CONSCIOUSNESS AND WRITING
With the evolution of language, this faith in culturally transmitted information became vulnerable to exploitation by individuals. (Scott Atran, 2010, The Evolution of Religionâ)
One of the examples that Plato gives about the acquisition of a consciousness that allows for the creation of explicit transmissible content is that of writing. He proposes a fable on the origin of writing in Timaeus (21-26). This fable would have been passed on from father to son in his family since the time when the great Athenian politician Solon related it to one of Plato’s ancestors:
One day in Egypt, Solon enters a city allied to Athens. He tells the Greek legend about the origin of the world to an assembled group. A listener politely laughs. He is one of the Egyptian High Priests. He explains that one of the traumas of Greece is to have been often devastated by natural catastrophes and by war that, each time, destroyed everything that they wrote. In contrast, peaceful Egypt possesses manuscripts that exist since the origin of writing. According to the priest, the Egyptian texts recount events that the Greeks ignore, like the history of the city Atlantis, founded 9,000 years before Athens. When this city was destroyed by ocean waves, some survivors fled to Greece and founded Athens.
In this fable, Plato shows that writing adds capacities to individual memory that do not exist in the brain.
Plato expresses in Phaedrus his distrust of writing that can just as easily transmit fables, the reasoning of the sophists, lies, or truths. Writing and speech are therefore tools that can be used, with more or less reliability, to support propaganda or by the seekers of truth. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1972) points out that for Plato, writing and medication have the same status, in that they both have an undeniable utility but can also inhibit the desire to explore and use the forces of the soul. During the same period in China, Chuang Tzu expressed an analogous distrust: