ideas will follow. If you have only ideas they are dead, as dead as letters.