Socrates Hates the Alphabet

360px-Socrates_LouvreThis week, I am going to cheat. These few paragraphs are too good to pass up. And I will give credit where it’s due: Rob Kapilow, from his book All You Have to Do Is Listen (page 91-93).

Though we have a modern aversion to memorization, “more than two thousand years ago Socrates feared that the loss of memory would be an inevitable by-product of the discovery of the ‘brand-new’ phonetic alphabet.” [!!!] According to Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates worried that:

“This discovery will created 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 [alphabet] which you have discovered is an aid not to memory but to recollection, and gives only a semblance of truth; they will hear much and learn nothing; they will appear to know much and generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, for they will seem wise without being wise.”

Kapilow adds,

“It is fascinating that Socrates’ belief was echoed by Native Americans more than a thousand years later, when they made contact with white men for the first time. The tribes that met the settlers were astonished by their need to write things down and assumed this could only be a reflection of the White Man’s inferiority and weak memory. In fact, the Shoshone word for “white people” means “those who write things down.” Like the Greeks , the Indians prided themselves on the memory required to sustain their oral cultures, and since there was no need to transmit this knowledge outside of the tribe, there was no need for writing. For Socrates, like Native Americans, real engagement came through memory, not through the written word. When you memorized something, you internalized it, took possession of it, made it your own, made it live inside of you. Writing it down kept it separate and removed. Outside of you. Today, however, we seem to believe the opposite. We think of memorization as a mechanical, distancing activity producing no real engagement with the memorized material, simply the ability to parrot it back.”

Why then, do we also use an unusual phrase to indicate memorization that itself suggests the intimacy of the connection: “by heart”?

Kapilow continues, “As Socrates suggests, for both the listener and the performer [Kapilow was referencing the memorization of music], the process of memorization creates intense engagement with the thing being remembered.” [Italics mine]

Want an intense engagement with God? Perhaps we would do well to think of this when we avoid the memorization of Scripture. How else to keep it close to us, to know it “by heart”?