Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The written word as a potion for reminding, not for remembering

In a remark about the truly oral nature of Jewish teaching before its commission to writing in the Mishna and Gemara, Samuel David Luzzatto footnotes the following:

Which means:

*In relation to this precaution of the ancient Hebrew scholars, a passage from Plato (toward the end of Phaedrus) is notable, where he introduces the Egyptian king Tamus, speaking with Theuth, the inventor of writing:

Or, see the *nicer translation cited by Rubin in his edition of the Prologemeni (pp. 7-8):

"and now, since you are the father of writing, your affection for it has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are. In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who will learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external characters and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so."

This post, by the way, is itself an excellent illustration of this in certain ways. Let us look at various elements of this post, which could give the impression of greater learning and knowledge on my part, than I actually have:

For starters, there is the matter of access. It would have been no small thing to pull out a copy of a slim Italian volume on Hebrew printed only one time, in 1836. Now, instead of visiting a research library, I simply downloaded it, made a little image and posted it. Furthermore, I don't really know Italian, so I used Rubin's translation of the little bit before Shadal's Latin quote. Next, I had never read Phaedrus before. In fact, I didn't even know there was a bit about the invention of writing in it. Even though I only learned of it from Shadal's quote (he knew Phaedrus) I could have pretended to greater erudition by either leaving him out of the picture, or simply not admitting that I hadn't read it. Then, I could have only posted the translation of the Latin which Rubin quoted (it's not his own translation). Or, I could have made my own translation using any of a dozen ones I could have found online. I could have posted the Greek original and made it seem as though I translated it. I chose to post an English translation from 1792, getting back to my original point about access. In short, this post took about five minutes, required nothing more than my having taken Luzzatto's point (relating it to תשבע"פ) as interesting and provocative, and I could have done it in such a way that really showed me to be more broadly learned than I am. This is not exactly the same as book-learning vs memory and internalization, but I think there is a parallel. Today, it's easy to be a faker or "concordance scholar", as Saul Lieberman mockingly called it.

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