Notes on 'Preface to Plato'

Preface to Plato, Eric A. Havelock, 1982

On the transition from orality to literacy in ancient Greece, ca. 5th century BC.
More on this subject here. Another review here. Some thoughts on 'secondary orality' and digital-oral culture today here, here, and here.
A review of Walter Ong's related work.

Summary (from the publisher)
Plato's frontal attack on poetry has always constituted a problem for sympathetic students of the philosopher, and it has often been explained away or otherwise defended. This book begins with the proposition that the attack must be taken seriously and that indeed it holds a clue to Plato's essential role in the culture of his period. His hostility becomes understandable on the assumption that the Greek cultural tradition had remained for practical purposes a poetic tradition down to the end of the fifth century.

The reason for this was technological. The stored experience necessary to maintain cultural stability was in the main preserved only in the living memories of the people. The arts and mechanisms of literacy had remained marginal to the day's work until about the time of the Peloponnesian War. The tradition had to be poetized in order to be memorized and so preserved. Hence, Plato correctly attacks the poets and in particular Homer as the sole encyclopedic source of Greek moral and technical instruction - for, in fact, the ILIAD functions as a cultural encyclopedia for a nonliterate people.

Chapters 3, 4, 9

Havelock sets out to understand the changes in Greek culture between Homer and Plato - symbolized by Plato's attack on the poets. Part of this shift can be explained by looking at the shift from orality to literacy.

First, to understand Plato's antagonism toward poets it is important to understand what he means by poetry: a mnemonic device for preserving and passing on knowledge and culture.

The only possible verbal technology available to guarantee the preservation and fixity of transmission was that of the rhythmic word organized cunningly in verbal and metrical patterns which were unique enough to retain their shape. Poetry is first and last a didactic instrument for transmitting the tradition.

All memorization of the poeticized tradition depends on constant and reiterated recitation. You could not refer to a bmemorizeemorise from a book. Hence poetry exists and is effective as an educational instrument only as it is performed. ... The pupil will grow up and perhaps forget. His living memory must at every turn be reinforced by social pressure. ... The community has to enter into an unconscious conspiracy with itself to keep the tradition alive.

The character or mnemonic mechanism that allows such feats of memory can be summed up if we describe it as a state of total personal involvement and therefore of emotional identification with the substance of the poeticized statement that you are required to retain. ... Such enormous powers of poetic memorization could be purchased only at the cost of total loss of objectivity. Plato's target was indeed an educational procedure and a whole way of life.

The device worked, for example, with jingles that characteristically creep into the formulas of religious ceremony, revealing their character as familiar and popular definitions but ones for which, however familiar, there was the felt need of constant recall.

Most of the content would be intended and accepted as generalized rules, proverbs, standards and aphorisms beyond the immediate action in the narrative. The story is told in such a way that the rules themselves are continually recalled and repeated. Descriptions are always typical rather than detailed. ... the poet was not an expert.

The Homeric poet controlled the culture in which he lived for the simple reason that his poetry became and remained the only authorized version of important utterance. He did not need to argue about this. It was a fact of life accepted by his community and by himself without reflection or analysis. ... His role as encyclopedist was shared by all members of his craft. The methods he used to hold sway over his audience were personal to himself. ... This in effect meant that his poetry was a mechanism of power and personal power.

What the poet was saying was in Plato's eyes important and maybe dangerous, but how he was saying it and manipulating it might seem even more important and more dangerous.

To reinforce memorization, the text was practically embodied. Repetition and musical accompaniment created a rhythm that reinforced memory. Dancing (or simply movement in time with the rhythm) helped to absorb the rhythm. There was no 'translation process' between seeing symbols, and saying them aloud to remember them. Oral memorization was more like absorption, and - as opposed to reading - it was never solitary.

The various motor reflexes, despite the complexity of their interaction, were so organized that they operated without any need on the part of the subject to think about them. This meant that like similar reflexes of the sexual or digestive apparatus they were highly sensual and were closely linked with the physical pleasures. Moreover, they could confer upon the human subject a specific type of pleasure. The regularity of the performance had a certain effect of hypnosis which relaxed the body's physical tensions and so also relaxed mental tensions, the fears, anxieties, and uncertainties which are the normal lot of our mortal existence. ... It is therefore to be concluded that the recital of the tribal encyclopedia, because of the technology of the recital, was also a tribal recreation.

This brings us back to that picture of the performance and its effect which so preoccupied Plato. For in analyzing the technique used for preserving the shaped word in the living memory we have also uncovered the secret of the enormous power wielded by the minstrel over his audience.

In this context, there was no warfare possible between body and spirit. Duty and moral norms are imparted/absorbed in an extremely pleasant atmosphere with total emotional involvement.

You did not learn your ethics and politics, skills and directives, by having them presented to you as a corpus for silent study, reflection and absorption. You were not asked to grasp their principles through rational analysis. You were not invited to so much as think of them. Instead you submitted to the paideutic spell. ... Psychologically it is an act of personal commitment, of total engagement and of emotional identification. The term mimesis is chosen by Plato as the one most adequate to describe both re-enactment and also identification, and as one most applicable to the common psychology shared both by artist and by audience.

Havelock proposes that the introduction of the alphabet changed this 'way of life.' However, this didn't happen instantaneously.

Alphabetic skill was available to a few not later than 700 B.C. ... The circle of alphabet-users became wider as time passed, but what more natural than that previous habits of instruction and communication along with the corresponding states of mind should persist long after the alphabet had theoretically made a reading culture possible.

It is certain that all Homer's poet successors were writers. But it is equally certain that they always wrote for recitation and for listeners. They composed it can be said under audience control. The advantages of literacy were private to themselves and their peers.

(Think of how the Gutenberg press was first used to print Latin bibles. Books in the vernacular, novels and newspapers took much longer to develop.)

Plato considers the 'poetic' state of mind a chief obstacle to scientific rationalism.

The poetic state of mind is for Plato the arch-enemy. ... He asks of men instead that they should think about what they say, instead of just saying it.

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