Socrates and the Squid

Currently enjoying “Proust and the Squid” by Maryanne Wolf, the story of the development of the reading brain in humans. Wolf describes the origins of reading and writing from early Egyptian and Sumerian scripts and fascinatingly likens the current seismic shift from a written culture to one that is increasingly driven by visual images and massive streams of digital information, to the concerns of Socrates in ancient Greece that the transition from an oral tradition to a literate one would lead to a lack of virtue and discipline in young learners. His main concern was that while language was mainly spoken it required great feats of memory and strong discipline to master, while the invention of the written word encouraged people to be lazy. If speech and debate were dynamic and challenging, written language was by contrast a “dead discourse”. A more subtle concern was that because the written word could be mistaken for reality, or be assumed to be true, people could be deluded into thinking that they understood something when in fact they had only just begun to understand it, which would result in an empty arrogance, leading nowhere. Professor Wolf contends that this is akin to the concerns of many modern-day teachers and parents who watch their children spend endless hours in front of the computer, absorbing but not necessarily understanding huge amounts of information. Such quasi understanding would have been anathema to Socrates for whom true knowledge, wisdom and virtue were the only worthy aims of education.