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Was the invention of writing a good thing for humanity? Plato and the mysterious ‘Book of Creation’ seem to disagree

Hey, I wrote an essay about the invention of writing according to Plato and Jewish mysticism. I’ve put it all here in this thread, but if you’re interested you can check out my newsletter – where I write about literature, history and magic:

Here is the essay:

Homer, the greatest poet of the ancient world (and perhaps of all other worlds), did not know how to read and write. In the opening line of the Iliad, the eminent poet asks the muse to sing from his mouth, essentially to pull one thread out of the tangled cocoon that is the Trojan War. Plato, the greatest philosopher of the ancient world (and probably of all others as well), lived about four hundred years later. He knew the invention of writing well, and as far as we can tell, feared it deeply. In the dialogue Phaedrus, Socrates tells a parable to his interlocutors. According to this parable, writing was invented in Egypt. It was the invention of the creator god Thoth, who gave writing as a gift to humanity. The task of spreading his new invention was entrusted to King Thamus.

While Thoth glorifies the many great advantages of the invention—first and foremost its ability to stimulate and improve the human memory in a truly miraculous way—the king who is entrusted with spreading it remains skeptical. He says something fascinating to the god: that it is not for the inventor of a certain thing to judge the degree of harm or profit of his creation. This task should be assigned to someone else. And so, because of the god’s great concern for the honor of his new invention, he does not see that this new ability to read and write all human thoughts and speech will bring exactly the opposite of what is promised: it will not evoke memory—a faculty that is natural to man—but recollection. It will require constant referencing, will become a reminder tool, and not a tool that encourages memory. And so, while man thinks he is gaining wisdom through reading, he is only gaining an illusion of wisdom.

How different is this parable from the way Ancient and Medieval Jewish culture thinks about the invention of writing. In Sefer Yetzirah (‘Book of Creation’ in Hebrew), the most mysterious book of the Jewish mystical tradition and the one that probably influenced it in the most profound way, we read that God created His world in thirty-two paths of wisdom, referring to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the first ten sefirot (probably a reference to the first ten numbers). At a certain moment in the short book, the anonymous author of Sefer Yetzirah describes in highly evocative words the essence of the divine creation, which surprisingly reminds one of human literary work: “creating out of real chaos and establishing what is not there and carving great pillars out of unfathomable air.”

In the concluding paragraph of Sefer Yetzirah, we read another parable, this time about Abraham, our father, who understood all the secrets of letters and numbers. Because of this, he could imitate God in His creation of the world and the souls in it. This is due to the fact that God made two covenants with man: the covenant of circumcision between our ten toes and the covenant of language between our ten fingers. God, in other words, gave us writing. Those who know and control this gift perfectly—in the way that Sefer Yetzirah describes—can control the whole world and imitate God perfectly.

These two conceptual extremes—the Greek and the Jewish, separated by more than a thousand years (we do not know when Sefer Yetzirah was written, but the first commentaries on it only began to appear in the tenth century AD)—can be found in the current discussion about the new technologies that have taken over our lives. With the introduction of the Internet and later social networks, their creators promised us nothing less than superpowers. Anyone who opens a Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram account will be able to be anywhere at any time, connect with everyone, and spread their words, ideas, and stories all over the world.

In the early years of social media, those who resisted were few and were labeled as conservative and Luddites. In recent years, the approach has completely changed. A more basic understanding has begun to take root: digital tools need to prove themselves to us, to serve our needs, and not—as was forgotten in the initial enthusiasm and global adoption of these tools—that we need to embrace them and only then find out how, if at all, they improve our lives. If at first we were all carried away by the enthusiasm of the god Thoth and imagined ourselves to be like Abraham, today we can all identify much more with the king who received the dubious gift into his hands.

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