I've heard that an ancient philosopher (probably Aristotle) feared that the apparition of books was a threat to human memory and thus on reasoning capability.

Is the assertion valid? What was the exact reasoning please?

  • too much of anything is bad for you – user2802 Dec 8 '12 at 19:10
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    Could you more precisely cite your source? Otherwise, this will just breed spitball answers :P – David Titarenco Dec 8 '12 at 21:14

It is not Aristotle who makes that argument but Plato, in the Phaedrus.

If you are not interested in reading the entire dialogue, you can read a summary of the argument on the relevant Wikipedia page.

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I'd suggest that the fear is related to the fear in contemporary discourse where the internet is seen as a threat & atomisation of reasoning & discourse. In fact there is a short story by E M Forster written in 1909, The Machine Stops which is a previsioning of the internet, people copying & pasting knowledge etc. It presents a dystopian vision, but eventually the community awakes from the mirage, when the machine stops. They reassert the sovereignty of the human community.

I'd suggest that part of this fear is correct, that it exerts a centrifugal & separating force, even if its also a democratising force.

The Brahminic class in ancient India passed on its understanding via a guru-student relationship (similar to that of the relationship between that of a Phd supervisor & that of his student). Books were seen as an aide de memoire, presumably. Its one of the reasons as to why, for example Nagarjuna Madyamika is so cryptic. It requires a mentor to help tease out the real understanding. The Brahminic class was against writing their classics down, for many centuries it was done purely orally.

Also, there speech was in verse. So it was sung, or perhaps more akin to the performed spoken-word poetry today; and that needs a Guru (I'm speculating here).

Tagore, complained about the european seminar; which to him was against the spirit of communication. It represented to him a kind of master-slave relationship. (And having been in maths classes, where the lecturer is furiously writing on the board, the students furiously copying it down; and very few raising real questions - presumably no-one wanted to look stupid - it reminded me more of the description of how scribes would make copies of books, more than a dialogue. :) )

knowledge & understanding, should have a genealogy. One should become the master of books; and not become mastered by them.

One should also note that the great religous leaders, did not write books. Mohammed is commonly taken to be illiterate (whether in fact he was or not, theologically speaking, he was to have been directly inspired by Allah; although that is not quite right either).

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