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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 7:53 PM | Books | Greek | Plagiarism | Publishing | Roman

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November 17, 2005

from The Republic

Plato. “The Republic.” Authorship from Plato to the Postmodern: A Reader. Ed. Sean Burke. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1995. 19-22.

Plato’s quarrel with poetry is the focus of this excerpt. He proposes that poets (and “the honeyed Muse”) be banished from the city, since their influences are antithetical to law and order. Those possessed by the Muse (as mentioned in the Ion) are not subject to reason, and a city full of such individuals is composed of babbling fools. The Muse is positively not to be trusted: “... we have come to see that we must not take such poetry seriously as a serious thing that lays hold on truth, but that he who lends an ear to it must be on his guard fearing for the polity of his soul and must believe what we have said about poetry” (21-22). Poetry (and, perhaps, other creative products) are epistemologically suspect.

Here we see another example of the externalization of inspiration as well as the idea of the classical Author as suspect and untrustworthy due to his possession by this external force.

Posted by at 12:26 PM | Constructs | Dialogues | Greek

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November 16, 2005


Plato. “Ion.” Plato on Rhetoric and Language. Ed. Jean Neinkamp. Mahwah: Hermagoras Press, 1999. 23-35

The dialogue between Socrates and Ion is significant because it demonstrates that Greek thought in this period located inspiration outside of the author:

In this more than anything, then, I think, the god is showing us, so that we should be in no doubt about it, that these beautiful poems are not human, not even from human beings, but are divine and from gods; that poets are nothing but representatives of the gods, possessed by whoever possesses them. To show that, the god deliberately sang the most beautiful lyric poem through the most worthless poet (534e).
And you know that the spectator is the last of the rings, don’t you — the ones that I said take their power from each other by virtue of the Heraclian stone? The middle ring is you, the rhapsode or actor, and the first one is the poet himself. The god pulls people’s souls through all these wherever he wants, looping the power down from one to another (536a).
The author described by Socrates is the antithesis of Woodmanee’s Romantic author. Instead of finding original inspiration within himself, he is instead at the mercy of the Muses and the gods to the extent that he can’t even choose his own topic (as evidenced by Ion’s inability to expound on any text other than Homer’s). Since this inspiration requires an external force, it is not created strictly in solitude. And if the author cannot take credit for the inspiration, then his proprietary claims may be weakened as well.

Posted by at 6:06 PM | Constructs | Dialogues | Greek

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November 15, 2005

Literature and Literacy in Ancient Greece II: Caging the Muses

Davison, J.A. “Literature and Literacy in Ancient Greece II: Caging the Muses.” Phoenix 16.4 (Winter 1962). 219-233.

In this subsequent essay, Davison traces the rise of bookselling and collecting. He finds the earliest reference to a bookselling quarter in Aristophanes’ Birds from 414, and notes that bookselling became an export industry by the end of that century (219). Of course, private book collectors also began to develop their personal libraries around this time, and the libraries of Euripedes, Euthydemus, and Eucleides were apparently notable. A predictable second-hand book trade also existed, as did dealers in rare books (221).

In the fourth century, books became more commonplace, and so did the literary critic. Multiple editions of works abounded, produced with the cooperations of rhapsodes. Discrepancies were rife between the editions (most notably those of Homer), and it wasn't until much later that the critics managed to wrangle them into something approaching a definitive edition. By the middle of the second century BC, Greeks had begun to develop a true literary culture, one sufficient to be passed on to the Romans.

Most importantly for my larger project, Davison briefly examines the implications that the rise of the book had for intellectual property and publication. While our ideas of “publication” don’t map onto the sort of publication that was possible then, we do begin to see page layout begin to be considered, as well as basic usability. Authors were still not conscious of the need to create works of standard length, but the physical producers of work were beginning to standardize their trade (232). The author says “there is no suggestion that I can find of any idea that an author might have had any property in his writings or of anything like a law of copyright,“ and he doubts that they would have accepted money for their works either, given Plato’s admonitions against accepting money for teaching (232).

Posted by at 5:52 PM | Articles | Greek | Literacy | Publishing

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November 14, 2005

Literature and Literacy in Ancient Greece

Davison, J.A. “Literature and Literacy in Ancient Greece.” Phoenix 16.3 (Autumn 1962). 141-156.

Davison begins this two-part essay by clarifying his interests: “‘What makes authors tick?’ and ‘How do authors eat?’“ For these frank, simple questions, and for his conversational style, I’ve developed a special affection for his work.

