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.
November 13, 2005
The Muse Learns to Write
Havelock, Eric A. The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present. New Haven: Yale UP, 1986.
Havelock devotes the first three-fourths of the book to a description of his long-term research agenda and a review of the relevant literature and prevailing views on the topic of orality. His “program of investigation” provides an excellent model for junior scholars who are in the process of developing their own research agendas. His overviews of Levi-Strauss, Goody and Watt, McLuhan, Mayr, and Preface to Plato consitute a solid introduction to 20th century orality/literacy research. This text would be a good one to position in the beginning weeks of a course on the subject.
The new research in this book actually begins in chapter eight, entitled “A General Theory of Orality.” Havelock draws a sharp distinction between ordinary, everyday language and the ‘storage language’ that characterizes the oral tradition. This second type is ritualized, rhythmic, and poetic and/or narrative in nature, providing a means of containing vital cultural information and passing it along in easily memorizable, relatively static forms (70-75). (This is the speech that orality theory focuses on, especially when linked to literacy theory, which concerns the written form of this information.) The emphasis here is on culture: “a general theory of orality must build upon a general theory of society. It requires communication to be understood as a social phenomenon, not a private transaction between individuals“ (68).
The Greek mnemones performed this function, but Havelock argues that Greek culture demands special theories of orality and literacy because of several distinguishing elements:
- [Homeric epics] were framed in a society free from any literate contact or contamination.
- The society was politically and socially autonomous both in its oral and literate periods and consequently possessed a firm consciousness of its own identity.
- As far as responsibility for the preservation of this consciousness rested upon language, that language had originally to be a matter of oral record with no exceptions.
- At the point where this language came to be transcribed the invention necessary for the purpose was supplied by the speakers of the language within the society itself.
- The application of the invention to transcribe anything and everything that might be both spoken and perservable continued to be controlled by Greek speakers (86-87).
Contrary to his earlier work in Preface to Plato, he now suggests that we cannot assume that a great, sudden rupture of literacy occurred in Athenian or Greek society. Rather, the move was gradual, and the alphabet encountered an initial long period of resistance after its invention (90). When it was finally accepted, written Greek preserved the flexibility of oral Greek, a phenomenon that stands in contrast with the simplification of other contemporaneous written languages. Havelock also theorizes that the shift to literacy transformed Greek thought, introducing the active verb (107), the concepts of selfhood (113) and psyche (114), and the notion of intellectualism (115). (See also Ong, “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought,” 1985.) Still, while all of this was going on, the oral remained partnered with the literate throughout Socrates’ and Plato’s lifespans (116).
I am under the impression that Havelock’s theories have become canonical (but not entirely undisputed) in the 20 years since the publication of this work. His work is pertinent to my project, since once knowledge is shifted from the oral commons and encapsulated in writing, it becomes much easier to think of it as a “thing” that can be owned. (This notion becomes much more pertinent on down the line, with the rise of the medieval scriptural economy and then the development of Caxon’s and Gutenberg’s presses.) The Muse Learns to Write is certainly relevant to the study of authorship in antiquity, since it gives us a way to consider how the shift toward encapsulated knowledge began.