For the ancients to whom writing was still something of a novelty and the hight of magical craft, there was already a profound distrust to what it portends. Perhaps because those who mastered it were less likely to be mastered by it: they understood their craft. Nowadays, that reading and writing have become so normalised that everyone can more or less do it, people seem way more naive and susceptible to its power and effect. Moreover: during a quarantine where the interface of communication is no longer primarily face to face, and is replaced by a screen which is mediated and moderated by inscrutable algorithms: language has come under the threat of being bastardised even further from the living source that should be the father and mother of our thought.
In a world that has been ripped open and apart by the over saturation of information, we are drifting ever further away from the birthplace of language: dialogue. Some would say we have never been chatting so much, but they tend to forget that dialogue in writing is radically different than talking in living and breathing presence. Some have argued that the onset of social media has reinvigorated an oral culture, to the detriment of literary culture (it is said the kids can barely read anymore), because we are listening to the talking heads on youtube and their favourite podcasts…. but this is a profound misjudgement. In his critique of writing in Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates says:
”Writing shares a strange feature with painting. The offsprings of painting stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent. The same is true of written words. You’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever. When it has once been written down, every discourse rolls about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it, and it doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not.” Phaedrus 275d
The same holds true for the videos we watch and the casts to which we listen: they might not be exactly silent, but they remain artefacts that continue to signify just that very same thing forever: they are not really present and will remain unresponsive. The artefact is alienated from context, and does not know to whom it is speaking. The presence of the listener is passive, with the information passing through them and into them, like a cul-de-sac, rather than a two way street. It is thus more akin to writing than it is to dialogue. The speech present in media is a bastard form of language, similar to how writing is a bastard form of language. And if the listener or reader is not careful, they threaten to become the dead-end of the process that is the bastardisation of thought: a vessel filled with dead letters and empty slogans that swarm the mind like a plague.
Earlier in the Phaedrus Socrates regales the Egyptian myth of how writing got introduced. How the god of artifice, of math, astronomy, games and dice: Thoth, offered his invention of writing to Thamus, the kind of the gods. “This invention, O king,” said Thoth,
“will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.” to which Thamus replied “O most ingenious Thoth, the parent or inventor of an art is apparently not the most suited to judge the utility of his own invention. For you, who art the father of letters, because of your paternal love for your children, have been led to attribute to them a quality which they do not have. These letters will create a forgetfulness in the learner’s souls, because they will not use their memories, they will instead have faith in the external written characters. This writing which you have discovered is not an aid to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.” Phaedrus 274e
The strangest thing about our current time is that so many people hold their own opinions in such high regard, while they are blindly repeating the figments they’ve read or heard between the fodder in our news-feed feeding troughs. And then to imagine that writing in the time of Thoth and Themus was still in its infancy… nothing compared to the juggernaut it was to become. The cruel joke that would become of the apparent omniscience of those who hold the world’s library at their vinger tips, but regurgitate at hyper speed the lowest common denominator among them.
This article I read this morning by D.C. Schindler: ‘Social Media Is Hate Speech: a Platonic Reflection on Contemporary Misology’ about how social media is hate speech, or what is termed ‘misology’, similar to misogyny, but of logos, of thought, makes a crucial observation: “We are experiencing today, in our “social media” culture, a rather paradoxical phenomenon regarding language. On the one hand, we appear to trivialize speech in a manner that would have astonished earlier ages: not only do we broadcast every thought without discretion, but we do so with a patent disregard for form. On the other hand, we appear to absolutize speech in an equally astonishing way, extracting a person’s words or phrases in complete ignorance of concrete and historical context and loading them with a weight that exceeds their evident carrying capacity. Do we take words too seriously, or not seriously enough?”
I would say both: we take words way too serious, and not serious enough. We are way too naive concerning the effects of words on our conception of reality, and we take our crude understanding of reality to be worth way too much. We take our opinions as absolute, and deride those of others as the bleating of sheep. And then confine our media diet to only those that support us in our idiocy. All this contributes to the entrenchment of an already beleaguered state of thought, and makes it impossible to have dialogue, to step across from our limited state of mind and connect.
This is idiocy. Like I always like to tell my pupils: stupidity is not a lack of knowledge, but a surplus of lacking knowledge. Wisdom starts knowing you know shit. The realisation that you’re an idiot, that I’m an idiot, opens up the space for engagement… challenging each other and learning form each other. But everyone is acting like a little bitch: whingeing that respect means that we have basically nothing to say against each other’s limited perspective, because we supposedly have the right to our own opinion, on the one hand, and at the other deeming some opinions illegal to even consider.
I find it baffling the amount of people unfriending me because I had the audacity to engage with them. To take them serious enough to disagree with them… to take the time to think together, to have an attempt at dialogue and confront our own inner most stupidity and idiocy, and the lunacy that’s swarming around us. To stand still somewhat more slowly, and think. But apparently, people love their trenches, and will defend them rather than listening to each other, so as to be able to remain locked-down within their self.
