Western societies are largely literary, while all societies in the past and many in the present, are largely oral. What is the difference?
The Near East in the late Bronze Age (3300 to 1200 BC) was composed of verbal, as opposed to literary, societies. Very few people could read or write and those who could were highly paid for their services. Communication, therefore, was predominately person to person without the intermediaries of books, recordings, and other media so prevalent today.
When a man speaks to another in private, the only record of their communication is in the minds of speaker and hearer. If no one else is around, there is no danger that a third party will be involved in that communication. When a man writes a letter or other document to another man, even in private, there is a record of that communication external to both of them. Unless that document is destroyed, there is always a risk that a third party will find and use that communication for purposes other than what was intended. Writing thus takes a very personal act, communication between people, and moves it outside of them.
Not only does writing move communication outside of both parties but it diminishes their importance. It is estimated that 80% of communication between people is nonverbal; the tone of voice, the position of the body, and the expression of the face being more important than the words used. The words “I have something for you” would be welcomed when spoken with the smiling face and warm embrace of a loved one at Christmas. Those same words would strike terror when spoken with the cold clutch and menacing tone of a home invader. Whether the Roman orator Cicero spoke to a friend or a crowd he could see the listener(s) and observe their sex, race, dress and mannerisms. He could pick up on their reactions immediately and modify his delivery to adjust to their needs. When he wrote he could neither see them nor they him and so some vital information about speaker and listener was lost.
Writers, on the other hand, have little way of knowing their individual readers. Readers, likewise, have little way of knowing the authors of what they read. J.K. Rowling, author of the popular Harry Potter series, has undoubtedly done market research about the mass of her readers and has talked with a few of them. However, it is impossible for her to know her readers past the most superficial level. Most of them she knows nothing about and most of her readers know nothing about her. In many cases, neither care. This situation is not possible with face to face, oral communication.
Technology separates man from nature, whether it is a building separating a person from the elements or pen, paper and ink separating people from each other. Oral societies, technologically primitive, are very personal societies, with prime importance given to the relationships and interactions between people.
It is difficult to transmit scientific and technological knowledge between societies and generations because in oral cultures scientific and technological know-how goes as far and lasts as long as the man with the know-how. Written records are sparse. Such knowledge does pass from master to apprentice, father to son and mother to daughter but the limitations inherent in humanity make it more difficult. The Dead Sea Scrolls were written between 150 BC and 70 AD and were preserved for over 2000 years by the heat and dryness of the deserts of Palestine. Thus the information that they carry is accessible to man over two millennia after they were written; no human could ever match that. These limitations slow the technological advance of oral societies.
Memory and literature, on the other hand, tend to thrive in oral cultures. The dearth of written records requires much more memorization and with practice comes improvement. Jewish scholars in antiquity were often renowned for having committed huge portions of the Scriptures to memory. Further, since poetry is more evocative and easier to remember than prose, and certainly easier than technical writing, poetic and figurative language blossoms in such cultures.
It is difficult to understand antiquity without grasping the differences between literary societies of the present and the oral societies of the past. Misunderstanding leads to unduly harsh judgments of our forebears and the “chronological snobbery” that suggests that moderns have nothing to learn from the past. Understanding leads to reasonable judgments of our ancestors and the realization that our lives will be enriched by reflecting on their experience as we confront our own.