Preface To Plato

Posted by PH on January 11, 2008
Marshall McLuhan, Narrative

Eric Havelock’s Preface To Plato is a book I’d come across often: McLuhan frequently cites it, as does Walter Ong in Orality & Literacy. Well just before Xmas I got round to reading it, and I’ve just re-read it this week. I have been deeply impressed by the book because of its wealth of ideas, its deep sense of scholarship, and because it is so well written: for a book on such a relatively obscure and ancient subject it is a surprisingly good read. Despite being an overtly academic text it manages to provoke a deep sense of wonder about ancient Greek culture, and offers a tantalizing glimpse of the unfathomable alien-ness of their ways of thinking.

The book begins by asking why Plato makes such a sustained and vehement attack on poetry in The Republic. Havelock suggests it is because ‘poetry’ for the Greeks at that time—around 360 BC—bears almost no relation to the rather ephemeral art form we now know, but was an “encyclopedic” repository for the culture’s storehouse of knowledge. It was central to the preservation of the culture’s history, traditions, belief systems, social mores, and technology. It was as important didactically as it was for entertainment.

Because this culture was primarily an oral culture, memorization was achieved through repetition. This is because sound is an ephemeral medium where each utterance disappears the moment it has ceased, and it is only through ritualistic and incessant repetition that information can be maintained in the group consciousness. This creates a hypnotic, trance-like, mental state that Havelock likens to indoctrination, where “the task of education could be described as putting the whole community into a formulaic state of mind”. It was this that Plato was railing against.

Havelock’s argument is that Plato represented a new type of man: the literate man. Literacy allowed information to be stored externally. This “preserved knowledge” broke the spell over the hypnotized oral culture and allowed new means of expression, categorization, abstract thought, and the creation of ‘subject’ and ‘object’. That is, rationalism, and the “supreme music” of philosophy. Havelock goes on to say that Plato, and later Aristotle:

… created ‘knowledge’ as an object and as the proper content of an educational system, divided into the areas of ethics, politics, psychology, physics, and metaphysics. Man’s experience of his society, of himself and of his environment was now given separate organised existence in the abstract word.

This then is the conceptual core of Preface To Plato. It’s a marvelous book. Along the way there’s lots of good stuff about narrative, performance, the relation of performers to their audience, and plenty of interesting textual analysis of The Iliad.

However, although I do basically agree with Havelock’s position, I think he has overstated the influence and importance of epic poetry as an oral culture’s means of storing knowledge (which in this particular context means overstating the importance of Homer). There are certainly other ways of remembering things without writing—images, song, ritual, plays, sculpture, and story, for example. This criticism is borne out by critics such as Halverson.

Nonetheless, wholeheartedly recommended.

Halverson, J. (1992) ‘Havelock on Greek Orality and Literacy’ in the Journal of The History of Ideas.
Havelock, E. (1963) Preface To Plato. Cambridge, London: Belknap Press.
Ong, W. (2002) Orality and Literacy. London: Routledge.

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