Pity, by William Blake (c.1795)
I have dreams of writing a novel and being a writer of literature. I dream of the characters I will create most of all. I want to be a good writer. I want to be a writer that contributes to society and creates writing that is truthful. So like any philosophy student aspiring to be a philosopher, I begin with a question. What does it mean to be a true writer? What is the value of a writer? Yet I search for the answer to these questions in the most unlikely of places: the Phaedrus- the dialogue that contains Socrates' condemnation of writing. It is important to say that Socrates critique of writing is complex and nuanced philosophically, especially due to the deep irony of Plato being a genius of a writer. I will not go through the intricacies of the arguments because this is not a space for a dissertation. So I will be offering a particular condemnation that Socrates aims at writing through his rendition of the Egyptian myth of Theuth and Thamus.
Socrates takes us back to ancient Egypt where we find the God Theuth. He was a God that discovered. He discovered mathematics, astronomy, games like checkers, and most importantly writing. Now Theuth came before the King of all Egypt, Thamus and demonstrated each of his arts as a means to persuade Thamus to give his arts to all the Egyptians. As Socrates tells us:
Thamus asked him about the usefulness of each art and while Theuth was explaining it, Thamus praised him for whatever he thought was right in his explanations and criticized him for whatever he thought was wrong (274e)
We must notice that with this interrogation of Theuth's arts, the question of writing will come down to its purposefulness and usefulness. It seems that in order to defend the value of writing one needs to defend its possession of a purpose. Writing cannot just be good as it is. So does that mean a true writer is one who knows the purpose of writing?
Finally having gone through all arts, Theuth comes to writing. Theuth puts forward a proposition to Thamus, on the benefits of writing saying:
O King, here is something that once learned will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories. I have discovered a potion for memory and for wisdom (274e)
This leads us to the question of whether a writer, through embodying the practice of writing, as discovered by Theuth, could help a society improve their memory and aid their wisdom. But before we can think about this question we have to understand that writers are image-makers. Writing is the art of creating images through words.
Why are writers the makers of images? Does this mean that what writers create is not true? Writers are makers of true images. Clytemnestra didn't actually murder Agamemnon in front of us as we read Aeschylus' play. However, it is an image of reality in that it is a representation of the nature of human action, emotion, thoughts, beliefs when responding to a particular event. In Clytemnestra's case, it is an image of the reality of anger, betrayal, hurt, grief and vengeance in response to the sacrificial murder of her daughter by her husband. Writers have the capacity to create an image of reality that is believable through the narratives that they write. Words become an instrument with which to construct writers' mimetic reflections. Importantly writers are not concerned with the reality of setting. It could be a narrative unmoored in time or in a different world or dimension. The realism in the images that writers create is concerned with being images of human nature reflected in the characters that are birthed by the words. Writers, in terms of their characters written on the page, hope to have written a true reflection on the nature of the human soul. If a writer wishes to defend her art, it would be crucial to say that just because writers are in the business of creating images doesn't mean that what they write is not true. Writers find truth in their narratives not because they actually occurred, but because writers believe they have captured something honest in their images- the truth of what it means to be a person.
Now that we understand writers as image-makers we can begin to reveal how writers could fulfill Theuth's promise of the benefits of his gift of writing. How do the images that writers create act as a potion that improves memory? I am not speaking about individual memory but rather the memory of the collective. I am speaking about the memory of a society of a particular time as well as the memory of the collective of humanity. It is the memory of human existence. The writer as an image-maker doesn't create images that are directly related to reality like a fact of biology to the body. However, this does not mean that their images are not connected intimately to reality or that they are formed out of a vacuum. The images that writers create are drawn from society's consciousness, which is the collective consciousness of culture, language, history, science, art, trauma, change. Writers create these images by creating characters that are an amalgamation of all the different influences of this collective consciousness. By the way of a particular character's representation the writer represents a more universal sense of existence. Is this not the reason why we can read Euripides and still feel moved all these centuries later? This is how writers become witnesses to their society. Just as the Bronte sisters have given us a mosaic to examine the patriarchal society of England in the 19th century so do writers of every age. They each give us their mosaics and tapestries of their societies' consciousness even if it is in indirect, critical or even obscure ways. Writing then becomes the means of containing the memory of the reality of a particular society for the memory of the collective of humanity. A writer is a scribe for society's memories so that future societies can look back and understand the singular expression of humanity that materialized before.
