'Orality' and 'literacy' loom large but fuzzy in analyses of Greek culture. The Homeric poems show stylistic features typical of oral composition: but would the large-scale design of the Iliad have been possible without writing? Plato's arguments show the picturesque plausibilities of conversation: could Aristotle have invented logic without writing? Writing disseminates information and encourages argument: oral society is a society of rote-learning. The Athenians themselves agreed that written law is central to democracy: for unwritten law is the property of the oligarchs who know it. Chronology alone shows that this was no unitary revolution. But as a key to all locks it appeals as much to anthropologists as to liberal humanists, who cannot believe in high culture without high literacy. On the historical side, much scholarly energy has gone into determining the level of literacy - a futile business, since we have nothing but a sprinkling of casual facts, which prove nothing unless they are typical and their society static. Rosalind Thomas's rich and invigorating book takes a more concrete and profitable stance. The real question is not how many were literate, but literate in what, and for what? The uses of literacy do not determine social attitudes, but depend on them.
LRB 31 August 1989 | PDF Download