Thursday, July 1, 2010

When Eckhel died: another entr'acte essay

I meant to get this posted in June. Now, seeing that I cannot simplify and clarify it very much without turning it into a classroom lecture (always inadequate) or a prospectus for a seminar, I shall post it with minor revisions, only providing a brief explanation for its genesis.

Not counting Facebook, I belong to a List for Classics topics,and a Discussion Group for Numismatics; these and one of the Blogs that I follow, Hydriotaphia, have entailed my dabbling again, in different ways, in some early modern authors (not the author of the Urne Buriall alone) and becoming aware once again of their intellectual world, that is to say the Authors that they all knew. Scanning all the Books in Print that the best read minds of the 16th through 18th centuries owned would be a relatively easy task for Google, but the authors held in common included some that only a few specialists read today. From Numismatics, I take one of the greatest of them, read today by numismatists, who also is one of the latest, since, in the course of the nineteenth century, the bases of scholarship (philological, natural scientific, and technical), gave shape to a new intellectual world. The public dissemination of it all by bulk publishing and transportation (even steamships and railroads) is only capped by the technology that makes blogs, inter alia, possible.

Joseph Eckhel (1737-1798) was so fine and trenchant a scholar that it is more than pardonable to read his opinions as if they were relatively recent (for they are not the last scholarly works, especially by Jesuits, to be published in Latin). Occasionally, however, we are drawn up short when other ancient languages and histories are concerned. When he cites Servius as an authority on Isis, for example, we are forced to remember that when Eckhel died in 1798, not only was the Rosetta stone only about to be discovered, in 1799, but it would be a generation before the Napoleonic expeditions were published or the hieroglyphic text deciphered satisfactorily by Champollion and company. Wallis/Wallace Budge, whose Book of the Dead you could buy in a Dover reprint, out of copyright, and now get by downloading, did not exist. Nimrud and Nineveh and Babylon, even, had yet to see the modern light of day. Even for Persian names, known in their Greek form, their written form in cuneiform was only beginning to be puzzled out. The secret rites of the Paris Illuminati, the Sophisians, based on a melange of Late Antique texts, which my former colleague Darius Spieth has done so much to clarify (see similarly had to rely on Greco-Roman texts for their supposedly Egyptian content. It is no wonder that their synthesis is oddly mystical. No wonder that it so strongly recalls the Masonic content of Schikaneder's libretto for Die Zauberflöte. It is very hard for us to keep in mind all the ramifications of a highly learned world whose knowledge of its own past was veritably a renascence, facilitated by advances in printing, of much that many in the Middle Ages had forgotten or neglected. Almost everything new, in natural science or in philology or in medicine, awaited new scientific tools. For example, from the Bible they knew that Abraham came from Ur of the Chaldees, but they had no idea of the ethnic anachronism and, of course, the Sumerians, and everything about them, such as the epic of Gilgamesh, were wholly unknown. The Bible did speak of Erech but not of Uruk. Though La Bruyère knew, I'm sure, that Theophrastos had lived in the 4th century BCE (he died in 287), and surely acknowledged that his Charactères of 1688, which made contemporaries who felt that they figured in it so angry, was simply a translation of Theophrastos's Characters (which no less a scholar than Jebb also rejoiced in translating), both he and his 17th century readers could take it personally, in so far as human social psychology has not fundamentally changed very much. No modern schools of psychology had been invented yet. Similarly, Aristotle, Hippokrates, Galen all could be taken as authorities. It was not yet ridiculous to suppose that you get gold by transmutation, though it must be admitted that the zeal to obtain the lovely and precious from the rough and common elements must always have had an element of fantasy to it: I think Theophrastos would have thought so. For that matter, if we can take Lucretius as speaking for them in this respect, probably also would Demokritos and Epikouros. We find it marvelous (or we ought to) when Lucretius thinks of the smallest things imaginable, atoms, as he gazes at motes floating in slanting rays of sunlight. Bits of dust may be gross compared with atoms, let alone sub-atomic particles, but we think grossly if we forget the almost non-existent technology at the disposal of ancient thinkers. Though we probably are right in thinking that simple lenses of natural quartz were known very early, anything like a real microscope, such as could see that Lucretian motes aren't atoms, dates only from the end of the 17th century. The early modern thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries still thought seriously within the parameters of Greco-Roman thought; they asked many of the same questions and still asked them in similar terms.
The reason that I think these considerations important is that a recent documentary on television almost mocked Newton for his interest in alchemy. Until I reflected, I too found myself shocked that Sir Thomas Browne read Paracelsus seriously (after all, unlike Giambattista della Porta, who made a point of saying that his Natural Secrets was originally a compilation made at age 15, Sir Thomas was writing in his maturity). Mea culpa, I was misled by Victorian and early 20th century emphasis exclusively on the hermetic and alchemical writing of Paracelsus. But, like the young G. della Porta, Newton would have known Paracelsus as a balanced whole, and so did Sir Thomas Browne. It was only when Renaissance medicine had become as inadequate as Galen's that a tangential modern movement treated him as partially and irrelevantly as the middle ages had treated as much as they knew of Aristotle. Paracelsus himself, if you allow him to be just himself and not a "who was Shakespeare?" sort of case, like the others, was proud to compare his work to Theophrastus. La Bruyère would have understood. Worse than not reading Paracelsus as all, persons craving the weird today read only a distorted fraction of Paracelsus, whereas he might aptly be treated in perspective, with respect, in the history of medicine.
I only mean to emphasize that everything needs to be read in its context, in this instance that of the best educated men in the early modern era, before microbiology, neuroscience as we know it, Hubble telescopy, scientific archaeology, digital photography, and so much more, gave rise to a different class of "the best educated men". Always, of course, including the female homines, anthropoi, Menschen, though many fewer of them had equal library access. Otherwise, failing to keep this in mind, we shall seriously misunderstand.