Orality and Literacy in Hellenic Greece

Orality and Literacy in Hellenic Greece

Orality and Literacy in Hellenic Greece

Orality and Literacy in Hellenic Greece


An examination of the relationship between writing and orality which proposes that culture flourishes when competition among media emphasizes the strength of each.

Lentz builds on Eric Havelock's Preface to Plato, providing concrete evidence for Havelock's hypothesis on the importance of writing to the origins of Greek philosophy. He focuses on the interaction between the abstract thought and verbatim precision that writing reinforced and the memory and oral performance skills that were at the heart of the oral culture.

In each chapter Lentz illustrates the importance of the oral tradition of powerful memory and effective oral delivery in a given context, from the divine inspiration of the rhapsode to the importance of face-to-face interaction in Platonic dialectic. The contexts include the use of written and oral evidence in the law courts to the presence of both traditions in the philosophical works of Plato.

The resulting view of orality and literacy in Greece shows a long interaction between the two media, continuing through the Hellenic period. He shows that both traditions played vital roles in the intellectual flowering of the age: while literacy is a requirement for the basic recipe for Western culture, it is not the only ingredient. Lentz argues that the key to many of the most exciting cultural developments of the Greek world was the relationship between written and oral modes of thought and communication.


Mimi Sheraton described in her New York Times column how preconceptions colored her experience with a particular dish. Waiters at an oriental restaurant served the meal on a large number of small plates, and guests helped themselves to small portions of many dishes. Sheraton noticed one small plate with a delicate item crumpled upon it, something apparently dipped in a dark sauce. When she tasted it, the flavor was a severe disappointment. "This tastes like paper with soy sauce on it," she told her husband. "It is," he replied. "You're eating my napkin." Sheraton expected that anything on one of the small plates was food, and she acted accordingly.

Human beings approach the world with certain expectations that inevitably color their view of the world. They expect the soda machine to return a soft drink for correct change. When the machine is out of order, they respond by pounding and cursing, as though the machine had deliberately decided to irritate them. They expect the car to start in the morning as part of the normal order of things, and blood pressure and tempers rise if that normal order becomes, unexpectedly, abnormal.

Scholars are also human beings, and the completion of the syllogism is that they face the world with expectations based on concrete experience that color the way they interpret historical evidence. Scholars, in short, eat their metaphorical share of paper napkins dipped in soy sauce. The only way to avoid being blinded by what we expect to see is to pay close attention to the evidence, all the while reminding ourselves that what we think we see may be a self-induced illusion. While that statement has the familiar ring of a well-worn Socratic quotation, in practice it is often difficult to . . .

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