McLuhan and Plato 1 – Phaedrus and Er

In Process and Reality (1929), Whitehead famously observes that “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” This is true in spades of McLuhan.

The dialogue that McLuhan most often (and most influentially) considered was the Phaedrus. He returned over and over again to the exchange in it concerning the value of writing between King Thamus and its divine inventor, Theuth (or Thoth)1. This exchange and McLuhan’s discussions of it will be considered in a later post.

But another section of the Phaedrus is arguably even more central to McLuhan’s project, although he directed little attention to it2. This section is, however, cited at length by his daughter, Teri, in The Way of the  Earth (1994), a book dedicated to her father “in loving memory”:

Phaedrus 249e-250b
every soul of man has in the way of nature beheld true being; this was the condition of her passing into the form of man. But all souls do not easily recall the things of the other world; they may have seen them for a short time only, or they may have been unfortunate in their earthly lot, and, having had their hearts turned to unrighteousness through some corrupting influence, they may have lost the memory of the holy things which once they saw. Few only retain an adequate remembrance of them; and [even] they, when they behold here any image of that other world, are rapt in amazement; but they are ignorant of what this rapture means, because they do not clearly perceive. For there is no light of justice or temperance or any of the higher ideas which are precious to souls in the earthly copies of them: they are seen through a glass dimly; and there are [therefore only] few who, going to the images, behold in them the realities, and these only with difficulty. (The Way of the  Earth, 217)

The myth of Er, in the final book (x: 614-621) of the Republic, tells a related story of a man chosen:

to be the messenger who would carry the report of the other world to men, and they [the judges seated “in an intermediate space” between the doors of heaven and earth] bade him hear and see all that was to be heard and seen in that place. Then he beheld and saw (…) the souls departing at either opening of heaven and earth. [614d, emphasis added]

These circulating souls journey in “the other world” to a place where they must choose a certain lot in their coming life on earth.  Socrates specifies:

And here, my dear Glaucon, is the supreme peril of our human state; and therefore the utmost care should be taken. Let each one of us leave every other kind of knowledge and seek and follow one thing only, if peradventure he may be able to learn and may find some one who will make him able to learn and discern between good and evil, and so to choose always and everywhere the better life as he has opportunity. (…) A man must take with him into the world below an adamantine faith in truth and right, that there too he may be undazzled by the desire of wealth or the other allurements of evil, lest, coming upon [such lots as] tyrannies and similar villainies, he do irremediable wrongs to others and suffer yet worse himself; but let him know how to choose [the lot of] the mean [ie, justice] and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible, not only in this life but in all that which is to come. [618c-619b]

Both symbolizing and grounding the lots which are offered to human souls in this way is the axis mundi in the double form of a rainbow and spindle, which supports the chain of being:

a line of light, straight as a column, extending right through the whole heaven and through the earth, in colour resembling the rainbow, only brighter and purer; (…) and there, in the midst of the light, they saw the ends of the chains of heaven let down from above: for this light is the belt of heaven, and holds together the circle of the universe, like the under-girders of a trireme. [616b-c]

The rear-view mirror often seems to be an important factor in this selection process:

the choice of the souls was in most cases based on their experience of a previous life [619e-620a]

But this is mis-leading for the souls since what is at stake for them is not continuous between lives:

there was not, however, any definite character in them [the lots], because the soul, when choosing a new life, must of necessity become different [618b]

Just as in the Phaedrus, the conclusion of this process in the Republic is that the souls which have passed through it become numb and forget all about it:

and when they had all passed [through the selection process “into the form of man”], they marched on in a scorching heat to the plain of Forgetfulness, which was a barren waste destitute of trees and verdure; and then towards evening they encamped by the river of Unmindfulness, whose water no vessel can hold; of this they were all obliged to drink (…) and each one as he drank forgot all things. Now after they had gone to rest, about the middle of the night there was a thunderstorm and earthquake, and then in an instant they were driven upwards in all manner of ways to their birth, like stars shooting. [621a-b]

Here the forgetfulness of human souls of their exposure to the forms of “true being” is, so to say, objective: it belongs to the constitution of the human condition to have drunk from “the river of Unmindfulness”. In the Phaedrus, by contrast, forgetfulness is more subjective, resulting from

having had their hearts turned to unrighteousness through some corrupting influence, they (…) lost the memory of the holy things which once they saw. [250a]

Probably both factors are at work in every human life. In any case, like Er,

few only retain an adequate remembrance of [“the holy things which once they saw”] [250a]

McLuhan was one of these few. Hence it was that he felt himself called to a certain office:

to be the messenger who would carry the report of the other world to men3 [Republic 614d]

But this report would carry an all-important proviso: that the other world is right here right now.

