Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Real Cause of Any “Dark Age”

To continue with my previous discussion of Hypatia, to blame the destruction of the Great Library Alexandria and the consequent loss of the knowledge of Greco-Roman civilization on Christian intolerance misses the point. Regardless of whether or not Christians performed the actual deed, in the long run, this knowledge was doomed to serve little practical use and be consigned to oblivion for two reasons, lack of effective means to reproduce and transmit this knowledge, and lack of an effective government under which the transmission of knowledge might be possible.

The real tragedy of the Library of Alexandria was that the tragedy was possible in the first place. Yes the Library was a true wonder, housing the intellectual wealth of the Classical world. There was a fire in the Library at some point, possibly even several fires, and with it went most of that heritage. What you have to ask yourself though is how did it come to be that so much knowledge was in one place and just one place to be destroyed in a fire? In our world of print and internet it is easy to take for granted how easy it is to reproduce texts and gain access to them. Take away print and the internet and you are left with the labor intensive project of reproducing texts by hand one at a time. Even a lover of knowledge, without an organized network to reproduce texts and pass them on is going to be trapped into single copies. An individual, or even a local group, would lack the means to do more and why should they do they as single texts cover their needs. The problem of course is that this creates situations like in Alexandria, large storehouses of texts existing only in that Library. A true monument to human achievement, but one that could do little for anyone outside of the narrow elite with access to the library and was a sitting target for the next outbreak of violence to destroy it.

From this perspective, ironically enough, the medieval Church fares better than the Roman Empire as a protector and transmitter of texts. It was the Church which successfully built knowledge networks of monasteries copying down texts and passing them along, to which we owe our knowledge of the Classics. Of course the ability of writing networks is quite limited compared to print networks, which would not come about until the early modern period. Without print, any attempt to transmit knowledge could at best only prove a holding action to the inevitable ravages of time such as natural disasters and angry mobs.

Knowledge networks, particularly fragile manuscript ones, can only exist to do whatever little good they might do under the protection of effective governments. The Romans did develop networks to pass on manuscripts, even if they were never as systematic about it as the Church. These though, could not survive the political collapse of Late Antiquity Rome. This started before the rise of Christianity. In the long run, Christianity may have failed to stop the collapse, but it certainly did not cause it. Potentially rioting murderous mobs exist in every society just below the surface, waiting to do harm. This goes even for supposedly civilized ones like Montreal in 1969, when the police went on strike for one day, as well as Late Antiquity Alexandria, which lacked an effective police system in the first place. Under such circumstances the library was doomed. It was not a matter of if the Library would be destroyed, but when and what particular spark would so happen to do it in. This has nothing to do with religion, though religion is as good as any other fuel under the right circumstances. (See Slouching Toward Bosnia.)

Even if the filmmakers had been right about Hypatia and the night before she was murdered she had cracked the big secret of the Scientific Revolution, anticipating both Copernicus and Kepler, it is unlikely that it would have changed the course of Western history. No matter how brilliant Hypatia may have been she lacked a knowledge network to pass her ideas along and allow them to become relevant to a larger society. This could exist within the political chaos of the collapsing Roman Empire. Like the Library, hers is the tragic story of a brilliant but ultimately useless monument to human genius, doomed to inevitable destruction and irrelevancy.

1 comment:

Clarissa said...

Great post! For me, the story of the Library of Alexandria is a poignnt reminder of the fragility of civilization and knowledge.