When Socrates lived the ancient Greek world was crumbling: it stood on the precipice of turning into an empire. Its democracy had turned corrupt, swindlers abusing the powers of their speech to manipulate the machinations of power. Alexander the Great, pupil of Aristotle, would usher in a new era that ripped apart the world from Greece to the Indus Valley, divided amongst his Diadochi, bringing the cultures of the Hellenic world together under the aegis of the Greek, mixing together the Persian, the Egyptian and the Hebrew and countless forgotten tribes. Which was all gathered in the library of Alexandria, collecting the world’s knowledge… a mirror image of the tower of Babel, only to see it all burn to the ground and crumble into dust with the Romans and the Christians and their faith in dead letters.
It is a shame though so much of it is lost to memory, however distrustful we should be towards writing. To be able to reminisce is better than not to remember at all. The image of Thoth was sometimes that of an ibis, sometimes that of a baboon holding a crescent moon. People and their faith in writing often feel too much like fucking monkeys reaching for the moon. Especially those who came after this ancient world of heathens, and believed that God wrote books, and that books were holy, rather than the life and love that was in front of their eyes. They forgot all about that.
They still do forget about that, even now that people have lost their faith more generally: in God, in governments, in science, in the good. They seem to only still have faith in themselves and their stupid opinions. And even those are easily triggered, easily manipulated. The reason Thoth was imaged as an Ibis was that its beak looked like a crescent moon, and somewhere in stones of the ancient world it stood written: “the Ibises who are here, difficult is their food, painful is their mode of life.” I would like to end this sermon today by quoting Nietzsche: (check this for translation)
“Von allem Geschriebenen liebe ich nur das, was einer mit seinem Blute schreibt. Schreibe mit Blut: und du wirst erfahren, daß Blut Geist ist.
Es ist nicht leicht möglich, fremdes Blut zu verstehen: ich hasse die lesenden Müßiggänger.
Wer den Leser kennt, der tut nichts mehr für den Leser. Noch ein Jahrhundert Leser – und der Geist selber wird stinken.
Daß jedermann lesen lernen darf, verdirbt auf die Dauer nicht allein das Schreiben, sondern auch das Denken. Einst war der Geist Gott, dann wurde er zum Menschen, und jetz wird er gar noch Pöbel.
Wer in Blut und Sprüchen schreibt, der will nicht gelesen, sondern auswendig gelernt werden.
Im Gebirge ist der nächste Weg von Gipfel zu Gipfel: aber dazu mußt du lange Beine haben. Sprüche sollen Gipfel sein: und die, zu denen gesprochen wird, Große und Hochwüchsige.
Die Luft dünn und rein, die Gefahr nahe und der Geist voll einer fröhlichen Bosheit: so paßt es gut zueinander. Ich will Kobolde um mich haben, denn ich bin mutig.
Mut, der die Gespenster verscheucht, schafft sich selber Kobolde, – der Mut will lachen.
Ich empfinde nicht mehr mit euch: diese Wolke, die ich unter mir sehe, diese Schwärze und Schwere, über die ich lache – gerade das ist eure Gewitterwolke.
Ihr seht nach oben, wenn ihr nach Erhebung verlangt. Und ich sehe hinab, weil ich erhoben bin.
Wer von euch kann zugleich lachen und erhoben sein?
Wer auf den höchsten Bergen steigt, der lacht über alle Trauer-Spiele und Trauer-Ernste.
Mutig, unbekümmert, spöttisch, gewalttätig – so will uns die Weisheit: sie ist ein Weib und liebt immer nur einen Kriegsmann.
Ihr sagt mir: »das Leben ist schwer zu tragen.« Aber wozu hättet ihr vormittags euren Stolz und abends eure Ergebung?
Das Leben ist schwer zu tragen: aber so tut mir doch nicht so zärtlich! Wir sind allesamt hübsche lastbare Esel und Eselinnen.
Was haben wir gemein mit der Rosenknospe, welche zittert, weil ihr ein Tropfen Tau auf dem Leibe liegt?
Es ist wahr: wir lieben das Leben, nicht, weil wir ans Leben, sondern weil wir ans Lieben gewöhnt sind.
Es ist immer etwas Wahnsinn in der Liebe. Es ist aber immer auch etwas Vernunft im Wahnsinn.
Und auch mir, der ich dem Leben gut bin, scheinen Schmetterlinge und Seifenblasen und was ihrer Art unter Menschen ist, am meisten vom Glücke zu wissen.
Diese leichten törichten zierlichen beweglichen Seelchen flattern zu sehen – das verführt Zarathustra zu Tränen und Liedern.
Ich würde nur an einen Gott glauben, der zu tanzen verstünde.
Und als ich meinen Teufel sah, da fand ich ihn ernst, gründlich, tief, feierlich; es war der Geist der Schwere – durch ihn fallen alle Dinge.
Nicht durch Zorn, sondern durch Lachen tötet man. Auf, laßt uns den Geist der Schwere töten!
Ich habe gehen gelernt: seitdem lasse ich mich laufen. Ich habe fliegen gelernt: seitdem will ich nicht erst gestoßen sein, um von der Stelle zu kommen.
Jetzt bin ich leicht, jetzt fliege ich, jetzt sehe ich mich unter mir, jetzt tanzt ein Gott durch mich.”
Also sprach Zarathustra.