The written word has become a strange idol. Gutenberg’s invention has spawned a prodigious manifestation of our fallen inclination to amass idols of the mind, cropping up like the heads of a decapitated hydra. Although there are many treasures at The Library of Congress, consider the massive stores of printed materials there. It “is the largest library in the world, with more than 155.3 million items on approximately 838 miles of bookshelves. The collections include more than thirty-five million books and other print materials, including sixty-eight million manuscripts. The library receives 15,000 new items each work day, of which roughly 11,000 are added to the collection, totaling around 2.86 million new items yearly.
Concerning the written word in the public schools, it is estimated that the twenty-five million school children between the ages of twelve and seventeen in the United States will read 8,750,347,578,987 words in the year 2013. Never in history have so many words been read and yet so very little learned. These poor students are reading thirty times more words than the number of stars in the Milky Way. Due to the deleterious effects of the prolonged idolatry of letters, our children are participating in a futile exercise whose ultimate benefit is exponentially surpassed by a single saint properly reading these few words:
“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
The written word is a technology, a contrived symbol designed to reduce the spoken word to an intelligible sign as a means to record certain utterances deemed worthy of recollection, posterity, and dissemination. Technologies are an extension of our natural faculties, an extension of our reach aiming to realize an ambitious grasp. Technologies stand as mediation between a human soul and a certain attainment. As such, technologies are an artificial barrier and if they are misused, inherent dangers are exposed that threaten to hinder or damage whatever faculty they are extending. The automobile is a technological extension of our ambulatory faculty, and if one drives everywhere and ceases ever to walk, his muscles will atrophy and his legs will weaken.
The object of literacy development is to cultivate the arts necessary for seeing and hearing things, not as their appearances strike our perception, but as they actually are. There is an analogy to be made in regard to all created things and their names. Theology and Philosophy accurately speak of the soul as the form of the body. Just so, things themselves are forms and words are like their bodies. Call to mind the Logos Himself, the ultimate Word of God. Christ is not the word “Logos” but the word “Logos” is the sign that points us to the Creator. To mistake the word for the “thing” is the path leading to the risk of turning things into idols.
Christ is the spoken Word of God, and for us mere mortals, our spoken word “Logos” is nearly an infinite reduction of the Creator. The written word “Logos” is a reduction of the spoken word and one more generation removed from the thing itself. Reading the written word is a substitute for the experience of hearing a word in which there are uncountable contextual connections that provide a framework for the bedrock of understanding. The written word, on the other hand, resides on a blank page stripped of all the background that normally gives words a living and breathing environment in which to survive beyond the utterance. Our work in cultivating literacy is not about the acquisition of vast amounts of information, or an immense vocabulary; it concerns cultivating intelligible access to the form of reality, the grammar and logic of the knowable world which prepares the student for an encounter with the written word; a form of communication hygienically stripped of its atmosphere and context by artifice.
One man who understood the nature of the written word and its dangers as an idol was Lycurgus, the great king of ancient Sparta. In Plutarch’s life of Lycurgus, we learn that his laws and institutes were religiously upheld by the fathers of Sparta and as a result, the city-state prospered and remained the crown jewel of Greece for 500 years. What is vital to note is that “Lycurgus would never reduce his laws to writing.” In fact, he had “a law expressly to forbid it.” Lycurgus understood that to write the laws would strip them of their relationships and circumstances necessary to transmit them faithfully to future generations, namely the relationships between parents and their children, and between teachers and their students. He also understood that writing them would incur forgetfulness of the very laws that guaranteed Sparta’s future prosperity.
To further examine the dangers characteristic of the written word, we can harken back to an age recorded by Plato. In the Phaedrus we observe a very enlightening conversation taking place in the Egyptian city of Naucratis between an “old god, whose name was Theuth” and the king of Egypt whose name was Thamus. Theuth “was the inventor of many arts… but his great discovery was the use of letters.” Theuth went to the King of Egypt “and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them.” Concerning letters, Theuth said they “will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit.”
King Thamus, after asserting that “the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions,” wisely counters: “for this discovery of yours 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.” A careful distinction must be made between memory and reminiscence. The written word as an idol becomes a faulty substitute for memory because, unlike to the internal memory, external access is severely truncated and in the effort to rely on the written word, the memory atrophies. The proper use of the written word is as a precise reminder of things we ought to hold in our minds.
The King of Egypt goes on to clarify: “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.” Even a cursory glance at our educational landscape will bear out a tragic confirmation of Plato’s warning about the dangers of the written word prone to become an idol; in fact, our teacher class amplifies the dreadful manifestation of his warning.
Technology is a constant temptation to idolatry because it offers an alluring set of false promises. Theuth promised increased wisdom, wit, and an enhancement of memory, but Plato and other visionaries warn vociferously of the opposite. The written word is a reduction of speech but its purpose is the same, first, to convey reality and second, to name, identify and explain something in service to what is due to the other. By our own lights we have fallen prey to the false promises of the written word and as the decay precipitated by idolatry advances, the writer’s question transforms from “what can I do with words for my fellow man?” to “what can words do for me?”
The idolatry of the written word has damaged our memories. The written word is not a substitute for memory, but a reminder of the spoken word as the sign that points to a created thing that ought to direct our consideration to the Creator. This examination of the idolatry of letters is not a plea to abandon the written word, for amongst many other extremely important things, the written word properly employed preserves the wisdom of the ages for generational recollection. Rather it is a plea to abandon the misuse of the written word. We must first recover an understanding of the nature of idolatry, technology and language. Then, we ought to revive a proper understanding of the purpose of the written word and return it to its rightful place subordinated to speech and to the properly ordered relationships between teachers and students. In doing so, we have a chance to recover a civilizing system of education.
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