Rethinking Havelock and McLuhan Again

Stewart G. Flory

Gustavus Adolphus College

This paper attempts to resolve the debate between "Havelock-deniers" and  "neo-Havelockians." The former, the deniers, say that the Greeks in the fifth century B.C. re­mained basically oral in spite of surviving texts. The latter, the neos, assert that the Greeks be­came basically literate in spite of substantial evidence of continued oral­ity.

Some scholars have indeed denied Eric Havelock's McLuhan-in­spired assertions that burgeoning literacy in fifth century B.C. Greece stimulated the Hellenes to think abstractly (Preface to Plato,1963). These scholars point out that Havelock had fallen victim to a classic post hoc/propter hoc fallacy: Other factors than Greek literacy could have caused the intellectual revolution.  (R. Thomas, 1992; G. Lloyd, 1987).

The neos, however, ignore this criticism and simply restate Havelock's thesis in expanded form. They proceed on the assumption that the numerous texts surviving from the period must argue increased literacy, and such an apparently revolutionary change must have had some sig­nificant effect (J. Goody, 1986; H. Yunis [ed.], 2003). With the same evidence cited by both sides and no agreement on precise definitions of orality or literacy, no resolution has been achieved. The present paper, however, seeks to break up this logjam by adducing a couple of research achievements (both inside and outside of classics) that are ignored by or unknown to both sides of the debate. The result: the Havelock-deniers win, but with explanation.

The first achievement has to do with analysis of word separation, a phenomenon that did not become standard until the late Middle Ages (P. Saenger, 1997). Without word separation, written texts have to be vocalized in order to be read or "recognized." Thus Greek literacy was in fact a type of orality. The purpose of writing was not to pre­serve a text for silent reading—which was impossible in any case (B. Knox, 1968, ig­nores psycholinguistic evidence)—but to establish a text that could be memorized (M. Clanchy, 1979; M. Carruthers, 1990; confirming Plato's Phaedrus). Such was the case until centu­ries after antiquity. Word separation would have made reading quicker and al­lowed silent reading, but antique readers had no need or desire for either skill. They wanted to read and memorize a limited number of (at first classical, later sacred) texts.

The second achievement comes from late 20th century research in Liberia among the Vai people (S. Scribner & M. Cole, 1981). The Vai at the turn of the last century in­vented their own unique writing system.  A multi-year study of Vai literacy by an Ameri­can team examined, among many other things, whether literacy had any effect on the Vai mindset or psychology. The results were totally negative. Literacy had no measurable ef­fect on the Vai, either as to formation of abstract concepts or anything else.

In retrospect, specialists who work on them probably exaggerate the significance of surviving epigraphic and similar texts from the fifth century. In any case, comparative study shows that texts do not prove true literacy, which has been greatly exaggerated for the ancient world in any case (W. Harris, 1989). Finally, even if the ancients had been more literate than the evidence shows, their literacy remained for centuries only a useful technology for pre­serving oral texts—whose loss we would regret, to be sure—rather than a major cultural determinant. A better model than McLuhan for interpreting ancient literacy would be T. Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions: Revolutionary discover­ies come about in sud­den bursts (like writing or gunpowder) but can long lie semi-dormant before achieving their full potential for human good or ill.


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