Books and Idiots : The Hellenistic Connection

 Peter Green’s The Hellenistic Age

A passage in Peter Green’s The Hellenistic Age really jumped out at me, and made me think that the For Dummies and Complete Idiot’s series of books may have a long pedigree in the history of books and libraries. The rise of the private individual (idiôtes, hence our "idiot"), replacing the citizen engaged in the public sphere and willing to fight, is a characteristic of the post-Alexander Hellenistic era. Making money rather than risking all through fighting is linked in Peter Green’s book to a greater concern with one’s emotions and with negative ideals: undisturbedness, avoidance of grief, and absence of upset. A quiet private life might be the necessary prerequisite for the increasing value of the preserved written word over oral traditions and public and military engagement.

Prior to Ptolemy II’s groundbreaking venture [the Library of Alexandria], advised by Demetrius of Phaleron, Cassander’s former governor of Athens, the whole idea of a public library had been virtually nonexistent, and even private collections of books were uncommon (in this, as in so much else, Aristotle was a pioneer). But here the times were propitious. The slow shift from oral to written as the basic mode of communication, already incipient by the end of the fifth century was given a tremendous boost by Alexander’s opening up of the East, and Alexandria was perfectly placed as both a mercantile and an intellectual center. It is interesting to speculate on this new relationship between individualism and reading. Which first stimulated the other? Reading, an essentially solitary practice, surely encouraged the idiôtes; yet the individual mind, in turn, must have fostered the development of a medium unconnected with public occasion and collective performance. A growing civil bureaucracy had indirect consequences of which its officials never dreamed.

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