June 26th, 2011

Forgeries And Lies

A few days ago I dismissed the Christian scriptures- rather cavalierly- as a collection of lies and forgeries. Since then I've been doing what I can to substantiate or disprove the allegation- and it has been borne in upon me that nothing that has come down to us from the ancient world is any better. Lies and forgeries are all we have. Try pinning down any personality, any supposed event and you find you're gazing into a mass of swirling coffee grounds. Take just one example. There was once a famous library in Alexandria. Sometime between the time of the Ptolomeys and the modern era it disappeared. So what happened? Four possibilities are recorded: that it was destroyed by Julius Caesar in 48 BC, by Aurelian in the 3rd century, by the Patriach Theophilus in AD 391 and by the Arabs in AD 624 or sometime thereafter. So were there four successive libraries and four successive destructions?  In the end you begin to wonder whether there was ever a library at all.

Thanks to the destruction of that same library- supposing it ever existed- very few books have come down to us from Antiquity. Those we possess are corrupt, pseudonymous and of uncertain date.  Ancient writers were unconstrained by scholarly ethics. Ancient historians did their research by scouring the market place for rumour.  Also, they made things up. Just about the only ancient writings you can trust are the poems.

So when did humankind start keeping tolerably accurate records of its doings? Difficult. I think the invention of printing had a lot to do with it. Suddenly books were widely available and the keeping and questioning of the written record became a matter not just for one or two scholars, but for anyone who could read.  Thank God for Gutenburg. Even so, I don't believe anything like a modern literary and scholastic culture emerged until the 18th century- with the French encyclopaedists and the hangers-out in the London coffee houses.
What a young civilisation we are.