From Oral Language to Alphabet: An Exploration of the Alphabet’s Impact on Philosophy

Everyone knows of Socrates and Plato. Plato is the prodigious student who collected and articulated Socrates’ teachings in text. Together the two of them are known for founding, or at least kick starting, the whole field of Western Philosophy as we know it. One thing I never realised – and this is something I consider to be ground breaking – is that Socrates and Plato lived in an incredibly significant time in history. They witnessed in their life times the creation and subsequent mass integration of an incredible new technology: the alphabet.

Much like the children today, who grow up with iPads, iPhones and the world at their fingers, a new technology like the alphabet is likely to have huge effects on the mental states and ideas of the people who grow up utilising it.

Socrates and Plato were born at around 470 and 428 BC respectively. Whilst the Greek alphabet is known to have existed since around 800 BC, it was treated with much scepticism and it wasn’t until sometime around Plato’s lifetime that the alphabet began a gradual integration into Greek society.

Early Greek texts, such as the Iliad and the Odyssey are in fact oral texts. They are not written works, but rather, constructions of orally chanted poems. Homer was a rhapsode (a Greek term, meaning “to stitch song together”). He built upon classic stories in Greek tradition, dating from older bards than himself, prior to the Trojan War.

Pioneering research by Harvard classicists Parry and Lord in the 1930s popularised this idea, as they began to notice repeating phrases throughout the poems. (1) These phrases, such as “when Dawn spread out her fingertips of rose”, continually repeat throughout the texts, and further, certain phrases seem to be governed less by their content but by their rhythm. Since these ‘texts’ were preserved orally, they were given a structure that was memorable – like the hook in a song. This suggests that Homer, as the genius bard, was less like a novelist and more like Tupac or Biggie.

A bard, like Homer, most likely composing a sick 16 bars

Let us return to the alphabet and it’s integration into Athenian society. The earliest dates of young, Greek children being taught to read and write date back to Plato’s childhood. Like anything, it was met with initial doubt. This doubt is even present in Plato’s early work, despite him being the great pioneer of writing. Much like today, we worry how children growing up with touchscreen technology will be effected. The same thought ran parallel in ancient Greece – people wondered how the alphabet would affect the mental states of children. Would they become too used to externalised thought and forget how to use their internal minds? Would they become forgetful, incompetent and misinformed?

In the Phaedrus, Socrates relates a tale between an Egyptian king Thamus, and the God Thoth. Thoth makes the case that writing is beneficial to the masses, making them wiser and improving their memory, but Thamus concludes the people will be much better off without writing. He asserts the alphabet will “implant forgetfulness in their souls”, by causing memory to be attached to “external marks” (2).

Plato’s primary concern had to do with misrepresentation of the meaning hidden behind letters and words. This criticism of writing is peculiar to hear from such a pioneer, but he makes it clear that the written text should best serve not as an informative item in itself, but as a reminder to already learnt information. The text was best to serve as a static gathering of reflective reminders to students of his academy. This would prevent the student from radically misunderstand the text.

Despite these warnings, Plato went on to change the world with his writing. Most importantly, the alphabet itself catalysed many of Plato’s famous ideas – in particular, the idea of Forms. The alphabet meant that words such as “justice”, “beauty” and “temperance” were visible as stand alone concepts. This was a big deal: words like these had previously only been understood in their contextual situation. This is evidenced in the Socratic dialogues where Socrates asks whoever his interlocutor is to give an account of a word, yet all he gets in reply is a situation where the word is applicable.

For example, when pressed by Socrates into defining “virtue”, Meno simply accounts a large swarm of instances in which the action can be described as virtuous. Continue reading