Living, Breathing Discourse

Consider the following two interesting stories about the ancient Greek hero known as Cadmus: First, he is said to have introduced the alphabet to the Greeks. Second, and more fantastically, he is said to have planted dragon’s teeth in the ground which afterward became an army. John Milton draws from both stories in order to illustrate the power of the written word. Books, he says, “are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragons teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men.” The second part of “Living, Breathing Discourse” (CUA Primer, pages 27–29), from Plato, features a contrasting view. Milton describes the written word in books as a valuable device that enables its author to speak while absent, but Plato’s Socrates describes the written word as something more like a toy that says the same thing over and over and which is pretty helpless without its author coming to defend it with spoken words. While Milton’s view has a lot in common with the view of C. S. Lewis in an earlier reading, the ideas that Plato expresses may seem more foreign to us.  Whether or not you agree with the view that Plato expresses, what does that view have going for it? Whether or not we fully agree, how might thinking about that view help us today?

Photo: “Cadmus’ Scroll (Washington, DC)” by takomabibelot is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
The original sculpture of Cadmus here is a figure on a door of the Library of Congress Annex in Washington, DC.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Jaesen Evangelista says:

    I’ve always been taught that text is something eternal and even sacred. I mean, even with the Old Testament and New Testament, we call it “Sacred Scripture,” sacred text. So I can totally understand the importance and significance of written works. However, I have never thought of the actual paper and ink as the most important aspect. Thinking about them that way shows that they are ephemeral, not eternal. What the most important aspect of books are the ideas, whether or not they can be defended by the author in another time. The ideas resonate throughout society forever, prompting new ideas and revisiting old ones. Yes, they may only be what they are and nothing more, but they are also instigators of eternal discussion and pillars of multiple abstract ideas. And actually, written texts are not bound to the author alone. So saying that they cannot be defended unless the author is present is very false. Texts can be defended by other people who firmly understand and firmly believe in its ideas. Texts also share ideas with other texts, like the Old Testament, the Torah, and the Quran. They can comment on each other, refer to each other, and teach the same lessons. A book is not a singular object in this universe. No, it is forever connected to other books and forever connected to humanity and our ideas.

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