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Monday, July 11, 2011

Two parables of the sower, Socratic and Biblical

by John MacBeath Watkins

There are two great parables of the sower in Western literature. One is found in the Bible,* the other in one of Plato's dialogues, the Phaedrus.*


In the Bible, the sower spreads seed on rocky ground where the seeds cannot take root, he spreads them in the thorn thickets where the plants are choked out, and on fertile soil where it grows. The parable concludes, "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." The word is spread on all this ground, and where the ground is able to receive it, it takes root.


In the Phaedrus, Socrates argues, "Would a husbandman, who is a man of sense, take the seeds, which he values and which he wishes to bear fruit, and in sober seriousness plant them during the heat of summer, in some garden of Adonis, that he may rejoice when he sees them in eight days appearing in beauty? at least he would do so, if at all, only for the sake of amusement and pastime. But when he is in earnest he sows in fitting soil, and practices husbandry, and is satisfied if in eight months the seeds which he has sown arrive at perfection?"


Socrates left behind no written records of his own. All the records we have of his thought are written by other people, primarily Plato. He did not broadcast his words, but chose the "right sort" to speak to. He believed, or at least Plato portrayed him as believing, in the superiority of oral communication, in in particular the dialectic, which allowed speakers to question each other.

Socrates, in the Phaedrus, argued that "...even the best of writings are but a reminiscence of what we know, and that only in principles of justice and goodness and nobility taught and communicated orally for the sake of instruction and graven in the soul..." which reflected the fact that in an oral society, people learn great wisdom and great skill, but do so through discipleship rather than solitary study. He lived in a time when Homer was written down, and indeed, Socrates was written down, but both were men of the oral tradition.

He told of an Egyptian myth, in which the god Theuth invents letters, but the got Thamus, who ruled Egypt to him that writing "...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."

Socrates preferred the dialectic, but sometimes spoke to a gathering. Socrates shined in conversation, or at least such would be the conclusion from reading Plato's and Xenophon's accounts. He was forever challenging people, and the Socratic method of teaching based on his technique is to ask the student questions, and let them learn by answering the questions.

Yet Jesus, who was famous for having disciples, broadcast his message, rather than rely on one-on-one conversations. As a sower, he broadcast his seed. You don't have to belong to his religion to see that this was a very different approach to spreading his word. The words of both men were written down by their followers and have been taught and discussed since. The prophet, as a sower, was inclined to broadcast, and let his words take root where they might. The philosopher took a different path, and we now know him only through those who were more inclined to record his wisdom in the written word.

We know him best through Plato, who it strikes me was a very different kind of philosopher. Plato wrote, in addition to the Socratic dialogues, works of his own that were far too long for speaking at a sitting. The Republic and The Laws were book length, designed to reward the reader's patient study. Plato had made the leap from orality to literacy. Not because he knew better how to write than Socrates, but because he embraced the notion of writing for an unseen and unknown reader who might well come after his death.

Which is pretty much what a prophet hopes for, whether the prophet gives speeches or writes. That unseen listener is the future of his faith, after all. Yet not all religions have the sort of prophets who wish to communicate in that way. The Druids, for example, were quite insistent on their beliefs not being written down, and on the knowledge of their faith being remembered in living minds. They were so successful in maintaining this doctrine that almost all we know of them comes from sources hostile to them and probably fairly ignorant of them.

Booksellers and bloggers are, of course, more literary tribes. My post about the Seattle Wooden Boat Festival got a comment from a reader in Dubai, and far more strangely, my post A New Theory of the Leisure Class got a comment from Taiwan that was so off-topic and strange that I deleted it.

Forum threads, where people inform, insult and respond to one another, strike me more as a form of orality, for all that they are written. Yet they are less ephemeral than speech, and carry with them the anonymity of the written word, and because they linger in a way that an unrecorded conversation cannot, the information in them may be broadcast to anyone using a search engine to find information on the topic under discussion.

It strikes me that the internet is creating something new here, an amalgam of orality and literacy that we have not yet quite adapted to. I suspect that one problem with e-books is that they are attempting to be books; the new medium will invent its own forms. An early redesign of Salon eliminated the news updates. Happily, they recognized that one of the strengths of the on-line publication is that like radio and unlike magazines, they can constantly update information. Newspapers used to do this by producing a series of editions through the day, an expense that only the larger newspapers in the larger cities could afford. When a publication is on line, it can constantly update, continually edit, and thus free itself from the most annoying limitations of the printed word.

Of course, the old literature will survive, just as Homer's epic poetry does, or (Plato's versions of) Socrates' dialectics, his words confined to written text, where they may be read by, well, just anyone.

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