A few years ago, I attended a conference where one of the speakers noted that someone living in 1905 would have more in common with Moses the patriarch than with someone living in our own time. There have been so many sweeping changes in such a relatively short time that the past seems too distant to yield any valuable contributions to the present day.
During my university studies, I would face this matter practically every day. On one side of College Avenue, I was involved in a campus ministry that emphasized returning to “New Testament Christianity”. In fact, the ministry grew out of the historic Restoration Movement which sought to return the Church to its simple, first-century character. The idea was that the farther we get away from the origins of this great thing, the more corrupt or distorted it becomes. When I crossed the street for my classes at Mizzou, the belief was reversed: the past was held suspect and the modern was privileged. The idea was that our expanding knowledge and our newer cosmologies required that we also outgrow antiquated worldviews and have a more modern notion of God, sex, the human person, fill in the blank.
Early in the Christmas break I finally got around to reading New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery by Anthony Grafton. It had been on my short list for the last two years. The author explores how intellectual history changed in the wake of the European discovery of the “new world”. Prior to that, people still held that authority principally resided in the ancient books. For example, to discern the pattern of the heavens, you read Aristotle. To make sense of the world that existed within the human body beneath the skin, you read the physician Galen. For centuries, the assumption for many, if not most, was that a “complete and accurate body of knowledge already existed.”
Grafton shows how with new world exploration and the rise of scientific inquiry, scholars had to revise inherited paradigms, if not abandon them altogether. In the new world after Columbus,
“the ancient texts continued to be read, translated, and admired, to provide the model genres for ambitious modern writers: epic, history, tragedy. And belief in progress would not become universal in the West for a very long time; not even in the Enlightenment would it find universal assent…Those who knew the ancient world best – the professional scholars – took the side of the Modern in the Battle, arguing that the ancients had in fact known far less than moderns about nature, the surface of the world, and much else. New standards of arguments – based, supposedly, on ‘facts’ rather than mere texts – played a larger and larger role in many fields.
The book is a tour de force as it relates to intellectual history, scholastic methodology, cartography and the nature of cultural encounter. And it provides a wonderful background to our current debates about curriculum (see the recent New York Times article on making college relevant) and how the past should resource the present in areas of religious belief, social values and new technologies. Highly recommended.