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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 18, 2005

from Conjectures on Original Composition

Young, Edward. “from ‘Conjectures on Original Composition’.” Authorship from Plato to the Postmodern: A Reader. Ed. Sean Burke. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1995. 37-42.

Young espouses the traditional belief that originality is to be aspired to, and imitation is creativity of a lesser quality. He makes the interesting distinction, though, between imitation of nature, and imitation of authors. Imitation of nature falls under the category of ‘original,’ while imitation of authors is, well, imitation (37). Originality extends the current field of knowledge, while imitation only gives us more of the same. A worthy imitation does have merit, but never the merit of an original.

While the essay focuses on these two larger issues, he does make an interesting gesture at classical texts:

If it is said, that most of the Latin classics, and all the Greek, except, perhaps, Homer, Pindar, and Anacreon, are in the number of imitators, yet receive our highest applause; our answer is, That they, though not real, are accidental originals; the works they imitated, few excepted are lost; they, on their father’s decease, enter as lawful heirs, on their estates in fame.
So if you imitate an original and the original disappears, you are then considered the original by default. Ethically dubious, but historically and pragmatically true. (It is worth noting also that Young never identifies a source for the assertion that Latin and Greek texts are all imitations.) Later, he also asserts that ’the ancients‘ should not receive much merit for being originals, since they had no one to imitate (39). From his earlier statements, we must assume that he must be referring to pre-attic texts. Again, no specifics are mentioned.

Young’s essay is a beautiful rumination on the nature of originality, but it is not much help in considering authorship in antiquity. However, it does give us a glimpse into the early-18th century conception of attic authors.

Posted by at 12:35 PM | Chapters | Plagiarism

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November 11, 2005

Did Demosthenes Publish His Deliberative Speeches?

Trevett, Jeremy. “Did Demosthenes Publish His Deliberative Speeches?” Hermes 124 (1996): 425-441.

Trevett refutes previous scholarship on the matter, building a point-by-point case that Demosthenes’ deliberative speeches were never published by Demosthenes during the era they were performed. He notes that the only direct evidence that they were circulated comes from Plutarch’s report of a statement made by Hermippos, who said that Aision had said that they were circulated. (426). Since this is no more than hearsay, it does not constitute proof. Trevett follows this opening salvo with the following points:

Of course, we can never really know how much revision took place or what the actual, live content of a speech was. In spite of these limitations, Trevett makes some interesting points about the distinct publishing practices concerning different speech genres (forensic and epideictic: yes. deliberative: no). This gives us a slightly different look into the scriptural economy of the time. Further, it suggests that a proprietary construction of authorship might have existed since there was a market for something like a pamphlet entitled On The False Embassy by Aeschines.

Posted by at 6:57 PM | Articles | Plagiarism | Publishing