Here is how, at the age of 23, he was already able to express the point in a letter to his family from Cambridge:

Of late I have been wayfaring among the work of T.S. Eliot. He is easily the greatest modern poet, and just how great he is remains to be seen, because he has not produced his best yet. However the poems I am reading4 have the unmistakable character of greatness. They transform, and diffuse and recoalesce the commonest every day occurrences of 20th century city life till one begins to see double indeed — the extremely unthinkable character, the glory and the horror of the reality in life (yet, to all save the seer, behind life) is miraculously suggested. (Dec 6, 1934, Letters 41; brackets have been added around the phrase “yet, to all save the seer, behind life” to highlight McLuhan’s point that this world and “the other world” are synchronous5 and inextricably knotted together — while remaining irreducibly different from “the other”. The contrasting emphasis to ‘in‘ and ‘beyond‘ is original.)

The “seer” reacts against two conceptions of “the other world” (which ultimately amount to the same thing)6: the conception that the other world is elsewhere, “behind life”; and the conception that the other world is illusory. In deep contrast to both, the “seer” can “see double indeed” and so experiences “the extremely unthinkable character” of “reality” such that both “the glory and the horror” are beheld as bound togetherin life”.

“The other world” may be taken to specify the transitive “gap where the action is” in two senses. It may be taken as the critical point of trans-formation between the fundamentally different experience of the “seer” (who experiences “the glory and the horror” together “in life”) and of the “all” (who experience “glory”, if at all, only “behind life”)7. It is just such critical juncture ‘between lives’ that Plato describes in mythical form in the story of Er:

And here, my dear Glaucon, is the supreme peril of our human state…

This crossroads is ‘located’ in “the other world” because it is prior to experience, a priori, but only in myth can such location be described as belonging to some “other” space and time. In fact, the experience of space and time is subject to it. And just as “the glory and the horror” are experienced by the “seer” as together in life”, so also with this world and “the other world” — however “extremely unthinkable” this may be “to all save the seer”.

“The other world” as the transitive “gap where the action is” may also be taken to specify the relation between “the glory and the horror”. This relation is inherently plural as subject to different ways of experiencing ‘it’ (“in life” or “behind life”, say). The determination of the particular nature of this relation may therefore be said, in mythical fashion, to take ‘place’ in “the other world” — because that nature is always strictly correlate with the de-cision made at the critical point of trans-formation between the different modes of experience of the “seer” and the “all” and is therefore just as a priori as that de-cision is.

The gap between or without different modes of perception is isomorphic with the gap experienced within different modes of perception.  So it is that the latter may be taken to map the former (one of the keys to McLuhan’s new sciences) and so it is that what is definitively out of experience as prior to it (in “the other world”) is just as much decisively in it.

McLuhan was already at work on his 1936 Chesterton paper (completed in mid 1935) at the time of this December 1934 letter to his family. A future post will show in terms of it that McLuhan was fully conscious of these points. In 1937, a little over two years hence, they would be decisive to his de-cision to convert.


  1. McLuhan used both of these transliterations. One of the ads featured in Culture is Our Business (297) is for the “Random House Sweatshirt of the English Language”. And one of the definitions from the dictionary available from Eagle Shirtmakers (along with ‘drop-out’, ‘flower’, ‘lover’, ‘peace’, ‘woman power’ and ‘yin and yang’) was “Thoth: Egyptian Religion, the god of wisdom, learning, and magic, the Inventor of numbers and letters, and scribe of all the gods, represented as a man with the head either of an ibis or of a baboon: identified by the Greeks with Hermes.”
  2. But see McLuhan and Plato 3 – the wild horses of passion
  3. The subtitle of Philip Marchand’s biography of McLuhan, The Medium and the Messenger, is well chosen.
  4. Poems 1909-1925
  5. See McLuhan and Plato 2: When is myth?
  6. As Nietzsche recounts in ‘History of an Error: How the true world became a fable’ and as discussed here.
  7. Once “the glory and the horror” are (seen as) ultimately divided, all sorts of permutations of them are possible.  So, eg, “the glory” may be seen “in life” and “the horror” behind it (rather than vice versa as McLuhan has it in his letter).

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