Philobiblion, by Richard de Bury

Chapter X

Of the Gradual Perfecting of Books

While assiduously seeking out the wisdom of the men of old, according to the counsel of the Wise Man (Eccles. xxxix.): The wise man, he says, will seek out the wisdom of all the ancients, we have not thought fit to be misled into the opinion that the first founders of the arts have purged away all crudeness, knowing that the discoveries of each of the faithful, when weighed in a faithful balance, makes a tiny portion of science, but that by the anxious investigations of a multitude of scholars, each as it were contributing his share, the mighty bodies of the sciences have grown by successive augmentations to the immense bulk that we now behold. For the disciples, continually melting down the doctrines of their masters, and passing them again through the furnace, drove off the dross that had been previously overlooked, until there came out refined gold tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times to perfection, and stained by no admixture of error or doubt.

For not even Aristotle, although a man of gigantic intellect, in whom it pleased Nature to try how much of reason she could bestow upon mortality, and whom the Most High made only a little lower than the angels, sucked from his own fingers those wonderful volumes which the whole world can hardly contain. But, on the contrary, with lynx-eyed penetration he had seen through the sacred books of the Hebrews, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Chaldaeans, the Persians and the Medes, all of which learned Greece had transferred into her treasuries. Whose true sayings he received, but smoothed away their crudities, pruned their superfluities, supplied their deficiencies, and removed their errors. And he held that we should give thanks not only to those who teach rightly, but even to those who err, as affording the way of more easily investigating truth, as he plainly declares in the second book of his Metaphysics. Thus many learned lawyers contributed to the Pandects, many physicians to the Tegni, and it was by this means that Avicenna edited his Canon, and Pliny his great work on Natural History, and Ptolemy the Almagest.

For as in the writers of annals it is not difficult to see that the later writer always presupposes the earlier, without whom he could by no means relate the former times, so too we are to think of the authors of the sciences. For no man by himself has brought forth any science, since between the earliest students and those of the latter time we find intermediaries, ancient if they be compared with our own age, but modern if we think of the foundations of learning, and these men we consider the most learned. What would Virgil, the chief poet among the Latins, have achieved, if he had not despoiled Theocritus, Lucretius, and Homer, and had not ploughed with their heifer? What, unless again and again he had read somewhat of Parthenius and Pindar, whose eloquence he could by no means imitate? What could Sallust, Tully, Boethius, Macrobius, Lactantius, Martianus, and in short the whole troop of Latin writers have done, if they had not seen the productions of Athens or the volumes of the Greeks? Certes, little would Jerome, master of three languages, Ambrosius, Augustine, though he confesses that he hated Greek, or even Gregory, who is said to have been wholly ignorant of it, have contributed to the doctrine of the Church, if more learned Greece had not furnished them from its stores. As Rome, watered by the streams of Greece, had earlier brought forth philosophers in the image of the Greeks, in like fashion afterwards it produced doctors of the orthodox faith. The creeds we chant are the sweat of Grecian brows, promulgated by their Councils, and established by the martyrdom of many.

Yet their natural slowness, as it happens, turns to the glory of the Latins, since as they were less learned in their studies, so they were less perverse in their errors. In truth, the Arian heresy had all but eclipsed the whole Church; the Nestorian wickedness presumed to rave with blasphemous rage against the Virgin, for it would have robbed the Queen of Heaven, not in open fight but in disputation, of her name and character as Mother of God, unless the invincible champion Cyril, ready to do single battle, with the help of the Council of Ephesus, had in vehemence of spirit utterly extinguished it. Innumerable are the forms as well as the authors of Greek heresies; for as they were the original cultivators of our holy faith, so too they were the first sowers of tares, as is shown by veracious history. And thus they went on from bad to worse, because in endeavouring to part the seamless vesture of the Lord, they totally destroyed primitive simplicity of doctrine, and blinded by the darkness of novelty would fall into the bottomless pit, unless He provide for them in His inscrutable prerogative, whose wisdom is past reckoning.

Let this suffice; for here we reach the limit of our power of judgment. One thing, however, we conclude from the premises, that the ignorance of the Greek tongue is now a great hindrance to the study of the Latin writers, since without it the doctrines of the ancient authors, whether Christian or Gentile, cannot be understood. And we must come to a like judgment as to Arabic in numerous astronomical treatises, and as to Hebrew as regards the text of the Holy Bible, which deficiencies, indeed, Clement V. provides for, if only the bishops would faithfully observe what they so lightly decree. Wherefore we have taken care to provide a Greek as well as a Hebrew grammar for our scholars, with certain other aids, by the help of which studious readers may greatly inform themselves in the writing, reading, and understanding of the said tongues, although only the hearing of them can teach correctness of idiom.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31