On Writing, Writings and Reading

Socrates:  For, to some degree, I fear that writing has a quality that is truly like painting.  For the offspring of the latter stand as though living but if one were to ask them something, they remain nobly silent.  Now words also do the same thing: you think that they would speak intelligently, but if you ask something, wanting to learn from the speakers [i.e. the words], they always declare the exact same thing.  And whenever you actually [lit. once] write something, every word rolls about everywhere equally to those who understand and those who don’t; and they do not know to whom they should and shouldn’t speak.  And if they are wronged or abused, they never have a father to help them.  For they are able neither to defend nor to help themselves.  (Plato, Phaedrus 275d) [1]

As might be surmised from the above quotation, I am somewhat apprehensive about contributing to this blog.  Or any blog, for that matter.  One can only imagine how Socrates would feel about the (sometimes flippant) ease with which so many people today publish their lives and thoughts for the world to see.  One regularly hears stories about people who are embarrassed, or even fired, for the things they put in writing.  There’s even an entire web site devoted to preserving these “fails” from Facebook.  Needless to say (though I will anyway), I don’t want to be that guy.

Writings are always in need of an interpreter, but they don’t always get a competent or friendly one, as Socrates notes.  Any experienced writer has stories of being misinterpreted due to the inherent (and much lauded in post-modern circles) ambiguity of language.  Writings carry no tone of voice, no facial expressions, no body language, no context.  The real irony, though, is that they are always written with those things in mind.  Thus (my love of writing notwithstanding) any post that I contribute will be released with a sigh of resignation that once out of my pen, the ink can never return, so to speak.

I wonder if God, in his personal divine council, let the same little sigh escape his lips when he decided to preserve his word in writing.  Perhaps that’s one of the reasons he sent Jesus, the “living Word of knowledge” (to take a line from Plato out of context; Phaedrus 276a), to help us interpret his words.  Ironically, the stories about Jesus are writings too.

Christians revere their scriptures, which are precisely writings.  (The word scripture is from the Latin scriptum, meaning “a piece of writing” for which the Greek equivalent is γραφή [graphé].)  They are in need of interpretation in exactly the same way as this blog post…not that I’m equating my writing with the word of God.  They “[roll] about everywhere equally to those who understand and those who don’t.”  (Of course, it’s always easy to identify those in the latter category since you, dear reader, are always in the former.) They are words written with a specific tone of voice and context in mind of which we can inevitably recover only a little. They are writings that have at times been wronged and abused, pressed into the service of something counter to their character. Thus, while Socrates’ lament for writing is a caution for writers, it can also be taken as warning to readers.  It is a call for gentleness in reading the words of others, including God (and the contributors of this blog!). It is a call for Socratic ignorance, humility, and the willingness to genuinely listen to what (the) writings have to say.

Ben Edsall

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[1] This translation is my own, made in consultation with that of Benjamin Jowett, The Dialogues of Plato. 5 volumes, 3rd ed. (London: Oxford University Press).

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6 responses to “On Writing, Writings and Reading

  1. Ben,

    I couldn’t agree more and thanks for your post. It seems that as “people of the book” Christians are required to parse out this logic in a different direction, not “what sort of communication is most culturally immutable” (as seems to be Plato’s wider concern), but rather “how might we engage in vulnerable ways of communicating?” In this way, I like the blog format, as it invites (moderated) comments and a conversation to clarify and expand on what has been written. Though I don’t want to stretch your analogy to breaking, it might be appropriate to see the same in the relation between scripture and the history of interpretation, preserved for us in the classic (and contemporary) Christian writers.

    – Jeremy

  2. Hey Jeremy,

    Sorry for the delayed reply. I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “vulnerable ways of communicating” but I was trying to focus more on the responsibility of the reader rather than that of the writer. Also, I don’t know exactly what you are aiming at with your last comment about scripture and subsequent interpretation. (To be fair, I am still pretty jet-lagged which could easily account for my lack of understanding.) In many ways my position is similar to the one N.T. Wright outlines at the beginning of New Testament and the People of God. It is a hermeneutic of humility and love rather than one of harsh skepticism. In fact, this applies to every text insofar as readers ought to give a fair (even generous) reading rather than taking something in the worst possible light. I see it as an ethical way of treating the author through their texts.

  3. Holy Crap! You (Ben and Jeremy) are involved in some new bloggy community. I will have to love it, I suppose. And thanks for your post, Mr Edsall. So, you are talking to readers, helpful. I also had the sense, like Mr Kidwell, that the points you are making here can be cautions to writers also. Your communication as blogger must be (surely it will be) offered with the same kind of humility and love with which you intend readers to read your posts. All of our communications are, at best, sign posts that keep us heading toward meaning and fellowship. So, thanks for the sign posts. I look forward to following this venture.

    -Josh

  4. Ben, I love this: ‘They “[roll] about everywhere equally to those who understand and those who don’t.” (Of course, it’s always easy to identify those in the latter category since you, dear reader, are always in the former.) ‘

    So snarky. Clearly, you haven’t changed a bit.

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