Plato and Smartphones






I was recently invited over to dinner at a friend’s house. As an aside, I’d just like to point out how nice and how rare it is that people my age (at least people I know) will decide to have over lots of friends over for dinner. It’s a really nice community experience. Anyways, later that evening we were conversing on the balcony and looking out at the stars (the very few that can be seen from the city). My friend was struck by one particular ‘star’, and was asking if it was indeed a star, or perhaps a planet or a stationary satellite. No one there had an answer, but I suggested that there was probably a smartphone app for it, and that we could easily find out if someone had said phone. My friend became upset, and gave a rant about how awful it is that we’ve relegated our knowledge to portable technology. Shortly after this day, I was finishing up a collection of dialogues by Plato that I had started WAY back in undergrad. I was reading Phaedrus, when I came upon the following speech that Socrates gives (you can read all of Phaedrus here):

 At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will 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. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and 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.

It would have been better if I had been reading that dialogue on my phone…


About dontdontoperate

28 year old originally from Barrie, Ontario, Canada. H.B.Sc. from UofT with a major in chemistry and a double minor in philosophy and math. M.Sc. from UofT in physiology and neuroscience. Finished my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at McMaster in the fall of 2013.
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