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June 21st, 2009

Jun. 21st, 2009

Nietzsche's Dictum

Ol' Fred once said that no man of reason could welcome the death of God, since following the death of God would come the death of Reason.  I'm not sure whether the old irrationalist would have welcomed this himself, or not.  He did, after all, celebrate the triumph of the will (as against the Aristotelian-Thomists, who held to the primacy of the intellect), and famously equated Truth with Power -- a dictum now enshrined in post-modernist deconstruction.  But as empirical proof of the former, we have been led to the following post elsewhere:
The Christian — at least the theologically and intellectually honest Christian — must hold that what shocks his conscience is not that Hitler intentionally and deliberately slaughtered ten million people in death camps, but only that he did so without first securing priestly approval. (And that he did not actually win; had Hitler won, the Christians would have been quick to provide theological cover.)

as well as to:

So, Roman Catholic Church, it is time to confess to your sins and prepare to meet your maker. Open your archives for all to see. Tell us the truth about your origins. Give back to the Jews any items from the temple of Solomon you have in your possession. Ask the Muslims to forgive you for the Crusades.

Why is it that the first thing they do is cut all ties to empirical evidence and rational thought?  Was Nietzsche right?  Or is it more Chesterton's dictum that those who start by believing in nothing will eventually believe in anything?  How the second poster supposes that the Catholic Church came into possession of items from the Temple of Solomon bespeaks a most wonderful "secret history.  It is certainly not the history most of us are heir to.  The "truth about your origins" is (get ready for it) a plot by Emperor Constantine!  Was there nothing that puissant emperor could not do?  I wonder if he realizes the origin of that folk tale as a fundamentalist rant.  (Why do they so credulously repeat fundamentalist yarns, anyway?)  But whether a hundred-year long counterattack in the middle of a thousand-year long aggression requires forgiveness depends on how one views the thousand-year long attack. 

The first poster is, however, even more seriously deluded and may, for all I know, believe also in albino assassin monks from a non-monastic society.  He seems never to have heard of the natural law.  One of his key evidences is (get ready for this one, too) that the Wehrmacht used on their jackets buttons authorized in WW1 (and used by the Weimar Republic) that read Gott Mit Uns.  That no serious historian buys this tendentious crap bothers him not in the least.  True Believers do not need facts. 

Jun. 21st, 2009

What the Greeks Knew

John Hannam, a British scholar of medieval science, has an interesting observation in an essay on the survival and destruction of the works of antiquity.

Of course, the Greek works that survive are those that the Christian Byzantines chose to preserve for us. Hence they give a very skewed view of what Greek thought was actually like. For instance, we have seen that the medical works of Galen make up a full fifth of the entire surviving classical Greek corpus. Add Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy and the mathematical works and we find that Christians were most keen on copying scientific and medical writings. The papyri from Egypt and epigraphical evidence show that this was not the concern of most pagan Greeks. In other words, we think Greeks were a rational lot because Christians were interested in their rational thought. Hence, the preponderance of Greek science in the surviving corpus tells us that the Christians who preserved it were very interested in science - not that the classical Greeks were.
He also discusses the preservation of Latin learning in the West.  We have about 10 million words of ancient Greek writing, 2 million of which is Galen's medical works.  We have about 1 million words of classical Latin (other than Christian works), a third of which consists of Cicero. 

So just what proportion of ancient literature has been lost? This is difficult to answer but we can get a rough estimate from the size of ancient libraries. Archaeology suggests that the biggest contained 20,000 or so scrolls and the Library of Alexandria itself is most reliably said to have contained 40,000. On the other hand, all the extant pagan classical works would not fill much more than a thousand scrolls so we have been left with about 5% of what might be found (barring repeat copies) in Rome. As for Latin, we have the names of 772 classical authors.  Of these, not a word survives from 276 of them.  We have fragments ranching from an aphorism to several pages of 352 of the authors.  Of the remaining 144, we possess at least one of their works but rarely all of them. 

Of course, this does not tell us what people were actually reading and we can get a better idea of this from the papyri retrieved from the sands of Egypt, especially at Oxyrynchus. Of the Greek literary papyri that have been edited, a full half are scraps of Homer, a further quarter are from works familiar from the manuscript tradition and the remainder are previously unknown. This suggests that roughly half of the most popular works (even excluding Homer) have been preserved through the Early Middle Ages by the copying of manuscripts.

Hannam also cautions us: 
Today we regret how much has been lost but we have been remarkably careless ourselves. Many classic television serials, such as Doctor Who from the 1960s, have disappeared because, at the time, no one felt they were important enough to use up video tape for. Even more tragically, large numbers of early movies like the second part of the incomparable Wedding March (1928) have been lost through carelessness and the perishability of nitrate film (for further details see here). Some surviving classics were preserved in a single print. To those of us who mourn the loss of classical literature this is a depressingly familiar story.



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