Speech Versus Writing in Plato's Phaedrus. (08/09/2001)

A question that has probably never been asked is what do Homer, Pythagoras, and Aeschylus have in common? Oddly enough the answer to that question was expressed by Plato in the Phaedrus when Socrates says that

"And when [speeches] have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not; and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves." (#275)

The idea that a speech becomes an orphan when it is written down and preserved in a form that can be circulated among people who do not and cannot understand its content, and hence falls victim to maltreatment and abuse, is one that has its origin in the prohibition against revealing the content of mystery religions that were attached to the cults of the Homeric hymns, the Pythagorean propositions of ancient geometry, and to the cult of Demeter and Dionysos at Eleusis before, during, and after the age of Pericles.

When Jacques Derrida gets around to examining Plato's distinction between speech and writing, and clearly grinding axes of his own invention, he suggests that language use has two distinct levels in a binary structure which cannot be separated from good, on the one hand, and evil, on the other. The difference seems to rest on which of the two possibilities, speech or writing, best preserves the truth. He say, in Of Grammatology, for instant, that

"As was the case with the Platonic writing of the truth in the soul, in the Middle Ages too it is a writing understood in the metaphoric sense, that is to say a natural, eternal, universal writing, the system of signified truth, which is recognized in its dignity. As in the Phaedrus, a certain fallen writing continues to be opposed to it." (15)

Whether it is true or not that Plato actually meant to suggest that speech, and the kind that is not written down, constitutes the act of "writing the truth in the soul," as Derrida here suggests that he does, whereas the orphaned version of the same thing in a purely written form does not belong to "the system of signified truth," but is somehow excluded from it, is a question and an issue Derrida takes as a given and wholly without bothering to demonstrate or prove its validity. He makes this point even more explicit, even as he connects it to a broader band of Judeo-Christian tradition, under the rubric of the Logos, when he notes that "[i]t is the natural relationship [of sound in speech to the written sign] that would have been inverted by the original sin of writing" (35). Bringing this purely Platonic idea around to the ideological ground of the Christian conceptualization of the Logos is both a proper and an improper strategy. This is true because there are elements in Plato's thought and expression of the orphaned state of writing that are similar to the Christian idea of the Logos, especially when one thinks of the Holy Scriptures as a body of propositions not unlike the mystery knowledge of the Greek cults, a working and verbal familiarity of which identified a speaker, or writer, as one who was initiated into the cult itself, but improper at the same time because Plato likely had no knowledge of or interest in Jewish or Christian perceptions of a divine or deified language use. Dragging Plato through a filter that gives his perception of speech versus writing a decidedly Judeo-Christian coloring, by referring to a written form of a speech act as an "original sin," while justifiable at some level, nevertheless obscures, even obliterates, the reason Plato brought the issue forward in the Phaedrus in the first place.

What is universally obvious about the Greek mystery cults, whether Homeric, Pythagorean, or Eleusinian, is that the knowledge contained in and by them was protected from dissemination to non-initiates, to outsiders, to "barbaric" others, by an absolute prohibition, if broken punishable by death, against revealing any of the content of the rituals that expressed their celebration. The Greeks took this prohibition very seriously. As a consequence, for instance, virtually nothing whatsoever is known about the mystery celebration at Eleusis to this day. The same is true of the Homeric cult, if only and primarily because of its antiquity. In the case of Pythagoras, however, considerably more is known because Euclid transcribed the mystery knowledge in his Elements (especially Book II) and it has been possible for scholars to piece together from Euclid's work propositions and theorems that likely belonged to the Pythagorean tradition. It might even be possible to say that everything in Euclid, in one way or another, was derived from that ancient cult. The point to take here, of course, is that the oral tradition of Pythagorean knowledge both preserved and concealed what was known only to its initiates, to people who knew and understood its meaning, as Plato suggests, while the written tradition in Euclid's Elements sent it forth as an orphan into the world, where it "tumbled about anywhere," was maltreated and abused simply because it no longer had the protection of its parent. In other words, Euclid violated the prohibition against converting oral knowledge, which could be limited to initiates only, when he transcribed Pythagorean propositions and theorems into a written form and sent it abroad where anyone at all could read it. To say that we know the Pythagorean Theorem (Euclid, Elements, Book I, Proposition 47) is to say only that we are aware of the fact that a right triangle exists such that the sum of squares of the sides adjacent to the right angle, is equal to the square of the hypotenuse (that is, 42 + 32 = 52). To say that we also understand why that knowledge was considered to be a religious formulation in the context of a mystery cult in ancient Greece, even Egypt before that, is to claim knowledge and understanding that we certainly do not possess, and very probably cannot acquire.

The Homeric mysteries in deep antiquity (1000 BC or earlier) probably began, where a considerable amount of speculation is unavoidable here, as a collection of songs, usually referred to as hymns, sung to and/or about the exploits of human heroes in relationship to the gods. The initiates in the cult, both the singers and their essential audience, gradually built the songs from "hymn" to epic dimensions with each subsequent generation adding to the corpus of the mystery knowledge until they, or it, became recognizable in the form we now know as the Iliad and the Odyssey. Homer, who may have been such a singer, was more probably a person like Euclid, a writer who recorded the epic material into its standardized, written form. If one wanted to collect those elements of the epics that are most closely associated with the mystery knowledge itself, a process that might work well would be to make a list of every quote and reference made to them by Plato and Aristotle. In other words, since Plato and Aristotle refer to Homer so often in the course of their respective philosophies, it seems credible to argue that Homer's epic production stands in relation to them, as a source of "mystery" knowledge, in the same way and in the same degree that Pythagoras stands to Euclid.

