Tuesday, February 02, 2021

On Isocrates And The Preserving Of Knowledge

 This week I received the third volume of the existing corpus of the Greek rhetorician Isocrates.

With this acquisition, I have the whole published set.

On the one hand, this may seem like a very obscure victory - which, to be fair, it is.  On the other, hand, at least to me, it represents something more critical.

If you have not heard of Isocrates, do not worry - up to about two years ago, when I found the first volume as a prize find in my local bookstore, I cannot say I had heard of him either, or at least remembered that I did.  Which is a shame, really.

Isocrates, an Athenian and considered one of the Ten Attic Orators lived from 436 B.C. to 338 B.C. which, if you remember your Greek history, was a time of massive upheavals and changes.  Just think of it:  during his life (98 years) he saw the end of Periclean Athens (480 B.C. to 404 B.C.), the Peloponnesian War (431 B.C. to 404 B.C.), the Spartan Hegemony (404 B.C. to 371 B.C.), the Theban Hegemony (371 B.C. to 362 B.C.), The Third Sacred War (356 B.C. to 346 B.C.), and another eight years of unrest which finally resulted in the Battle of Chaeronea (338 B.C.), where Philip of Macedon cemented the growing power of Macedon over the Greek City States, supported by his son Alexander (whom we later encounter as Alexander the Great, conqueror of the Persian Empire).  As if someone born in Germany in the 1840's lived to see the Rise of Prussia and German Empire, World War I, the Weimar Republic, and the Rise of Hitler into World War II.

Isocrates taught rhetoric, the art of speaking in the ancient world.  It is believed that he did not actually present most of his speeches, but wrote them as letters or in some cases for others to read.  

It is a shame, really that he has fallen out of fashion as he is a good speech writer, good enough that the first volume of his work convinced me to purchase the second and third volumes.  He is good enough, i would argue, that one could read his speeches today and put to shame most of the "public speakers" we currently have. Reading his speeches gives one a flavor of his times (in one speech he calls for the unification of Greece; in another letter he writes to Philip of Macedon - it strikes me as somewhat funny that two historical figures would have some kind of letter writing relationship, even so very long ago). 

That is great, you may say:  you found an obscure author that you like.  I am glad for you, but not really sure why this is a victory of any kind.  

For me, this is a victory because it means that in some small way, the foundation of Western Civilization is preserved.

The West is no longer a people of the past.  We can scarcely look beyond the last 10 years for references on how we got to where we are and how we live.  We dwell in the social media, instant-internet age of the Now (not even the present).  Anything that does not inform the Now is considered old, and out of date.

Be cautious lest you think that this applies to merely the old works of the Western World.  In the Now's need to continue to be relevant, it will destroy anything it considers irrelevant, old, and passé.  The works of today will not be seen as relevant in another ten years - they will be not "Now" enough.

This is how knowledge is lost.  This is how civilizations collapse.

In my own way, I view getting and keeping these books as a practice no less relevant than the monasteries of medieval Europe preserving the texts of the past in a world that neither appreciated them not thought that they needed them - until, it turns out, they did.  They probably did not think of it as anything more than the preservation of knowledge.  But then again, they did not have 2,000 years of history and a realization of what a Dark Age could look like.

We, on the other hand, know better.


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you Glen!

      I have to tell you this has become a sort of game, the kind that I can enjoy: scouring the Interweb to find the volumes (with dust covers - that is my one requirement, they should have the original dust covers), seeing if I can find the older translations, and then finding them (if I can) not on The Large Interweb retailer. If I can use coupons, so much the better (and it usually works out so). Receiving the book is just the prize at the end of the hunt.

    2. I'd be fascinated about the translations too - after 2000 years there may be a bit of mnemonic drift and translations.

      Mind you, the bible traversed almost that amount of time and very little occured since the era of the Dead Sea scrolls so who knows.

      Are you capable with Latin, TB?

    3. Glen, I will say the Loeb series is very good about spelling out where they are drawing the original texts from. It is noteworthy that the amount of time between the texts were originally written and the most recent copy we have can be hundreds of years, and may only be a few copies. Kind of surprising that any of it survived at all.

      I have a little Latin. I should have more, really.

  2. I am in the same game. I look for obscure references in the metal working world at times. Other times, it's for those type books you mention... older history books, real math books, science books that don't preach but teach... I have a handful of grandkids that will learn from them...

    I could see the need for a resurgence of a local Mars Hill. Structured rules for debate and information. The internet isn't a good venue.

    You can tell a lot about the man by the library he has built.

    1. STxAR, I remember you were collecting obscure reference books from metal working (I think you shared some pictures from them too). And, as you say, you never know will learn from them.

