I hope you will find a way to forgive me; I couldn’t help but share this with you, since Jacques Derrida’s reading of Plato’s Phaedrus is one piece of evidence of how we appropriate the gods even now, using them as metaphor and myth, as ways to explain reality to ourselves. Also, Derrida and I share a birthday; weirdly, I understand him really well, although it must be said, in translation. Not in French. Mais non! C’est impossible!
Derrida devotes a section of his book Dissemination to a discussion of the ways in which writing is a problem and an ambiguity for Plato. Linking the written text of Lysias with the notion of the medicine/poison of the pharmakon through the use of Socrates’ retelling of the myth of virginal Orythia’s abduction at the hands of Boreas while she plays with Pharmacia, Derrida himself ‘plays’ with the term pharmakon over and over as he analyzes its relationship to the written text.
Applying the various meanings of pharmakon (recipe, poison, and cure), he notes that Socrates connects the term with writing when he speaks of Theuth’s ‘recipe’ for memory and wisdom, which is writing. That this ‘recipe’ is problematic for Plato is Derrida’s primary theme; Plato both derides and extols writing.
Writing is both poison and cure for Plato, who deplores the loss of true wisdom inherent in the act of inscribing ideas that are no longer one’s own; for ideas can become misunderstood and (mis)used when written down. The writer loses control of the text and cannot explain its meaning (as is possible in oratory), and so meaning is lost (which Derrida would claim is an illusory stance to begin with).
Yet Derrida wisely notes that to accuse Plato of simply destroying writing is a misreading, for Plato’s position is never that uncomplicated. Even though the philosopher-king Thamus to whom Theuth offers the gift of writing derides writing as inconsequential and potentially dangerous, it is nonetheless a gift from the gods, and an art. Even if mortals deride it, Plato implies, the gods themselves value its worth, and in Platonic ideology, mortals do not disobey the gods’ impramatur.
But it is because the “pharmakon of writing is good for hypomnesis (re-memoration, recollection, consignation) and not for the mneme (living, knowing memory) that Thamus, in the Phaedrus, condemns it as being of little worth” (Pharmakon 91).
An extended analysis of Egyptian mythology ensues in Plato’s Pharmacy as Derrida finds the hidden meanings in all the signifiers Plato relies on to describe the scene with Thoth. Derrida’s process of archeologizing language sifts out buried meanings from words long forgotten, and so he discovers Plato in ways that had previously gone unnoticed.
This is particularly true in his uncovering of the meaning of logos through the gift of the word given by the patriarchal sungods/fathers/creators, the gods Horus and Thoth, who combine to create the thought, and speak the thought.
These gods work collaboratively, but Horus’ thought/invention always precedes Thoth’s words, so logos exists only in the shadow of thought, and thought exists prior to the word. But Thoth is ultimately more important to Derrida than is Horus (as he is to Plato as well), because he fulfills so many mythical functions that pertain to, and inform, the act of writing.
Thoth is a deity responsible for so many aspects of existence: as scribe who is also mathematician and god of medicine, it is his task to weigh the souls of the dead, after he has counted out the days of life apportioned to each person.
For Derrida, the use of the myth of Thoth serves as a signifier for Plato’s attitudes toward writing, so that Thoth, the god of writing, death, and medicine, becomes inextricably linked with Platonic ambiguity, for that which kills, also cures. It is “precisely this ambiguity that Plato, through the mouth of the King, attempts to master, to dominate by inserting its definition into simple, clear-cut oppositions: good and evil, inside and outside, true and false, essence and appearance” (Pharmakon 103).
When Derrida says “[w]riting has no essence or value of its own, whether positive or negative. It plays within the simulacrum. It is in its type the mime of memory, of knowledge, of truth,” (105) he converges and diverges with Plato’s concern that writing can never represent truth, that it works as a simulation of truth rather than as an accurate representation of reality.
Derrida identifies an aspect of writing that Plato expresses some discomfort with at the same time he engages in it, which is the element of play within the simulacrum. Plato never accepts that a mere image of reality can be enough, yet he does engage in play, in metaphor and allegory and mythmaking, all the while recognizing the limitations of working with mere words, which arguably function as simulacra in Platonic writing.
Even in postmodern theory, therefore, we see ancient gods used to explain contemporary principles. Will we ever leave the gods fully behind, and find new paradigms, new metaphors? It doesn’t seem likely. We also use the Greek or Roman gods and goddesses to supply us with metaphors we take seriously in astrology. Their stories help us understand ourselves better, but we do run the risk of oversimplifying their stories for our personal reasons.
- Review: The War of Horus and Set (livingdice.com)
- Changing Literacies: A “Manifesto” in Five Narrowly Construed Parts (jasonorous.wordpress.com)
- On Plato’s “Symposium” (unfspb.wordpress.com)
- SocratesPlato In EuthyphroRepublic (daisy12andrews12.wordpress.com)
- A new (to me) ancient Isis hymn (isiopolis.com)
- Gaps of Writing (asifoscope.org)