The light we steal when we learn

This extract from Danielle Allen’s superb Why Plato Wrote brought to life an issue which I’ve found myself returning to endlessly over the years. On pg 26 she talks about the Socratic disdain for writing and the capacity for teaching seen to inhere within them.

When Socrates says that a written text can be no more than a reminder, he implies, despite the arguments about recollection elsewhere, that written texts cannot generate knowledge in a reader’s mind; they cannot teach. Only oral discourse can do that. oral discourse produces sturdy, healthy growths, whereas written texts initiate only short-lived and fragile growth. Socrates has a technical term for the quality of words that are capable of implanting themselves and coming to life in students’ minds; they have enargeia or vividness (278a). The related adjective, enargês, or vivid, was used by Homer to describe the appearance of the gods in visible form. 4 With perfect clarity, the ideas and arguments of oral dialectic, like Homer’s gods, are “set before our eyes,” as if in flesh.

If I understand this distinction correctly, it maps onto the vividness with which issues can be perceived during conversations about ideas. I’ve often come away from conversations in person with a sense of having got to grips with an issue that had in some sense previously eluded me, only for that to slip away when I try and set this understanding down in writing at a later date. It’s a matter of ideas “coming to life” in the mind only to fizzle out within soil which can’t sustain their vividness. There have also been occasions when these ideas have stuck, growing over time in a way that enables me to relate the maturity of my thinking to particular conversations (or at least conversational partners) which facilitated breakthroughs. This is something I’ve also experienced through writing, in a way best captured for me by this extract from Nietzsche:

The notion of revelation – in the sense that suddenly, with ineffable assuredness and subtlety, something becomes visible, audible, something that shakes you to the core and bowls you over – provides a simple description of the facts of the matter. You hear, you don’t search; you take, you don’t ask who is giving; like a flash of lightening a thought flares up, with necessity, with no hesitation as to its form – I never had any choice.

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, Pg 68 (Duncan Large translation)

This imagery is used by Nietzsche elsewhere when he describes collecting “in a book the lights he was able to steal and carry home swiftly out of the rays of some insight that suddenly dawned on him”. This is in contrast to those who “offer us nothing but shadows – images in black and grey of what had built up in his soul the day before”. Books can be textual edifices which invite us to lose ourselves within a sterile maze of the author’s own devising but they can also be palaces which keep alight flames of insight with which we light our intellectual passions if we approach them in the right way.

How can we design learning encounters which make it easier to steal lights and carry them home? How can we curate conversations which allow ideas to circulate with the enargeia which Socrates sought? How can we build interactions around the pleasures of what C Wright Mills called ‘the feel of an idea’ i.e. the excitement which comes from grasping something which changes how you see the world? It seems increasingly obvious to me that dialogue is part of the answer to all these questions and that we could learn a lot by revisiting classical accounts of the power of oral discourse.