How Socrates Predicted the Internet

Before getting into my subject, I would like to pause to salute those men and women who serve and have served in our armed forces. Today, more than ever, their service is dangerous and all the more necessary. Thank you all.

I am old-fashioned and not ashamed of it. Trends that I see among my children (who are in their 30s and 40s) and among the college students I teach concern me. None more so than their reliance on electronic devices and their unwillingness to memorize/remember anything.

As much as I try not to, I sometimes fall into the trap. Because I now have a smart phone, I don’t know my children’s phone numbers. All I have to do is press an icon to call them. (I started to say “dial” them, but that concept is antediluvian.) And yet I can remember the phone number of the girl I dated in eighth grade—MA9-7462—and my 12th-grade sweetheart—244-3149.

We don’t need to remember such things anymore. Someone has said that smart phones and Google make bar bets and arguments obsolete and make us stupid. We can get information instantly, so we don’t have to remember anything. But everybody can get that information, and how do we know if it’s accurate? Wikipedia articles can be edited by anyone at any time. Anyone can create a “fact” on any site on the web.

A student recently asked me about how a man in ancient Greece would propose marriage to a woman by throwing an apple to her. I asked him where he got that idea. He said it came off a Snapple cap. Of course, one of the first places I look for solid, well-researched information.

I did some searching and found several sites that passed this nugget along as fact. None of them were academic sites, but one did refer to “Plato, Epigram VII” as the source. Now we’re getting somewhere. In his biography of Plato, Diogenes Laertius inserts several snippets of poetry allegedly written by the philosopher. Scholarly opinion of their authenticity is divided. One of the epigrams does say, “I throw an apple to you and, if indeed you are willing to love me, then receive it and let me taste your virgin charms. But if you are otherwise minded (may the gods forbid) take this very apple and see how short-lived all beauty is.”

But here’s the kicker. The poem is dedicated to a young man named Agathon and has nothing to do with marriage. The author just wants to shag the young fellow. The whole apple-throwing image no doubt comes from the story of the Judgment of Paris. The goddess Eris (Discord) tossed an apple into a wedding party, to which she had not been invited. It was labeled “For the Fairest.” Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite each claimed it. Paris, son of the king of Troy, was appointed to judge the beauty contest. Long story short, the Trojan War. Anyone in ancient Greece would have recognized the allusion in this poem. Today most people would probably think of “Trojan War” as a dispute over condoms.

No Greek man could have proposed marriage to a woman in this fashion. In that society marriages were arranged between families. The bride (usually age 14 or 15) and the groom (usually age 30+) had probably never laid eyes on each other before the wedding. Greek women did not stroll around in the streets, ready to catch flying fruit, unless they were prostitutes.

What does all this have to do with Socrates and the internet? In Plato’s Phaedrus (274Eff) Socrates tells the story of the god Theuth inventing writing. When Theuth shows his invention to the king of Egypt, he claims, “Here is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory. I have discovered a potion for memory and for wisdom.” But the king replied, “Your affection for your invention has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are. In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it. They will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own . . . .You provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.”

I cannot think of a better description of many people I know who derive most of their information from the internet.

Socrates goes on to say, “Writing shares a strange feature with painting. The offspring 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 word roams 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.” [my emphasis]

There—not quite in a nutshell—is the fundamental weakness of the internet and of our system based on it. Socrates the philosopher, in this case, sounds more like the Socrates the prophet.

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5 Responses

  1. Your words strike home to me, Albert, far more than an apple might do, flying at my head. Daily I cry out, unheard, at the internet–at how it dumbs us down–even it allegedly serves to wise us up. And how grateful I am to my long ago teachers who made me memorize poems and parts of essays (as I’ve done with my own students), The thrill is that these poems come back to me in moments of need. What more can one ask?

    • I had to memorize the prologue to the Canterbury Tales in Middle English. I have had a student tell me, “You can just look it up.”

  2. Bless you, Albert, you’re perfectly correct. The Internet makes it much easier to find out what is written, but it doesn’t do much to help the seeker find the truth.

    • My students do most of their studying now by looking up terms on Wikipedia. I threaten to edit articles on the study guide I give them, just to see who is looking things up when.

  3. How true. And how scary! The generation that learns from bottle tops and Wikipedia will someday rule the world.

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