      I wonder if such a thing as you suggest could be rebuilt. Possibly, in some places, with the right people. But the Interweb is certainly not the place.

      To be honest, if I enter someone's house and they do not have books, it makes me nervous.

  3. All is well and good but what keeps me up at nights is that when I am gone, my kids would take those three books, attempt to sell them unsuccessfully at a garage sale and throw them in the dumpster.

    I have a book that I've been trying to purchase for about ten years now. Late last year, I found a place that had it and bought it for an exorbitant amount, but when I figured out what I would pay to not spend another ten years of searching, it was dirt cheap. I got a ship notification and then a day later saying that oops, not only did it ship but they couldn't find it in their inventory and thus had to cancel my order. Then just about three weeks ago, I received a ship confirmation from the same vendor. I was thinking they found it and are still shipping it! Then the next day I got an email saying the vendor was clearing my order from the system and thus apologized for the false shipping notification. The search goes on.

    1. Fair point Ed - and surely many of these used books that and I am getting fall into that category. That is why one would have to plan for what will happen to them after on is gone (I am not nearly there, of course).

      I admire your diligence, but can imagine the frustration. There are one or two books I have that fall into that category (expense versus waiting), and the search continues. That said, I have (for the most part) had pretty good luck getting the books I order.

    2. I have one book that I would love to read and I can readily find it available but mostly the prices are about $10k. I just can't shell out that much. But whenever I go to a used or consignment book store, which are few and far between these days, I always look for that book just in case someone put it on the shelf without recognizing the "value".

      I say value in quotation marks because I don't think the book has much in the way of particular value as it is the first book the author ever wrote and he said it was so terrible that he stopped printing it after the initial run sold out. It is repeatedly listed online for high prices but not a single one has ever sold at that price that I can find. The only one I ever did see that actually sold still sold for a $1k which is more than I would spend anyway.

    3. Ed, I have the same sort of experience. There is an Iai book for our school (but not our particular branch) that has wonderful background information but is not longer in print. I still keep looking to see if I can find it (probably only online), but no luck.

      That said, the online book pricing structure can be inflated. Everyone sees something posted at a certain price and goes to that or above, not actually checking if anything has sold at that price.

  4. Good for you, TB! Once I realized that eBooks (including PDFs) can be coded to self-delete, I thought, wow, a modern day book burning couldn't be easier.

    "He is good enough, i would argue, that one could read his speeches today and put to shame most of the "public speakers" we currently have."

    I daresay that good speeches are rare these days. Like screenplays and journalism, I'm guessing it's because no one really knows how to write anymore. Not just poor grammar, but logical development of thought. I listen critically to speeches and conclude that for all the words they used, they didn't say anything. Establishment movies follow the same boring formulas. "News" articles often leave me wondering if they're for or against?

    The great civilizations of history had cultures of intelligence and beauty. Modern culture is one of convenience and quick turn-over. Not a legacy to be proud of.

    1. Leigh - What you mention is, and has always been, the soft underbelly of anything electronic, but especially anything that one does not own a physical something of (as opposed, for example, a disk for software). I applaud the work of people like Project Gutenberg as they have made obscure and out of print books widely available - but with the simple click of a button, that can all instantly go away. The old Soviet Union Commissars would be extremely jealous.

      Good speeches are in fact very rare - I scarcely listen to them anymore as they are seldom "good speech". I would agree that it is because people have lost the ability develop thought logically or even write prose worth listening to. At the same time, the society no longer wants or values the ability to speak well - else we would send these poor speech makers packing. One of the great notes of Julius Caesar and his successors - down through Nero - was that at some level, they could all give reasonably good speeches and the fact some of their successors could not was noted.

      We have a largely disposable culture, and things of intelligence and beauty do not survive in such cultures, because why would anyone put such effort into something that is to be destroyed? Convenience and quick turn-over, as you note, are hallmarks of it - and these are utilitarian (again, something that intelligence and beauty have little value in).

      We seem to have entered the modern era as a plain of plenty, well watered, and are leaving it a desert where nothing can grow.

  5. A very good, somewhat modern book that revolves around your very same train of thought is "A Canticle for Leibowitz".

    1. NM, I have often read of this book and its premise but not read. Seems like I need to.

    2. TB- yes, if you have not yet read this I recommend it highly. It is often billed as a sci-fi novel, but it is much deeper than that.

      Also, a good set of sources for many older books can be the Internet Archive (archive.org) and gutenberg.com

    3. I will certainly bear it in mind and be on the look out for it.

      I have used Gutenberg in the past, but have not heard of Archive. Thanks for the suggestion!

  6. Congratulations, TB! :)

    1. Thank you Linda. Sometimes it is the simple things that keep one going.


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