In the Phaedrus, Plato has Socrates explain that and why no writing can ever be ﬁnal or perfect, that wisdom does not lie on the level of written words, but in souls. He then develops his insight with meditation on both the divine and human partners in the dialogue of life that we know as our human existence: “God alone is wise,” and so the best that a human being can do is to strive to be a lover of wisdom, a philosopher (Phaedrus 278). In the same passage, Socrates ascribes two purposes to writing: for playfulness, and for serving to help one remember, especially as one gets weak with age. Plato’s works do indeed remind attentive readers of much that one ought not forget, not let pass away into oblivion. And would that religious and ideological traditions, which idolize written texts, appreciated Plato’s caution about written expression, ﬁnding truth not in the written word, but at the level of conscious openness to the divine, “who alone is wise.” In other words, God alone is the unmeasured Measure, not human reasoning, politicians, or books. All truth is relative to the truth who is eternal wisdom.
The authority of Socrates-Plato not withstanding, it seems that one could adduce further reasons for writing other than playfulness and as an aid to memory. Indeed, the passage in question may well exemplify irony for which Socrates and Plato are well known. In any case, it seems important to remember that the purpose of writing is not only to produce a ﬁnished text, but to develop the activity of thinking, which is required in writing. Plato did not address this issue, at least not in the Phaedrus; his remarks pertain to ﬁnished products, and their necessary lacks. Whether or not Plato needed to write in order to aid thinking, it seems reasonable to believe that many who write ﬁnd it helpful to work out thoughts through the process of writing them out. Writing helps one explore various questions, and if possible, to think through a question or problem that one has found puzzling. Surely these or similar motives are at work in many who write. Very few of us have had the opportunities to think out questions in speaking, as Plato did. As we know historically, Plato did not have to work for a living, and was truly a man of leisure, spending his time studying, discussing, teaching. After all, he established the Academy in which he discussed and taught, and no doubt had some very intelligent students. Indeed, one brilliant young man, named Aristotle, studied under Plato for twenty years. Such lovers of wisdom could develop their thinking by questioning and answering, by dialectic, by exploring the human-divine in-between of ignorance and knowledge. They could think and speak; we often need to write. Of course, Plato wrote some of the most signiﬁcant, learned, and beautiful texts produced in history; it is difﬁcult to believe that he wrote only for playfulness and as an aid to memory. He also wrote to help educate human minds, and perhaps to work out ideas through writing.
It is probably not an exaggeration to say for many in our society who genuinely question, the opportunities are rare indeed to discuss questions arising in consciousness with similarly interested men and women. More simply stated: it is very difﬁcult to have genuine intellectual discussions in this society. There has been a lack of cultivation of reason. Perhaps in a large city, one interested in philosophy, or literature, or one of the sciences could ﬁnd a few likeminded individuals with whom to discuss. In years spent teaching political science and philosophy at two universities and one small college, I could usually ﬁnd a few colleagues as well as more intellectually inclined students with whom to discuss questions of common interest. In serving as a parish priest, however, I have found many kind and friendly human beings, and made some friends, but not often found minds desiring to share in an active search for truth about reality, about God, about what it means to be a human being. Hence, I have had to engage in questioning, not with ﬂesh and blood, but through reading, occasionally through emailing intellectually inclined friends elsewhere in the country, and through writing. At least since my early twenties, I have often lamented the lack of opportunities to engage with one or a few others in a common quest for truth about reality; no doubt such has been the lot of intellectually searching men and women in our culture. In America we have numerous colleges and universities, plenty of academics, boat loads of academic administrators, but no Academy, and little inclination to engage reason in a quest for God, for the truth of reality.
Studying and writing promote thinking and the movement of the mind into truth, and hence are means to develop a sense of purpose in life, and a degree of happiness. Furthermore, if thoughts generated in the process of writing have some existential merit, or even if problems are raised and explored in a less than satisfactory manner, others may beneﬁt who make the effort to read and to think about what has been written. Because the process of thinking is the heart of the matter, one may even learn much from a thinker whose thoughts are seriously ﬂawed, but who at least makes the attentive reader conscious of signiﬁcant issues requiring more careful reﬂection. For example, even once I discovered that and why such brilliant minds as Hegel and Nietzsche are often fundamentally disoriented and even spiritually ill, I continue to study their works avidly from time to time because even their mistakes and misguided teachings are more illuminating than facile truths generated by less radical thinkers. Nietzsche, for example, goes to the roots in his analysis of modern life and consciousness, and through his own rebellion against reality throws light on a truer way.
At least two stand to gain through writing: the writer and the reader. Writing sharpens analytical skills and critical thinking, requires one actively to remember, allows questions to arise in consciousness which may have lain dormant in shadows, makes one search for appropriate words and formulations, gives one a quiet sense of purpose, and may permit one to develop a means of communicating with fellow human beings not available through Platonic-like discussions. Time constraints, mental abilities, bodily needs, desires, various emotions, and so on, all can limit or affect genuine conversation; but the relationship between writer and reader may well be more objective, more dispassionate, and safely removed from needless distractions. The dialogue engendered between writer and reader, although largely hidden—at least to the writer—can be a mutually beneﬁcial human relationship. Reader and writer in effect journey together towards a better understanding of questions being explored. In this sense writing-reading may substitute for a conversation between two minds not immediately present to one another. Nevertheless, the writer needs to strive to be conscious of those for whom he is writing; and the reader needs to seek to understand not only the written words on the page, but the mind behind and in the words. The writer is not just speaking into the air; and the reader is not just reading a lifeless page. Ultimately, through writing-reading, mind is minding mind; that is, human mind is attending to human mind. Or, if one prefers, spirit speaks to spirit, heart to heart. Such is at the core of the writer-reader relationship. What is common to both writer and reader is logos, reason itself; and human reason by its nature is a participation in the divine Logos “who alone is wise,” and illumines searching minds, moving them to search beyond present thinking to a more complete and balanced understanding of reality—of what is, and why it is as it is.
Writing may help open the mind to reality. Using an image, writing may open doors. Some of the doors to be opened may be within the mind of the writer; other doors may be in the minds of readers; and still other doors may open up between writer and reader. Taking the last point ﬁrst: the case of the English writer, C. S. Lewis, and his late-found love, Joy Davidson, comes readily to mind as an example of an otherwise non-existent friendship that was engendered through the writer-reader nexus. As for doors or windows of perception opening up in the readers, that would largely depend, of course, on the quality of what is read, and how actively and intelligently the reader studies the written words. As for doors opening up through writing, it seems that whenever I have attempted to work through some questions by writing, new insights have arisen along the way, some conceptions have been modiﬁed or abandoned, and more questions have emerged into consciousness. Writing permits one to think through matters, to raise questions, to examine one’s own thinking, perhaps to make emendations over time, and to develop thoughts in one direction or another. And Plato is right: writing is indeed a form of play.