Socrates was a Luddite

Einstein once said that you should never bother memorizing what you can easily look up. The reason, I’d hazard to guess, is that humans only have so much capacity for memorization. Given the vast quantities of information that are now known by humankind, I believe it as important as ever to make careful selections with what we choose to fill our brains.

Socrates was against writing anything down. We know this both because Plato tells us and because Socrates never wrote anything down. He said that if you wrote things down to read or refer to later that you would then lose the capacity for remembering things. In the short term, this assertion may have some kernel of truth. I have heard more than one expert claim that the wandering poets of ancient Greece could recite the entirety of the Iliad and the Odyssey from memory. One way to explain this phenomenal ability is that both poems contain markers to spur memories of specific lines within them and both poems have recurring lines to reset the meter and rhythm: think, ‘rosy-fingered dawn’.  The second reason poets could remember entire epic poems was in fact that memories were much more highly evolved before people could write. Everything a person learned, they had to remember or forget forever.

Regardless of how much you personally might be able to remember if you never wrote anything down and committed all things to memory, however, you would still fall behind the rest of society. Some of the greatest advances of humankind can be directly attributed to the creation of information storage and dissemination capacities. Sir Isaac Newton famously said that if he had seen a little further it was because he was standing on the shoulders of giants; a phrase he borrowed from Pascal. The giants whose shoulders we all stand on are giants who bothered to write down what they have learned so we can learn what they discovered centuries ago and can now push the envelope of knowing just that little bit more for those who will come after us.

Socrates was against a Luddite.


  • December 21, 2012 - 1:38 am | Permalink

    This was a very thought provoking piece. I found myself relating and agreeing with both “camps” of reason.

    On the one hand, documentation or storage tends to dull the memory as we seek the next piece of “shiny” data.

    On the other, it seems that mankind would be perpetually re-inventing the pre-existant wheel with every generation if no one bothered to document their progress.

    In the former scenario, I am thoroughly convinced that if Casio or some other manufacturer neglected to detect a calculator glitch that inadvertently gave a sum of 5 for every input of 2+2, customers would vehemently assert that the calculation was correct for…computers are incapable of mistakes.

    In other words, what happens if the giants get it wrong?

    I happen to be a follower of scientific contentions of many disciplines and have been amazed and astounded at the enormous degree of hypothesis and subjective speculation employed to establish the foundational principles of our material existence. Modern physicists don’t want to spend their entire careers to elevate their predecessors’ “theories” to the status of undeniable fact. “Yep, that Einstein was a genius…and I proved it!” No, they want to make their bones with a “shiny NEW theory.”

    Not to be a Tiradasaurus Rex, but I have more than a sneaking suspicion that our greatest thinkers have really been building hypothetical castles on foundations of nothing more than theoretical sand.
    Nuff said on that…

    I believe that the best scenario is that we all document our progress through this life in whatever form, and leave it to our descendants to rifle through with a discerning eye and a heart to revisit our contentions in light of the next great discovery.

    Hmmm, looks like this piece was “text provoking” as well!

    Anyway, nice post…you can be certain that I will be visiting again soon for more.
    All the best,
    Scott L

    • March 3, 2013 - 9:15 am | Permalink


      Thanks for the comment. I understand your ambivalence to the topic. When I hear the argument that the internet or access to information via a phone or skimming knowledge on wikipedia is creating an ADD culture, I almost believe it. I almost believe it until I hear the other side which has data to prove that more people are surfing for more deep knowledge about deep things; things they would normally never have had access to before the internet.

      I believe now that those people who skim and dart around without any deep understanding are like that in life and would be like that even if there was no internet. Maybe it is just a sign of alarm by us that times are changing. A few years back during an anniversary of the creation of Sesame Street, a reporter noted that many educators of that era doubted the program could be used as an educational tool because the then common belief was that children could not learn from things flitting past them so fast, that children could only learn by having extended periods of time focusing on one individual topic. And now we think that kids can’t learn if they are bored for too long.

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