Background and Suggestions for Taking Notes as you Read

You will be reading for this unit one of the major anti-technological, humanist treatises, Walden by American transcendentalist author Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). In the chapters emphasized here ("Economy," "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For," "Reading," "Sounds" ), Thoreau attacks technology, the new train system built in Massachusetts during his time being his prime example. Sometimes, it seems, Thoreau may be faulting technology and commerce for the fact that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation" (Dover ed., 4). As you read through the novel, write down what's wrong with those things, in Thoreau's view. To what does he oppose them? That is, how does his life at Walden pond differ from the life immersed in technology and commerce, the desperate life? Jot down everything that Walden symbolizes. Having these notes will help you do your assignment.

Socrates in Plato's Phaedrus is also opposed to technology, as is Thoreau. But for him the evil new technology is not the train -- it is writing itself!! Plato was a Greek philosopher (427?-347 B.C.) who wrote down what his famous teacher taught him and others, capturing Socrates in his favorite method of teaching, face-to-face conversation or dialogue. It has been remarked that the two people who have had the greatest impact on Western history, Socrates and Jesus, never wrote a word. However, we should notice -- and I'm sure that Plato was just as aware of this as we are when he was writing -- that we may in fact owe our knowledge of them to the fact that others wrote down their teachings. Socrates and Plato, the recorder/writer of Socratic dialogues, lived at a time when Greek culture was being transformed from oral to literate: older than Plato, Socrates saw the change differently (perhaps) than he did.

It may seem strange to think of writing as a technology, but think as you read Plato and Goody about the differences between literate and nonliterate societies. NB: to call someone "illiterate" presupposes that literacy is possible, that they are missing something valuable; to call oral cultures nonliterate is a less value-laden, less derogatory way of speaking. As you read, jot down all of the differences for Socrates and for Goody between nonliterate (or preliterate) and literate cultures.

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