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FAUSTThe 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.

lycurgusOne 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.

written wordTechnology 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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Published: Jun 4, 2014
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. A convert to Catholicism, he is a catechist, a school teacher, and a writer and speaker on matters of faith, culture, and education. He holds a degree in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Steven is a member of the Teacher Advisory Board and writer of curriculum at the Sophia Institute for Teachers, a contributor to the Integrated Catholic Life, Crisis Magazine, The Civilized Reader, The Standard Bearers, Catholic Exchange, and a founding member of the Brinklings Literary Club.
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4 replies to this post
  1. Historians, of course, live by written sources. There are no reliable sources to tell us how many historians there are presently in the United States, but the number must be in the tens of thousands. Forget the stats you might find by googling–generally the numbers come up around 5000, but that wouldn’t cover the history teachers employed by high schools in the state of Michigan. I will say arbitrarily that there are at least 100,000 people in the US who spend much of their time doing historical “research.” That having been established, I remember going to the Federal Records Center near Washington, D.C. when I was doing “research” for my doctoral dissertation on the US relations with Spain during WWII. My purpose was to investigate what the records of the Office of War Information (our propaganda agency, the forerunner of the USIA) had to tell us about the making of American policy toward the largely hated Franco regime in Spain. I found that 1) I was the first person to request access to the records, 2) they were not indexed or catalogued, 3) they were housed in 3ft. X 3ft. boxes on shelves 12ft. high and about a football field long, each box filled with file folders crammed with papers, many of them onion-skin copies of typed letters and documents. There were perhaps ten rows of such shelves. I opened one box and counted 150 file folders, and counted 200 sheets of paper in that one file. So, at 30,000 pages per box, the boxes stacked six high on the twelve foot shelves, and each shelf at least 100 yards long, ten of them, about how many documents would there be to read? Need I say that I decided that my dissertation would be written without recourse to the OWI documents? That one agency of the US government produced enough paper to employ 100,000 historians for quite some time. When the Freeh Report on Penn State football claimed, a few years ago, to have examined a million or so documents and produced a report in about two months with a staff of (let’s estimate) 50 or so, I had a good laugh. What’s the point of responding to Stephen Jonathan’s fine essay in this rather obtuse manner? Well, read his last paragraph again and be overwhelmed by his argument.

    • Dr. Willson,

      It staggers the mind to consider the number of letters on countless pages, folders, boxes, rows, shelves, storage units etc…..and what we consider passable treatment for these words is ever degrading, as you say you “laughed” when soon I am sure we will both cry. At my little illiterate elementary school we have machines that count how many words students read and there were five in my school who read over a million words as counted by Accelerated Reader- the “winner” read over 5 million words this year, so it is confirmed by digital nannies. These poor children and their blissfully ignorant teachers really don’t know the first thing about literacy, but believe in mere shadows they count like sheep at the edge of slumber, a slumber from which we will not soon awaken.

      Thank you for your good words Dr. Willson!

  2. Yesterday an Anglo-Pakistani shopkeeper told me that his brother lived in “Vashington.” I’d just mentioned Washington and he’d obviously heard it pronounced properly before, yet he mispronounced it. Englishmen persistently mispronounce the Latin American nation “Nica-rag-you-uh” and they’ve heard that pronounced properly too. Neither have speech impediments. These and many other examples seem to show that reading a word has greater influence on how people pronounce it than hearing it spoken, even frequently. What may this tell us about the influence of the written word versus the spoken one?

    • Mr. Masty,

      Thank you for this interesting thought. The wise St. Anthony of the Desert was “unlettered” and his reputation for civility, brilliance and erudition drew many philosophers out into the desert to mock him for his lack of learning, they often left confounded- he would sometimes ask, “‘Which is first- mind or letters? And which is the cause of which- the mind of the letters, or the letters of the mind?’ After their reply that the mind is first and an inventor of the letters, Anthony would say, ‘Now you see that in the person whose mind is sound there is no need for letters.’” These and many others departed in amazement that an untrained man living in the wilderness could possess such understanding. He was “gracious and civil, and his speech was seasoned with divine salt, so that no one resented him.

      People and culture are funny and extremely complex- I suspect our queries have no empirical answers. I don’t see that you examples exclude the possibility that even though these misprounouncers perhaps can read words written that it is not because they have heard others pronounce those words that way and perhaps there are limits on the tongue when one comes to a new language a little later in life. I still contend that hearing is more important than seeing in matters of true literacy.

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