Socrates Was Right—And So Was Plato

The way the brain handles language brings up an interesting question that I’ve heard students ask in the age of Google and Wikipedia: Why should I memorize or even read something when I can look it up in four seconds? The answer is this: Memorizing stores knowledge permanently inside of you. What you remember is knowledge. What you have to look up is not. Knowledge is an essential tool of the writer.


New knowledge immediately begins to integrate with all your other knowledge, effortlessly and unconsciously. That is process that you can think of as “simmering,” a term many writers have used. To steal from Auden, this takes place while you’re eating or opening a window or simply walking dully along.


Great currents of knowledge, all laced over and under with emotions and sensory feelings, glide together and make new associations that can produce unheard of ways of thinking or fabulous combinations of words. Everything that you’ve stored in memory will inform and enrich your writing in a way that simply can’t happen if you store everything outside of your brain. The more you put into your brain, the more you get out of it. 


Memorization is an essential task if you want to write. For one thing, you need to know the meanings of a lot of words. For another, remembering things gives the brain something to work on during the process of simmering. You need to know what you wrote on page one when you’re writing page 100. The struggle for coherence and meaning, the quest for a narrative line, is a continuous task of holding more and more in your head.


It involves writing something, then going back to read it so that you can go forward. And then you have to go back and re-read everything once more so that you can proceed a bit further. By the time you’ve finished 100 or 400 pages, you will have read it many times, but you will also have had the physical experience of creating the words with your hands many times as well. Through this process, will come to possess much of the text internally. It’s no longer just on the page. It’s inside of you, if not word for word, then at least in a fairly detailed form. Because brain and body work together so intimately, you then know your work both by heart and mind. The Chinese word for this is hsin.


That doesn’t mean that you literally have to memorize great chunks of text, although that is a good idea. But it does mean at the very least, that you have to read a great deal and remember much of what you read. And it also means that you have to read and write and then read more and rewrite many, many times. Your brain will do the rest beyond the reach of conscious effort.


Socrates argued against writing as a means of storing and conveying knowledge. He was a hard-ass. He called writing “dead discourse,” because it lacked the dynamics of speech. The text, once written, could not answer back when questioned. Moreover, he felt that writing would, “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”


He said that writing was, “an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence,” and did not convey “truth, but only the semblance of truth.” He believed that writing would turn people into “hearers of many things [but they] will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.” He could easily have been talking about the Internet. Google can make the generally ignorant look omniscient.


Without prodigious memory and active debate, Socrates argued, without the deep and complex structure of learning that the oral tradition engenders, we would come to skim over texts and receive a false sense of knowledge. Writing, he feared, would create a culture of people who not only couldn’t remember but who thought that they were educated when in reality they were ignorant. Their knowledge would be superficial, and in the end, we’d lose all control over knowledge. Yet without Plato, we would know none of this. He was a student of Socrates. He rebelled against his teacher and wrote it all down.


Socrates was right. Writing did decrease the need for memory. And as he predicted, the written word has been the tool of much mischief and misinformation. Socrates could see that writing would profoundly change the way the human brain works. But in exchange for our memory and the inevitable spread of pernicious nonsense through writing, we gained the ability to consult books on every conceivable subject. We have a much broader range of information available to us than even the best human memory can hold. Indeed, what we can’t remember, we can always look up. 


The trouble with being able to look everything up is that less and less resides inside of us. The brain is constantly working on what it knows, whether that knowledge is conscious or unconscious. As we put more and more diverse knowledge into our brains, we have more and more insights and original ideas. That process won’t work if we never learn anything deeply and instead rely on looking everything up. We are less likely to make imaginative leaps. Our words will not combine in those rich and lustrous ways that can make writing such a pleasure to read. People who want Ph.D.s still have to take oral exams. Like the students of Socrates, they must know their subject “by heart.”