Plato’s Statement About The Superiority Of Oral Transmission To Writing

Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is a quote from Lloyd P. Gerson’s trail blazing study, ‘From Plato to Platonism’-Cornell University Press_2013, where he presents the idea that there is a exoteric and an esoteric teaching of Plato, that besides the ‘official dialogues’ is to be found an ‘unwritten teaching’ as alluded in the dialogues themselves and some of the letters, also in Aristotle’s own account of Plato. The Tübingen School has formalized this way of looking at the relationship between Plato’s written legacy versus the oral transmission and even show us where to look for it. Onward then with the search! Fascinating.


Plato’s Self-Testimony

“There are two passages in the Platonic corpus that are potentially of vital importance for judging all the issues discussed above. These are the passages in ‘Phaedrus’(274B6-278E3) and in the ‘Seventh Letter’ (340B1-345C3) in which Plato seems to speak, albeit in the first case through the mouth of Socrates, about his own attitude towards writing. The two passages need to be interpreted together. In the first passage, a number of points are made regarding the nature of writing.

1. Writing does not increase wisdom; it only provides memoranda (υπομνηματα) for oneself. It is inferior to the oral transmission of wisdom.

2. Writing cannot enter into dialogue with readers; it cannot defend itself. Rather, it is more like drawing or painting, although even more misleading.

3. Writing is not serious. To write is analogous to ‘planting a garden of Adonis’.

4. It requires philosophy to control writing as appropriate for a particular audience.

Reading this passage, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that Plato is referring to his own writings, that is, to the dialogues. The idea that the criticisms of the writing here refer only to the writing of ‘other’ is, absent any supporting evidence, without merit. So, taking these criticisms seriously, how should we revise our view of the dialogues, if at all?


The claim that the writing is inferior to speech for the transmission of wisdom seems to be in line with what is at least one plausible ‘raison d’etre’ for the founding of the Academy, namely, philosophical discussion and research. None of the above points, with the possible exception of the third, are even particularly Platonic in their basic import. Certainly, there is no suggestion that the inferiority of writing to speech entails the irrelevance of writing to the wisdom supposedly transmitted orally. Indeed, the claim that writing can serve as υπομνηματα seems to require their direct relevance; writing would hardly serve as an aid to memory if what was written bore no resemblance to what was being transmitted.


The statement of the superiority of oral transmission to writing is taken (along with the passage from the Seventh Letter) as a major confirmation to the claim of the so-called Tübingen School that the core of Plato’s philosophy is to be found in what Aristotle refers to as his ‘unwritten teachings’ (αγραφα δογματα). According to this interpretation (Physica Δ2,209b11-17), the unwritten teachings focus on the reduction of Forms to two ultimate principles, the One and the Indefinite Dyad. I will have much more to say about these in the context of Aristotle’s testimony in the next chapter. The Tübingen School maintains that the unwritten teachings are alluded to in numerous passages in the dialogues. Although it is not possible to say whether all dialogues were written by an author who unambiguously embraced these teachings, the above hypothesis that the dialogues were written no earlier than 387 does suggest that if we are to attribute such teachings to Plato, then there is no dialogue from which those teachings may be assumed to be entirely absent.


Nevertheless, if the unwritten teachings focus on the reduction of Forms to first principles, that still leaves as part of the ‘written’ teachings the derivation of Forms from a first principle, as in ‘Republic; The relation among the Forms, as in ‘Phaedo’, ‘Parmenides’, and the ‘Sophist’; and the relation between Forms, intellect, soul and the sensible world, as in ‘Timaeus. In other words, the unwritten teachings do not seem to indicate a sort of parallel doctrine, but the last step in an array of doctrines displayed throughout the dialogues. Even on the assumption of unwritten teachings, there is nothing in the ‘Phaedrus’ passage to lead us to think that the dialogues are, as it were, misdirecting the reader. We have no reason to doubt the conclusion that both the dialogues and the unwritten teachings belong to Plato’s constructive metaphysical response to ‘Ur Platonism’.”

Quoted from:Lloyd P. Gerson’From Plato to Platonism’.Cornell University Press_2013.Chapter 3, page 91,92 and 93.
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