Presence of the Word – Plato’s Take

Spoken words are events, engaged in time and indeed in the present. Plato’s ideas were the polar opposite: not events at all, but motionless “objective” existence, impersonal, and out of time. (34).

Ong, Walter J. The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History. The Terry Lectures. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967.

While I have written in the past on Plato’s view and detailed various arguments from The Phaedrus, it is worth again addressing here, since Ong discusses it in this text. What we get from Plato is, essentially, a solid commitment to the spoken word and a strong aversion to the written word, believing it an approximation of the spoken word, which is actually an approximation of thought. He did write down certain things, such as some of Socrates’ teachings. However, the style was very unlike that of oral, and he strongly affirmed that “one cannot not put what is really essential to wisdom in writing, for this is to falsify it, and noting in The Phaedrus (274) that writing serves merely recall, not memory or wisdom” (55).

In this era, we consider writing to have a purpose beyond what Plato sees. We use it for writing, for memory, for entertainment, etc., and certainly to gain wisdom. We also use it to record thoughts, conversations, and ideas in a way that was not used, and perhaps not essential, in antiquity. However, in both eras, speech is still preferable.

“In all human cultures the spoken word appears as the closest sensory equivalent of fully developed interior thought” (138).

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