The regression of humanity's knowledge

Books and people on fire

Facsimile of the burning of the Heathen Books at Ephesus; Books and people on fire, the intentional destruction of mankind's wisdom
Facsimile of the burning of the Heathen Books at Ephesus.

This chapter is the most poignant, difficult and probably most important of the entire book. As books are the natural enemy of those willing to impose their intentional ignorance on mankind, they burn them, denying all of us the means to live longer and more fruitful lives.

In the words of the creator of the modern encyclopedia, the reason to preserve knowledge is to “transmit it to those who will come after us, so that the work of preceding centuries will not become useless to the centuries to come; and so that our offspring, becoming better instructed, will at the same time become more virtuous and happy, and that we should not die without having rendered a service to the human race”. Knowledge to fight disease and pain, to build cities and to appreciate the many joys human genius can offer.

Libraries of Antiquity

The invention of writing over 5,000 years ago completely changed the fate of humanity. From now on, it became not only possible to discover and invent ways to cure disease, to improve the production of food, create safe and comfortable life conditions, but to preserve such knowledge for following generations. The memory of man is fallible, and men are mortal. But written down, thoughts can be conserved.

Achievements shared, passed on and improved from generation to generation, in a great 'chain of knowledge'.
This chapter introduces a history of the libraries the ancient world : Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome. The library of Alexandria attained legendary status, but we actually know very little about it or its demise : the facts about Alexandria are listed.

Attempting to quantify the loss of books at the end of Antiquity

Up to 97% of Greek written memory is lost, as well as about 80% of Roman history. All of the remaining ancient Greek wisdom amounts to 3,773,000 words, about 60 modern books.
Compared to Alexandria's library, even in its lowest estimate of 40,000 papyrus rolls, the surviving words would only fill about 300 rolls, or 0,0075% of the library.

The reader also discovers the number of books in medieval libraries, a time when not a single monastic, royal or papal library could rival with the great libraries of the ancient world.

The sole “time capsule” of Antiquity, Pompeii and Herculaneum, opens a window to a world where a single villa's library contained 1,800 rolls, mostly on one subject, Epicurean philosophy, in part describing the world as being made out of atoms.

And the portrait from a house in Pompeii of a couple said to be Terentius Neo and his wife, he with a papyrus roll, she with a booklet made of wood or wax, show us a world when even a baker and his wife were literate.

Religious burning : books

Extremists try to destroy both the memory of mankind and kill those who write it, and this is the most intense chapter of the book, describing millennia of books created and destroyed, from Classical Athens to the Roman Empire, the Talmud put on trial and the bonfire.
The printing machine meant that more books were produced, but since they challenged power, more books were burnt.

Diderot's Encyclopédie was too added to the list of banned books, denounced as “a poison of false and impious doctrine caused by the licence of philosophy and writing”.
It was forbidden “to read, keep or copy it on pains of excommunication” and for those who owned the book, ordered to “bring it to the Inquisitors who would have it burnt forthwith”.

Religious burning : people

One example of those unfortunate to be burnt with their books, Francisco Maldonado da Silva, a Christian physician of Jewish origin who converted to Judaism and committed the heresy of “professing the law of Moses”. Over 12 years in jail, he still managed to write in jail on scraps “written in very small, beautiful characters, and sewn together with such dexterity that they looked like pamphlets from a bookstore, having been written with ink made of coals and with the crooked leg of a hen”.

In 1639, he was tied to the stake “pale and emaciated, a mere bundle of bones, his long hair and beard forming a halo around his head, with the precious little books he wrote fastened around his neck”.

In the words of John Milton “For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.
And yet, as good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God.”

This is a preview of the chapter about the burning of books and the regression of mankind's knowledge through history from Lost Treasures.