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October 13, 2022

Thoth, Thamos, and Truth

Thoth, Léon-Jean-Joseph Dubois, Brooklyn Museum

Thoth was an Ancient Egyptian deity who served as the scribe of the gods and was said to have invented writing and hieroglyphics. He was the creator of science, religion, philosophy, and magic, as well as the god of the moon, wisdom, art, and judgement. He was depicted with a human body and the head of an ibis or a baboon. He held in his hand the ankh, the symbol of life.

In the dialogue Phaedrus, Plato has Socrates recount a conversation between Thoth and the Pharaoh Amon, or “Thamos”, as he was known in Ancient Greece:

Thamos says,

“… And now, since you are the father of writing, your affection for it 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 have not discovered a potion for remembering but reminding; 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.” 1

There are several points that make this passage fascinating.

For instance, later in the same dialogue, Socrates makes the point that the written word is permanent and fixed. Written words cannot be adjusted to take into account the minds of readers. For instance, for a simple mind, the words should be simple. For a complex mind, the words should be complex. Put another way, wisdom, to be fully understood, must be imparted differently to different people. The flexibility of conversation (dialogue) allows for this. The written word does not.

This is a subtle point, and that nuance was appreciated not only in Ancient Greece but in India. India had the Sanskrit concept of the Guru. The Guru was a teacher, but not just any teacher. He knew the student so well and so thoroughly that by posing a single tailormade question to the student, the student could reach enlightenment, or nirvana.

Lastly, Plato points a finger at an additional danger of the new technology of that time, writing. He says that written words don’t allow remembering from the inside, but simply reminding.

To remember is to have a visceral and highly personal experience, which is nuanced with emotions, sensations, and context.

Reminding is like a Post-it Note—it lacks the elements of livingness.

Consider the difference between remembering when you were ecstatically happy and a reminder of your dental appointment at 10:45 tomorrow. They are not the same thing, not at all.

If we take this a step further and substitute a smartphone for the Post-it Note, the danger of that difference becomes even more apparent.

From the above, one might conclude that the best that we can do is throw away our phones, but then one might as well throw away all books. Given that I’m a writer, that would not work for me, and I doubt it would work for you. The genie that is the written word can’t be put back in the bottle any more than the smartphone can be surrendered.

Instead, we must consider the need for real discourse and conversation, and to know once again, that to remember is to experience from the inside. It is reliving, not reminding.

I think we must resolve to put the human being into being, and the thrill of what it is to live into living.

  1. Plato (1997). Plato Complete Works. Hackett Publishing Co.

2 Comments

  1. María Cristina Restrepo says:

    Beautiful and deep. Let’s get immersed in good conversations, keep and read well our books and temporarily forget in meditation. As for dentist’s appointmen’s, alas, they are an inevitable part of the prosaic picture.

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