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Do I need to read a lot of books - or even one?

Plato: Books can be your worst enemies

From: Plato, Phaedrus, translated by Benjamin Jowett  * Plato Home Page

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Page 5


On writing

Soc. But there is something yet to be said of propriety and impropriety of writing.
Phaedr. Yes.
Soc. Do you know how you can speak or act about rhetoric in a manner which will be acceptable to God?
Phaedr. No, indeed. Do you?
Soc. I have heard a tradition of the ancients, whether true or not they only know; although if we had found the truth ourselves, do you think that we should care much about the opinions of men?
Phaedr. Your question needs no answer; but I wish that you would tell me what you say that you have heard.


Writing creates forgetfulness and a tiresome company!

Soc. At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To Thamus came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create 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 specific which you have discovered is an aid not 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.


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Cf.  Rilke, Letter to a Young Poet | Kierkegaard, My work as an author
Emerson, Self-knowledge | Gibson - McRury, Discovering one's face | Emerson, We differ in art, not in wisdom

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