THE EGYPTIAN god-king Thamus once warned Djehuty (Greek name Thoth), the inventor of writing, that “… this discovery of yours (writing) will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. (Writing) is an aid not to memory but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth…”

A few thousand years ago, the world was going through a revolution, an age of transition from “no-read, no-write” to writing. Although it is believed that writing, through the cuneiform, originated from the Sumerians in 3,500 BC, the Greeks developed a system of seeking knowledge that is best personified by Socrates—dialogue.

Through dialogue with his students, Socrates obtained knowledge directly through thinking, as contrast to merely having a long list of footnotes as references to his ideas, (like what this writer is doing now, a few thousand years later). With the invention of writing and the means to record knowledge, were men truly just given “only the semblance of truth” or is Thamus’ warning just for naught?

Let’s see:

Although I don’t know much about psychology, I think it’s safe to say that man cannot produce knowledge if there is nothing in his brain. In Socrates’ case, his brain was filled with data gathered by his five senses; his brain then processed it through thinking; his mouth spoke to share it with others; from that sharing he gained new knowledge; and so on.

In our case today, aside from seeing, tasting, hearing, smelling, and feeling, we can also watch, listen, and read (Braille for the blind)—of course there’s a difference. Through these simple actions that we tend to overlook, we gain knowledge. But that knowledge is still unprocessed. It only turns into wisdom and acquires application when contemplated about (and most of the time, that’s the truly hard part).

Today’s writers are yesterday’s thinkers. The best writers are those who have acquired more knowledge into their brains—they have more material to ponder with. There’s a slight advantage too for those who can swing technology to their convenience. As writers, we try to contribute to knowledge, but we must first embrace knowledge. After all, what’s the use of writing down over 3,500 years of human history if we’re not going to study it?

Sadly, in this day and age, many (myself included) would rather watch some mindless television show or kill time in some other unproductive way, than read a good book or surf through information databases, encyclopedias, history books, literature, culture and arts.

Perhaps Thamus was right to air his warnings, but not on writing, rather on the act of inventing.

Since the beginning, man has own ways to make things more convenient for him—inventing various tools, technology, etc. However, technology has also brought about the tendency of man to become lax, so much that they would rather settle for “surrogate” knowledge than seek the truth like Socrates.

But, who can really blame Juan dela Cruz for not reading a good book since he can’t afford one? What can really convince Juan dela Cruz to switch his television channel to the Discovery Channel blabbering about Alexander the Great, after a hard day’s work? Why would Juan dela Cruz pay a visit to the library or museum on a weekend when he could bring his wife and children to the mall?

Yep, we did it. We have successfully placed ourselves on the pedestal of an intellectual crisis. Capitalism has managed to put a price tag on knowledge. Although globalization and the mass media are bringing knowledge to more and more people through the Internet, and free trade, there are so much junk out there as well.

There’s also poverty to contend with. Some claim that, men are animals, troubling themselves with feeding frenzies foremost, before indulging in intellectual “high.”

It is ironic that knowledge can still be so hard to come by in this day and age. Even if it does, the costs (and risks) are also high. While the Egyptians regard Djehuty as a powerful god, telling even about a book he had written that contained “secrets of the gods themselves” which could make the reader immortal, the book was said to hold a curse that would bring pain and suffering to those who read it.

True enough, knowledge is indeed deadly, especially when it leads to the invention of weapons of mass destruction. Author/journalist John Hersey, in his Hiroshima (1946), wrote about Ms. Toshiko Sasaki, a personnel clerk at a tin works factory, who was crippled by the impact of a bookshelf that fell on her during the atomic-bomb blast in Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. The last line of the first chapter reads:

“There, in the tin factory, in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books.”

Montage Vol. 9 • February 2006


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