His discussion of the importance of oral memory is much the same as Havelock’s much later work, although Havelock cites him only once in passing in The Muse Learns to Write. He discusses the use of storage language (without using precisely that term) as a ritualized, narrative practice, most often in the form of song (145) and in competitions (153). A fair amount of space is devoted to the fourth canon, particularly as a support for improvisation. Interestingly, he notes that the Muses often appear as “the guardians of factual tradition, the divine record office as it were to which the poet can appeal for information on matters outside his own knowledge” (145). The Muses are not always to depended on, though: “not all the Muses are as honest as she who visited Demodocus; Hesiod’s Muses put the telling of lies like to truth first among the things which they know, and only tell true tales when they feel like it” (146). Thus, Muses are not a reliable substitute for memory.

He also makes the point that writing a book or copying another’s work was not equivalent with preparing it for publication in the 8th century BC (149). Writing technologies were expensive (a papyrus cost 2 drachmas in the 5th century BC) and mass reproduction was nearly impossible. Copies were necessarily limited: the author himself, and his representatives might have copies. The fact that copies were offered as dowry points to a sense of absolute ownership in copies, if not in the content (151). “Such stories suggest that the author was confident that there was no other copy of the poem in existence, and that the exclusive right of recitation thus conferred might prove ... valuable” (151).

Unlike Havelock, he supposes that the transition from oral to literate culture took place in the course of a generation. In the process of tracing the rise of the alphabet and literacy in attic Greece, Davison makes an interesting observation: just because people are fully literate does not necessarily mean they spend much time reading, or that it is a preferred means of transmitting information or entertainment. He claims that most Athenians were not ‘great readers’s, preferring to get their content aurally much current audiences prefer radio or podcasts. While the alphabet was demonstrably in use by the end of the eighth century BC, reading as pasttime does not appear until the last quarter of the fifth century (143). He sees the first record of reading for leisure and respite in Euripides’ Erechtheus, which tells of a soldier coming home from war and sitting down to read a book. When such men are many, publication and the bookselling trade can begin to flourish.

Posted by at 1:48 PM | Articles | Greek | Literacy | Publishing

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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:

  1. [Homeric epics] were framed in a society free from any literate contact or contamination.
  2. The society was politically and socially autonomous both in its oral and literate periods and consequently possessed a firm consciousness of its own identity.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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).
Havelock claims that “no other instance of transition from orality to literacy can meet all these five requirements” (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.

Posted by at 2:34 PM | Books | Greek | Literacy

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November 7, 2005

Isocrates on the Ethics of Authorship

Behme, Tim. “Isocrates on the Ethics of Authorship.” Rhetoric Review 23.3 (2004): 197-215.

Behme identifies a number of ethical positions on originality and plagiarism in Isocrates’ works. He notes that Isocrates was obsessed with originality and conceived of it as a competitive enterprise, going so far as to say that the ideal speaker “knows how to treat the old subjects as no one else could.” One doesn’t want to be the first to comment on a new subject, but rather to be the last, definitive, wholly original word on a topic (200).

Isoscrates’ ethics are full of contradictions: He vociferously condemned unoriginality, but rarely cited others in his work in spite of admitting that he did repeat their words (205). He also heaped scorn on plagiarism, but often auto-plagiarised his own old statements, explaining that if others used his words, he should be entitled to do the same (204).

The author argues that Isocrates was motivated by the competitive desire for fame, fortune, and immortality (205). He was particularly concerned with the state of his reputation, which fed the reputation of his school and therefore affected his income. His frequent accusations of unoriginality can therefore be read as an attempt to preserve his own reputation while denegrating his competitors (206). Still, his highest concern was his immortal reputation, which he fully intended to extend beyond his death. He believed that his high standards for originality would help him to achieve this ultimate goal (208).

Unlike Logie, Behme seems to take for granted that Isocrates would indeed be considered an Author in the proprietary, solitary, and originary senses of the term. He does not position this claim against contemporary authorship scholarship, which generally holds that the Author did not emerge as a social construct until the 18th century. However, he is careful to point out that we should be sensitive to the vocabulary of particular periods, and so perhaps he would also argue that we should be sensitive to the constructs of those periods, which may not match our own. Still, I would prefer that his claim be better situated. Regardless of this quibble, the article nicely extends the current scholarship on original authorship in antiquity.

Posted by at 11:00 AM | Articles | Constructs | Ethics | Greek