Plato on Writing


Plato, in quoting Socrates in his work “Phaedrus,” says that the skill of writing is inadequate to represent reality. His reason is that writing is, unfortunately, like painting in that it can only convey a very limited impression of an object, person or event. The most writing can do is to help the reader to reminisce about a subject, in which case it provides perhaps a better impression in the mind of the reader, but it still imperfectly represents reality.
This seems to me to beg the question. Is writing trying to represent reality? I would suggest that it is not. Take dialogue, for example. Everyone knows that the dialogue in a novel is not trying to represent reality. In reality people talk in unfinished sentences, hesitate, repeat themselves, stammer, punctuate their speech with “um,” “er,” and the like and are generally much less organized in their thought patterns than you would find in the pages of a book.
To the same extent, writing can do more than help a reader to “reminisce” about a subject. What about subjects that the reader has never experienced? Novels quite often do this, especially, say, when talking about a foreign place that a character visits. A well-written piece of description will allow the reader to receive a taste of at least some of what they have never personally experienced before.
On the other hand, it is true that there is only so much you can get across using the written word. Even using photographs or video is inadequate to allow the reader to experience something new. You can see this if you’ve ever used Skype or FaceTime to have a video call with someone else. Regardless of what our expectations of that particular medium are, it is nowhere near as “real” as being in the same room with the other person. There is a rounded experience of the other person, using the five senses, that is missing.
On balance, I don’t believe that Plato gives writing the credit it deserves. Could it be because there was no such thing as a blockbuster novel in his day (although, epic narrative poetry had been around for centuries, so he should have known better)? A well-written novel has the ability to create an entire world in the reader’s mind and allow the reader to escape into that world. It can allow readers to feel emotions along with the hero or heroine and to generally lose themselves in what you might call an alternative reality.
In some ways, writing might be even better than reality as we experience it, because it gives you the chance to analyze and dissect reality in a way that you couldn’t do as things happen to you in life. In a sense, writing can create a hyper-reality. It can also play with time. Nowadays, novels make full use of the flashback as a literary device, and even the flash forward. Also, the “omniscient author” point of view allows the reader to view the realities of various different characters in a way that would be impossible for an individual to achieve. Writing can also impart new information to a reader about almost any subject as a book progresses. In true reality there is no such thing as a running commentary explaining what is happening.
So, while Plato may be completely correct in his assertion that writing cannot represent reality, perhaps writing can go beyond reality and provide much more than can be experienced directly. You could argue that it is not healthy to escape “real reality” and lose oneself in a book where a kind of “pseudo reality” holds sway. But surely a little escapism is permitted, is it not, if we are to remain sane?

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