Plato and the unwritten Haggada
By Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo
With Jews the world over soon gathering around the Seder table to read the Haggada,
the story of the exodus of Egypt, it may be worthwhile to take a moment to reflect
on the art of reading.
Plato in his Phaedrus (275a-278a) and in the "Seventh Letter" (344c) questioned,
and in fact attacked, the written word as completely inadequate. This may explain
why philosophers have written such few words about the idea of "writing" although
they have extensively made use of it!
It is well known that Plato himself used to write in the form of dialogues. Moreover,
it becomes clear for anybody reading these "conversations" that his main purpose
in doing so was the fact that he wanted to hide the characteristic of these "texts"
(although it is well known that he worked for years polishing the literary form of
these dialogues) Cicero maintains that Plato, being eighty-one years old,
actually died at his writing table. "Plato, scribens mortuus est".
What was Plato’s problem? Plato believed that a written word will eventually fall prey
to evil and incompetent readers who can do anything they want with the text without
the author being able to defend or explain himself.
He was afraid that the text would live its own life, independent of the author as this
characteristic of the written word. Even more interesting is his observation that a
written text actually becomes a pharmakon a poison that can heal or kill,
depending on how it is used.
According to Plato, a text may be used as a prompt but will ultimately lead to
memory loss since it will make the brain idle. Years later Immanuel Kant wrote
in similar terms when he said that the "script" brought havoc on the "body of memory".