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November 27, 2005

Openness, Secrecy, Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance

Long, Pamela O. Openness, Secrecy, Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2001.

In this book-length work, Long examines attitudes regarding ownership and secrecy within craft and technical traditions. Her study covers a remarkable breadth of time, from ancient Greece to the Renaissance. For the purposes of my project, I am primarily concerned with the first two chapters, which deal with antiquity.

Chapter One, “Ancient Traditions of Techne and Praxis,” begins with an overview of the Greek handbook tradition. Technical manuals were devised not only for speaking, but also for technical pursuits such as agriculture and engineering. (She also makes note of the assertion that the Sophists distributed written versions of their lessons.) Military technology was incorporated into the academic canon in the 4th century BCE. A remarkable policy of openness drove the production of these works: knowledge was to be shared, and earlier knowledge was to be improved upon. Philo, in the introduction to his military manuals, claims he won’t use old authors unless their works prove effective; rather, he will contribute his own knowledge (27). The Ptolemies, however, did value ‘old authors’ and went to great lengths to preserve their works in the Alexandrian Library. A special value was placed on the original of any text, and they developed a policy of removing all books from ships, copying them, and returning the copies to the owners. The same dubious exchange was executed with the Athenians (27-28).

The Romans also pursued a policy of openness, as demonstrated by Vitruvius in the de Architectura. In it, he says that “his own reputation will rest on his knowledge as revealed through authorship rather than on the construction of buildings” (32). He also pays homage to past authors whose work his own work builds upon. He makes a distinction between placing one’s name on a book written by another and compiling other’s ideas; the first is theft, and the latter is not. Long writes that this reverent attitude toward previous authors was characteristic of the Romans, and that authorship was to some extent a civic duty, since “authorship in the encyclopedia was intrinsically related to the civic orientation of elites within the empire” (38).

Most importantly for my project, she describes several differences between contemporary and ancient concepts of intellectual property. Distribution of books was beyond the author’s control, and there was no way to limit copies or protect the content. After the initial distribution, excerpts often appeared in anthologies, and the excerpts might or might not be faithful reproductions of the original content. There is no mention of intellectual property in either Greek or Roman law, but plagiarism and theft are often mentioned in the texts of both countries. Accusations of plagiarism most often concerned the attribution of books, not the copying of bits of texts. Compilation of works for encyclopedias or anthologies was not necessarily frowned upon (43).

The second chapter is devoted to “Secrecy and Esoteric Knowledge” in late antiquity. It covers the development of mystery religions/cults and the attendance rise of magical crafts. These crafts involved complex recipes and processes, and the texts containing them were most often accompanied by admonitions to maintain the secrecy of the material. The most extensive collection of magical texts, it appears, was the Greek Magical Papyri, which were the “working papers of a practicing magician” (48). The Leyden and Stockholm Papyri, which deal exclusively with alchemy, appear to be related to these Greek texts, as evidenced by the ink and handwriting. All of these contained craft secrets: “Evidence of secrecy suggests a kind of craft secrecy that kept knowledge of magical practices and recipes carefully concealed from the vulgar crowd” (51). Additionally, these texts represent a shift from the public, civic craft and technology texts of ancient Greece and Rome to a new, private secret notion of ownership. These groups continued the Roman admiration for past traditions and authors, particularly within the tradition of alchemy.

Posted by at November 27, 2005 7:53 PM | Books | Greek | Plagiarism | Publishing | Roman

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