The Knowledge of the Ancients

I’m reading Eric Carlquist’s and Harry Järv’s massive new anthology of library history, Mänsklighetens minne. For an idea about what the anthology is like, consider that all the contributors are male and that the youngest of them was born in 1947. For an idea about me, consider that I would happily have read all 866 pages of it already in my later teens.

Reading this book, I’m struck yet again by the difference between knowledge “on good authority” and scientific knowledge. Throughout the European and Islamic Middle Ages, throughout the millennia of Chinese civilisation, ancient texts were preserved and copied largely because they were believed to contain valuable timeless knowledge about the world. In a few cases, like those of Euclid on geometry and Ptolemy on geography and astronomy, this was true to some extent. But in most cases the old authors, like Galen on medicine, did not actually have anything truly useful to say about how the world works. Before the scientific revolution of the 17th century, though, people had no good way to test that. They believed in the best authorities.

The radical proposition at the heart of empirical science is that there are no good authorities. It doesn’t matter what anyone said about the world a hundred or a thousand or five thousand years ago, except in the rare case when someone observed a nova in the 11th century. Observation rules.

Thus the texts that were once held to describe the material world are now studied mainly for what they can tell us about the world of ancient thought. To the extent that they are mined for data on the real world, it is by historians studying the time of their writing. This is a tiny business at today’s universities.

To a writer, it is of course sad to think that one day nobody will care about your work. But I feel even more sorry for those manuscript-copying monks who helped transmit the ancient texts up to the invention of printing. They must have believed that the works were really important.


6 thoughts on “The Knowledge of the Ancients

  1. Have to disagree strongly with what I think you are saying. These ‘old authorities’ even if wrong, were very important. You forget that the choice wasn’t between preserving ‘bad science’ or ‘good science.’ The choice was between preserving authorities whose worldview was shaped by at least an attempt to be scientific — say they were ‘protoscientific’ — and authorities whose entire worldview was shaped by a theological view that told them — they believed — how the world ‘was supposed to’ work.

    Remember just how poisonous that attitude was — and how pervasive, so that ‘kingly chronicles’ were more interested in portraying their subject as the ‘PLatonic Ideal of Kingship’ than giving any actual facts that might contrast with that.

    So those monks — and more those Islamic scholars who discovered and preserved and ‘retransmitted’ so many ‘classic texts’ that had been lost to the West — do not deserve being felt sorry for. They provided texts that were to serve as the initial stepping stones for the true science that was to come.


  2. We start out being the unquestionable voice of God and direct expression of reality and love to our infant children.

    Soon less Godlike than an appointed authority figure pontificating on what reality is and how it works. Still, until contradictory evidence comes to light, mostly above question.

    Eventually authority doesn’t cut it any more and the views and writings one of many well meaning but fallible voices.

    After a time the facts and insights become just partial explanations as he authors die but the knowledge base continues to expand.

    Soon the facts are seen as not so much wrong as inapplicable or a simplistic view of a much wider body of knowledge.

    Eventually what was the state of the art becomes a historical artifact. An example of how science and knowledge advances and an expression of a single point in time along a long arc of knowledge and advancement.

    A time passes what were authoritative sources become working examples of how human societies, consciousness, and brains worked ‘way back when’.

    So it goes.


  3. I agree, but don’t forget that during the middle ages, the old texts were often added to. This left a bit of room for knowledge to improve over time. Dr. Alan Touwaide has shown that some traditions of medical manuscripts seem become more useful as time passes, until the Renaissance fashion for original texts caused all the interpolations to be thrown out.

    It is sad how many brilliant people spent their time studying subjects (like theology) which turned out to have nothing to do with the real world.


  4. I remember a wonderful essay by Stephen J Gould on the change in academia between the 16th and 18th century. A thesis in the old tradition mean collecting anything and everything ever written about a subject by the Ancients (say horses) whether it was serious texts, myths, anecdotes or complete gibberish. The only criteria was that someone in a toga should have written it down.

    The new tradition that developed with the Enlightenment stated that only things that could be verified in some way should be included, and that there should be some sort of categorisation of information and a point to the whole excercise (y’know – a thesis).


  5. The older attitude is not yet gone, in many areas. In elementary school, I was taught not to question authority, for example. One teacher explained that summer heat is caused by earth being closer to the sun than during the winter. When one child looked up the actual explanation in the encyclopedia, she was roundly scolded and sent to the principal’s office for punishment.


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