The mysteries of Demeter at Eleusis, which also probably included Dionysos as a principle actor, were always celebrated there just after the conclusion of the contest in Athens to determine which tragedian in the annual competition had managed to produce the best trilogy depicting the "fall" of the heroic man or woman. A number of different facts suggest how one thing (the mysteries themselves at Eleusis) are connected to the other (the competition of the tragedians at Athens). Dionysos was clearly involved in one capacity or another in the Eleusinian mystery cult. His role, however, remains shrouded in the absence of actual knowledge of the rituals there. His association with Athens is obvious, if only vaguely understood now, since he was the god of dramatic poetry and presided over the competition year after year. His role in several actual tragedies, even explicitly as the primary moving force in Euripides's The Bacchae, while apparent and obvious there, is less clear in other examples.

The other connection between Eleusis and Athens, between the mysteries and the tragedies, surfaces in the fact that Aeschylus, the earliest practitioner of the art, was said to have been born at Eleusis, a claim which might be more symbolic than real because Eleusis was not an actual village, town, or city but only a sacred precinct were the mysteries were performed or enacted each year. Being only 12 miles from Athens itself, the only people who "lived" in Eleusis were the ones who maintained the Temple of Demeter there as part of their sacred duty to the Goddess. There is no suggestion that Aeschylus, or his parents, were connected in that capacity to the mysteries. A second fact of concern here is that Aeschylus was charged with revealing the content of the mysteries, placed on trail for violating the prohibition, which did carry a penalty of death, but was found innocent of the charges and acquitted. While it is possible that Aeschylus was charged with this crime for reasons unconnected to his literary production, the more logical assumption would be that one, or several, of his tragedies contained material directly derived from the mystery celebration and ritual itself. Like Plato and Aristotle, who incorporated elements of the Homeric mysteries into their philosophy, like Euclid who did the same with Pythagorean geometry, Aeschylus may have converted what had always been held as oral tradition into the publicly played and written forms of his tragedies. His acquittal of the charges that he violated the prohibition against revealing that sacred content to the non-initiated, outside, if not barbaric, other, signaled, for whatever reason, a reversal in the attitude religious authorities held toward preventing public displays of the sacred rituals of the mystery cult. To say that "tragedy" was born at Eleusis in the body of Aeschylus's work is to admit what is only most obvious.

When Plato says that writing sends a speech act out into the world as an orphan where it can be maltreated and abused because it no longer enjoys the protection of its parent, he is simply acknowledging the fact that the deepest aspects of the mystery religions that gave rise to Greek geometry, philosophy, and tragedy, remain concealed from the outsider in the purely oral traditions that originally constituted their essential meaning. We can now read Euclid, Plato and Aristotle, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and Homer, because their work survived in written form but, as Plato tells us in the Phaedrus, we cannot truly understand that literary, philosophical, and mathematical, production because we have not been initiated in the oral traditions of the mystery cults that underlie their genesis. Even with Aristotle's Poetics in hand, which only treats the formal surface of Greek tragedy, we are prevented from reaching the deepest layers of that work. Like water-bugs skimming across the surface of a pond, we grasp the whole world of that outer shell but never understand the knowledge underneath.

When Derrida refers to writing as an "original sin" of language use, he not only clouds the issue by making it an extension of the Judeo-Christian ideology of the Logos, which Plato could not have intended in the Phaedrus, but he also fails to recognize the limitations under which we labor whenever we attempt to trace our own linguistic and critical origins back through a tradition that does not actually belong to us in any deeply meaningful context. We play across the surface of Greek traditions but we never get beneath their skin. Compounding the problem of not taking this distinction between Christian and Greek ideology seriously enough, where Christianity always meant to expand its membership and influence, when the Greeks meant to keep theirs exclusive, is the seemingly similar pattern between the two of holding sacred texts out of ever-widening circles of dissemination. In Christianity, this was accomplished, at least in the Middle Ages, by insisting that only priests were qualified to read and interpret the Holy Scriptures. This centripetal tendency to draw sacred belief into the center of a knowledgeable elect, where it could be concealed, was always counterbalanced, if not contradicted, by a necessary centrifugal need to share knowledge with the outsider in order to convert him/her to a faith that was doctrinally oriented. The tension between concealed and revealed ideology was well resolved in Greek culture by Plato's and Aristotle's time. This same problem in Christianity, which manifested itself in Chaucer's internal debate in the Canterbury Tales over whether a fabulous story (written, of course) was able to preserve the truth in the way that Scripture does, has probably persisted into the 21st Century over the issue of whether or not the Catholic mass retains its authority when spoken in vernacular languages as opposed to the original expression it had in Latin. Plato's observation can probably be twisted enough to address this issue, if one is willing to ignore its actual context, but to assert that his concerns are the same ones Derrida addresses is the same as comparing circles and squares without recognizing how different those two shapes actually are.