And now we can ask ourselves the question: how do the images that writers create aid the wisdom of humanity? In this sense, I understand wisdom in terms of knowledge of what it means to act virtuously. The images act as a means of ethical education. A writer’s images that serve this purpose are the images of the actions and subjectivity of the characters represented. A writer’s images do not simply show virtue and say "act like this," instead they show the complexities and nuances of human action and subjectivity as a way to demonstrate the possibilities of virtue and vice. We are not told directly that Clytemnestra is morally wrong. Yet we can see her actions as wrong through our own reflections even when we empathize with her. Do writers then instill a kind of wisdom by forcing the reader to think about the actions and frames of mind of the characters and come to a judgement on them? Where the images train the reader's mind to make ethical judgements of the appropriate way to act well that is virtuous and good. Furthermore, in working through our ethical judgements we are not just thinking about the characters. We also find that we can gain the wisdom that comes with self-reflection and interrogation. The images of human nature become a kind of mirror to think about ourselves and our own frames of mind and actions more deeply. We see vantage points of our own souls that we wouldn't ordinarily see. The images that writers create provoke introspection in a profound way that naturally aids wisdom.
However the encounter of Theuth and Thamus is not over Thamus still needs to deliver his verdict that will shatter the implications of Theuth's gift of writing. Thamus declares: "In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learns it," writing here isn't true memory, for it is just an empty image that has the potential to replace the past reality and allow us to forget the true reality of what happened (275a). Thamus also says that writing provides "the appearance of wisdom not with its reality" and that the readers "for the most part, they will know nothing" (275a). It is only the appearance of wisdom as the images cannot properly teach virtue when being so indirect about what it means to act well. The writer ends up teaching nothing because she knows nothing, while also not being able to keep memory properly alive. This implies that if writing cannot aid wisdom or memory then the writer loses value. There is no true writer, as writing is a kind of promised gift that becomes a falsehood. The writer is shown to know nothing. We could just reject this and say that Thamus is wrong and just forget about the whole myth. But yet what gives writers the authority to preserve the reality of society's consciousness? What gives writers the authority to be guides of wisdom?
However, I still need to believe that writers can contribute to society. The question is how? How are writers of value if they do not know? Is the value of writing according to Theuth's promises meaningless? I do believe that Thamus is correct in that writers do not know, but I also believe we cannot discard writers as the preservers of memory, or the guides to wisdom. How to reconcile this? The ambiguity that Thamus implied was the appearance of wisdom in writing is actually the key to the value of writing. If we think of all the great works of literature there is never a strict didactic function nor is there a definite proclamation that this is the only way of being human. There is no explicit moral of the story like in Aesop's fables. There is always an underlying uncertainty in a great work of writing. A great work is an image that is so nuanced and complex that it leaves us in a state of aporia. Crucially, however, there is no uncertainty of whether the work is true. The work shows us a true aspect of the reality of our humanity that we generally try to ignore- that uncertainty is built into our experience of reality and being human. The image the writers create possesses an uncertainty because what it means to be human is uncertain. Writers cannot be expected to be superhuman knowers and so the gift of the writer to society is to provide an image that makes us face the uncertainty head-on. The writer translates her own uncertainty into the work, into the image of words.
Inadvertently being an image-maker, writers have stumbled on the ultimate truth- we do not know what it means to be human. And even if we think we do, we are plagued by misunderstandings. Writing shows us in the preservation of the memory of previous society's collective consciousness, the misunderstandings of what it means to be human that occurred in the past. This is so we can understand past wrongs that came from those misunderstandings. Present writings in them being drawn from present society's consciousness can be the direct mirror into our misguided beliefs on who we are. This is especially pertinent to the ethical education that the writer can provide. The writer by not telling us how to act, by providing depth, nuance and complexity to our actions and subjectivity, shows us the intricacies of being human and that it will never be easy to be virtuous. That it is never simple to walk the path to becoming good. There is a representation of the uncertainty that comes with the messiness of our humanity. The messiness to how we understand others and ourselves. A truly great work of writing then, in its command of not knowing, in the writer's comfort of uncertainty, forces us to engage with the difficulty of our previous and present misunderstandings. We are faced with the unknowns of what it means to be human and the questions that are embedded in our existence. Thamus was then right in the wrong kind of way. The true potion of writing, how it aids memory and wisdom lies in the miracle of acknowledging that we do not know, that we are uncertain beings.
Who is the true writer then if not a philosopher? Maybe this is a bias of mine in that I aspire to be a philosopher and a writer equally. But I do not think my bias alters the truth of my assertion. Writers as the image-makers of our uncertainties and ambiguities mean that writers' existence becomes the provoker of questioning in the reader. A true writer is the writer, who in acknowledging her own inherent uncertainty, sets out to uncover the complexities, the nuances, the paradoxes and contradictions in human life in order to make images with them. The intrinsic uncertainty of all these elements that form the images then disrupts us, by placing us into a state of questioning. We are thrown into the complete doubt of what it means to be human. And in doing so true writers makes philosophers of us all as they push us towards philosophical inquiry. This is how I came to my passion for philosophy, through the literature that consumed my mind as a teenager leaving me constantly questioning the nature of my existence. We are compelled to question the meaning of humanity- the meaning of ourselves, of those closest to us, of our beings as a collective. What is the nature of being human? What is it to love? What is it to create? What is to feel loss? What is it to remember? What is to truly know?