The Phaedrus, to pilfer a phrase Socrates himself uses in the same dialogue, is a “beast more complex than Typhon” (230a). But our fascination does not extend equally to each of the many topics brought up in this dialogue. One of the areas of interest for many readers happens to be “speech” as such, discussed near the end of the dialogue. Plato’s antagonistic critique of the written word often garners the immediate attention of those coming to the dialogue for the first time. The conspicuous attention this critique demands is understandable. The “attack” on the written word comes within the context of the written word. That is to say, a dialogue, composed of written words itself, is criticizing the written word.
The main points against writing are as follows:
1) Writing is a crutch for memory. Instead of aiding our memory, writing disables our latent ability to know something within ourselves (275a-b).
2) Writing is not dynamic. It cannot answer questions, but must resort to its author to resolve any difficulties brought about by its misuse or misunderstanding (275d-e).
3) Writing is not personalized. Writing has no detailed knowledge of the soul of the listener, and therefore lacks the requisite adaptation to this soul that speech requires (276e).
Whether one agrees with this list of shortcomings, one could at least sympathize with the thrust of the criticism. Perhaps these are the pitfalls of the written word, one could admit, but there are also benefits. A book, for instance, “lives” longer than its author. Also, one cannot well go on changing his opinion if it has once been laid out in black and white. The written word is not fickle: to turn objection number 2 on its head, it says the same thing forever.
However, neglecting the relative worth of the written word for a moment, it is quite another thing for Plato, on his own principles, to act as if the written word were the proxy for the author himself. This would seem a clear contradiction of the implicit principle at work throughout the entire polemic against writing, namely, that writing is not a person. But this is in fact what we do see.
Phaedrus: In reality, Socrates, I did not at all learn the very words [of Lysias’ speech]; however I did learn the intention of nearly all the speeches, in which ways the lover differs from the non-lover. I will go through summarizing each of them in order, beginning from the first.
Socrates: …showing me first what you have in your right hand under your cloak. For I guess that you have the speech itself. And consider this about me, that I really am partial to you, but when Lysias is present, it is not at all seemly to provide myself to you for practice. But go on and show me.
τῷ ὄντι γάρ, ὦ Σώκρατες, παντὸς μᾶλλον τά γε ῥήματα οὐκ ἐξέμαθον: τὴν μέντοι διάνοιαν σχεδὸν ἁπάντων, οἷς ἔφη διαφέρειν τὰ τοῦ ἐρῶντος ἢ τὰ τοῦ μή, ἐν κεφαλαίοις ἕκαστον ἐφεξῆς δίειμι, ἀρξάμενος ἀπὸ τοῦ πρώτου.
δείξας γε πρῶτον, ὦ φιλότης, τί ἄρα ἐν τῇ ἀριστερᾷ ἔχεις ὑπὸ τῷ ἱματίῳ: τοπάζω γάρ σε ἔχειν τὸν λόγον αὐτόν. εἰ δὲ τοῦτό ἐστιν, οὑτωσὶ διανοοῦ περὶ ἐμοῦ, ὡς [228ε] ἐγώ σε πάνυ μὲν φιλῶ, παρόντος δὲ καὶ Λυσίου, ἐμαυτόν σοι ἐμμελετᾶν παρέχειν οὐ πάνυ δέδοκται. ἀλλ᾽ ἴθι, δείκνυε.
Phaedrus here stops his game, and confesses to hiding the speech, as the pair seeks a suitable spot to stop and read the speech.
Well before the critique of writing begins, at 275, Socrates is coaxing Phaedrus to share with him the latest speech of Lysias. As is clear from the context, Phaedrus disavows any verbatim knowledge of the speech, but nevertheless is surreptitiously attempting to practice his unskilled rhetoric on Socrates. Socrates will brook none of it, and demands to see Lysias himself. What is it that we readers expect, before having been subjected to the critique of writing, when Socrates makes this demand? As Plato probably anticipated, our reaction as readers was probably an expectation that “Lysias” was actually the written speech of Lysias himself. If this is the case though, how can this be reconciled with the later idea that the written is only a limited representation of the author and not at all the person proper? Why does Socrates, given what we know he will defend later, use a speech as a proxy for Lysias’ presence?
The most obvious answer is that Socrates wishes to “out” Lysias as a writer of speeches. He will not allow Lysias to speak beyond the boundaries of his created medium. As such, Socrates creates a notable dichotomy between this speech and the speeches that he himself will offer.
More curious however, is the presumption that while Lysias’ speech is static, with all its concomitant problems, Socrates’ offered speeches are not. Is there any reason to believe that Socrates own speeches are exempt from the pitfalls of writing I highlighted above?
We can imagine that the conversation with Phaedrus is different because Socrates handcrafts a couple different speeches to Phaedrus himself, along, of course, with the intervening discourse we read in between the speeches and framing the entire dialogue. But on to a greater discrepancy: What about the dialogue itself? The dialogue itself is not crafted to our personal needs, is it? The simple answer is no. Charitably, we must admit that such personalization is impossible in a dialogue format, because it is, as Socrates notes of written work in general, mute and unchanging. However, it does model conversation between Socrates and Phaedrus, which, in the context of the philosophical conversation about speech, is easily expandable into our own situations by way of analogy. Furthermore, and more obviously, the dialogue quite clearly makes the point that the written is limited in so far as it cannot answer questions and respond, although this criticism cannot be sustained with the same force as it can with a dialogue. The dialogue genre, while nevertheless written, seems to be the most endurable, the most tolerable, form of the written.
The dialogue is different.