Questioning of the Writing Profession Plato’s The Republic
For all the time today’s students spend learning to write well, Plato is skeptical of those who spend their lives crafting words. In the tenth chapter of The Republic, Socrates condemns poets as imitators. In the dialogue that bears his name, Phaedrus wonders whether words in the constructed rhythms of speech or poetry will obscure Truth, the philosopher’s ultimate goal. Speech-writing is just the clever use of rhetorical device, poetry is faulty imitation, and both empty voices can deceive us. Eventually, though, Socrates admits that the work of words deserves our effort. Because he is a writer himself, Plato’s criticism of the writing profession rings hollow: "It’s not speaking or writing well that’s shameful; what’s really shameful is to engage in either of them . . . badly," says Socrates (Republic 69A).1 Writing never ceases to be an imitation. Bad writing and speeches always threaten philosophy. Yet Plato’s own work reflects the constant questioning of philosophical dialogue. It passes Socrates’s test for good writing.
When he refers to writing, Socrates means speech writing. Philosophers judge the written against the spoken—what Phaedrus calls the "living, breathing discourse" (276A). For the philosopher, the spoken word is superior to the written one. Composition takes on meaning when an audience hears it; even Homer’s merits as a poet come from the speeches his characters give. Socrates asks: "Have you only heard of the rhetorical treatises of Nestor and Odysseus—those they wrote in their spare time in Troy?" (261B). Good writing is a tool for talk; The Iliad is better heard than read. Socrates has no use for silence. Writing is meant to be read, and read aloud.
Delivery is still a problem. The writer writes for a purpose, and so giving a speech, however eloquent, is recitation. At best, writing "can only serve as a reminder to those who already know" (277E-278A). But philosophers are knowledge seekers whose search depends on the acknowledgment of ignorance. In a letter to Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning once wrote that "the fullness must be in proportion to the vacancy"—a vacancy the speechwriter rarely realizes, according to Socrates.2 Most speeches enable the writer and his audience to nod agreement to what they know already: "Those [speeches] that are recited in public without questioning and explanation, in the manner of rhapsodies, are given only in order to produce conviction" (Republic 277E-278A). Writing assumes the knowledge of its audience and reaffirms it. If there is no vacancy, writing cannot fill it.
But by his stringent critique of all written verse and prose, Professor Socrates shows us what he expects of his students’ essays. They should ask questions. They should explain a new point of view, not repeat one that is worn out. As he puts it, writing should help readers "remember from the inside, completely on their own"...