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.