We can guess from what Plato said about the invention of writing almost 2,500 years ago.
Plato, widely considered to be the father of Western philosophy, viewed the practice of writing as an innovative technology much in the way that blockchain is viewed for its technological innovation today.
Let’s see what he says in his work entitled “Phaedrus,” through his famous avatar, Socrates, about the invention of writing and you might easily guess the parallels.
“Among the ancient gods of Naucratis in Egypt there was one named Theuth, and it was he who first discovered number and calculation, geometry and astronomy, as well as the games of checkers and dice, and above all else, writing.
Now the king of all Egypt at that time was the god Ammon. Theuth came to exhibit his arts to him and urged him to disseminate them to all the Egyptians…
When they came to writing, Theuth said: “O King, here is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory; I have discovered a potion for memory and for wisdom.” Ammon, however, replied: “O most expert Theuth, one man can give birth to the elements of an art, but only another can judge how they can benefit or harm those who will use them. And now, since you are the father of writing, your affection for it has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are.
In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing.”
These words translated from Plato’s “Phaedrus” dialogues are about words themselves, and they are nearly 2,500 years old. But don’t they sound familiar? A new technology promises to dramatically improve memory, yet may be observed to do the opposite, to “introduce forgetfulness into the soul” as the price of the trust the new technology has cleverly won.
Did Plato underestimate the contribution of writing technology? It is easy to say yes, with 2,500 years of hindsight and all the benefits that writing brings to us today. But can we put ourselves in the shoes of “most expert Theuth” and make the same lofty claims for blockchain? We are eager to try, for we deeply believe in the profound mnemonic implications of this new form of writing that nothing but the most catastrophic natural or artificial disasters could erase. If that isn’t “a potion for memory,” if not “wisdom,” then nothing could be.
Plato, speaking through Socrates and the god-king Ammon, surely has the same criticism for blockchain that he had for writing. But would he be underestimating in this case, too? HistoryDAO is an unapologetic blockchain champion, so we stand before this seminal Titan of all thought and respectfully say “yes!” But we do take a number of important points:
- We should admit that we are closer to the one who “can give birth to the elements of an art” and not the other “who can judge how they can benefit or harm those who will use them.” So it is up to us to win the judgment of others.
- Just as Plato expected, mnemonic technologies are showing significant signs of changing how we remember things, perhaps for the worse. Certainly we are losing the practice of committing things to memory that we habitually committed before. It’s too easy now to use our smartphones to look up names, directions, dates, phone numbers, recipes, formulas, etc., rather than commit these things to memory as we used to do.
- We should consider carefully what sort of “potion” we have. What distinction was Plato trying to make between “remembering” and “reminding”? And what is the significance of “remembering from the inside”?
So, let us consider, and answer the question of the third point with more help from Plato, for his Socrates was challenged in the Phaedrus dialogues as follows:
“Surely, when our Egyptian scribe receives a written invitation to a dinner party, it’s telling him something new—it isn’t merely reminding him?”
Socrates answers by drawing distinctions between different levels of purpose. In fact, he is reminding his challenger of the higher level of conversation they are having, reaching down into the mundane realm where he had momentarily tumbled:
“Clearly, when I said the written word could only serve to remind us of what we know, I didn’t mean it in this general sense… It is only the highest sort of knowledge, the knowledge of the object itself, the knowable and truly real being, which the written word can not teach us. That is, not an image of a circle, but the real circle. Not an image of a bee, but the real bee.”
Of course, writing is plenty convenient for all kinds of day-to-day activity, which have nothing to compare in importance to matters of the soul. That’s a different conversation which Plato’s Socrates isn’t interested in having. Plato is reminding us of the supreme priority of wisdom and truth over mundane concerns. In Plato’s view, nothing can be called progress if wisdom and truth are not defining that progress. In other words, we have not gained anything if we have only gained air-conditioning, medicine, smart-phones, trips to the moon, etc. These are nothing without wisdom and knowledge of truth. And writing, it seems, provides no such conveyance according to Plato.
But reminders, without a doubt, are extremely helpful, so all is not lost. After all, we would know nothing of Plato without the “reminders” he himself committed to writing. So, where does wisdom and truth come from if writing is disqualified?
Socrates is of course delighted to answer:
“Only when a student has pondered at length, in discourses and examples, and has been tested, pupil and teacher asking and answering questions in good will and without envy—only then, when reason and knowledge are at the very extremity of human effort…”
According to Plato, then, true knowledge can only come from discourse. Plato has many ways of expressing this thought, and this is where HistoryDAO takes special inspiration. We are emboldened to claim before the father of all Western philosophy, in the manner of Theuth to Ammon, that blockchain is the most irrefutable system of “reminders” yet known to humankind. We did not invent it ourselves, but what an invention it is! And by building a community around it in a way that facilitates free discourse, we may actually have a path toward truth and wisdom as well.