Poetry and memory. Identity and diversity

Plato’s Republic is a work on the human condition. Book X opens with an analysis of the nature of poetry. Poetry understood as “a paralysis of thought”, a disease against which to procure an antidote, which resides in the knowledge “of the things of which they really are”.

Plato regarded poetry as a poison to the mind and an enemy of truth. But, we wonder, what kind of poetry was considered the enemy of man and society by Plato? As we understand poetry today? Certainly not. Although his poetry and ours may have ideas in common, what has changed are the environmental, historical and social conditions in which poetry is exercised.

The poetry of the 5th century BC. it refers to the epos, the epic tales that were handed down orally by aedes and rhapsodes and which served as an educational system for young people. History of Greek poetry is also the history of the first Greek paideia. The Athenian philosopher lashes out at poetry and rejects it as a means of communication. Poetry, mimesis of pre-existing behaviors, is just an illusion; as are the irrational and incompetence of poets who pride themselves on writing about science, politics, wars and education. Only philosophy, according to Plato, can discuss such arguments based on Reason. Reason that must examine and reorder the experience reported by the epic poems, which must reflect on what they say instead of passively identifying with them. Reason must detach itself, it must become the “subject” that detaches itself from the “object” by critically assessing it. Here is Plato’s criticism and proposal.

G. Dante Rossetti, Mnemosyne (1881) – particular

How do we learn today? Surely we are not used to the technology of mnemonic learning criticized by Plato, we have very little to remember by heart, starting from the mobile numbers of family and friends that we jealously keep in our smartphone and hardly, perhaps, remember by heart ours! If we learn something by heart, this was first read by us, it was not read to us by another – (see, for example, Read is remembering everything). This involves an energy-intensive process for which we first use the sensory organ to see and immediately identify a series of signs printed on paper or digital. Then we take care to translate these signs, to give them life and meaning, we translate them into sounds that we have to recite several times on our own. We draw exclusively on our psychic energies to memorize something.

Oral mnemonic learning in Ancient Greece, on the other hand, could save a considerable amount of energy. Since the sounds spoken aloud by aedes and rhapsodes were alive, there was no need for translation from visual to acoustic message, and the audience only imitated in the most direct and simple way possible. Modern man, in order to memorize, must practice a form of self-hypnotism; the Homeric audience was willing to undergo the hypnotism of another.

R. Magritte, Memory (1948)

And the digitized man? That digitisation imposes the standard model of efficiency is already almost self-evident (see, for example, The Digital City or The Right to Futility in the working society). That there is not a return to Greek hypnotism, in this case, not offered by the poet, but by the devices with which we interact and are integrated every day? Or are we completely losing the ability and technique of memorizing, lulled by the instant support of external memories, USB sticks and clouds?

The attention of the mind is constantly bifurcal: it preserves an identity, but in this same identity it leaves room for diversity. Our task today is to protect this diversity in the confusion of identities.


  • Havelock, E. A. 2019. Oral culture and the civilization of writing. From Homer to Plato. Rome-Bari: Laterza.
  • Plato, 2001. The Republic. In Complete Works. Milan: Bompiani.

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