Thursday, April 25, 2013

This Business About Thanking The Monks

A somewhat confused and silly person accused me of not knowing what an analogy is, because I objected to the analogy: "The printing press was the Internet of the 16th century." He concluded a report on the dissemination via printing press of the Bible in the 16th century with the non-sequitor, "If you can read, thank a monk."

I have nothing at all against the individual monks who copied, for instance, Ovid's "Metamorphoses," an ancient Latin poem I like quite a lot. On the contrary, I suspect that some of those monks may have stuck their necks out a bit, or possibly even risked punishment, by disobeying orders in order to make manuscripts of the "Metamorphoses" instead of something more strictly Christian. Or the copyists may have been reluctant in certain cases, and it may have been their superiors, abbots or bishops, who were the enthusiastic Classicists and ordered the copies of Ovid's great poem to be made. Either way, as an enthusiastic (amateur) Classicist myself, I naturally appreciate the efforts of Western Medieval Classicists. All of whom were clergypeople.

But to thank a monk for the survival of classical literature -- let alone for my ability to read at all -- that is, to thank any monk for it -- every monk -- is beyond the beyond, as Pete Townshend would say. That would be, in effect, to thank Christianity for having preserved civilization. I already told Sir Kenneth Clark in a previous Wrong Monkey blog post what he could do with that notion. Apart from my objection to the extremely narrow and xenophobic definition of culture put forward by Clark, and also by some Catholic apologists who really seem to believe that the Middle Ages were a glorious time, when I am thankful to those individual Medieval Classicists who made copies of the works of Ovid and Sallust and Horace and the other pre-Christian writers I love, I do not feel that I am thanking them for doing something inherently Christian. On the contrary, I think I'm thanking them for having gone against the grain of Christianity, and having prevented Christianity from completely destroying all traces of Classical Greek and Rome, instead of only destroying most traces as it did.

I'm going to make an analogy here, to demonstrate that I do too know what an analogy is, and also to refute this absurd notion that if you can read, you should thank a monk. On the one hand, part of me thinks that the notion is much, much too absurd to need refuting; on the other hand, such notions have been advanced by people like Sir Kenneth Clark, who besides his cushy day job advising the British royal family on matters of art was allowed to make a public-television series whose format was comparable to the series of Carl Sagan and Dr Bleedin' Bronowski, as if his ideas were on a par with theirs, and by other people who often can not only, so it seems, dress themselves and walk about more or less upright on their hind limbs, but are also full professors and successful authors, in short: it seems to need refuting.

Imagine if between 1741 and 1993, in all of the lands of the British Commonwealth and in the US, only WASP's had been allowed to operate printing presses or websites or own bookstores or otherwise sell or distribute printed works. In this imaginary analogous past, other ethnicities were allowed to write, but if they were going to write for a public, all of the stages of publishing and dissemination of their works were going to be controlled by WASP's. Imagine if someone today in that alternate universe told you that if you can read you should thank a WASP, because of those 252 years when WASP's had a tight monopoly upon the printed word in certain countries. Thanking a monk for being able to read is no less ridiculous, no less insulting to the world outside of the party which for a certain time and in a certain area was allowed to tightly, rigidly control literacy. Literacy began long before there were Christian monks, it thrived all over the world in regions which until recently had never heard of Jesus. It's hard to know for sure about such things, but it seems clear that literacy rates within the Roman Empire declined sharply after the Christian takeover. Apologists blame the illiterate hordes from Northern Europe and Asia; I blame the Christians, who demonized all non-Christian writing and discouraged the masses from reading even the Bible. I think it's quite obvious where the blame belongs, if people will inform themselves about what happened, and if they are able to consider events without absolutely qrotesque levels of prejudice.

1 comment:

  1. So you say you are glad monks saved Latin classics but object to my thanking him [or them].

    You also say the monks were forbidden to do it--or maybe encouraged to do it.

    Get back to us when your thinking clears up.