Philobiblion, by Richard de Bury

Chapter VII

The Complaint of Books Against Wars

Almighty Author and Lover of peace, scatter the nations that delight in war, which is above all plagues injurious to books. For wars being without the control of reason make a wild assault on everything they come across, and, lacking the check of reason they push on without discretion or distinction to destroy the vessels of reason. Then the wise Apollo becomes the Python’s prey, and Phronesis, the pious mother, becomes subject to the power of Phrenzy. Then winged Pegasus is shut up in the stall of Corydon, and eloquent Mercury is strangled. Then wise Pallas is struck down by the dagger of error, and the charming Pierides are smitten by the truculent tyranny of madness. O cruel spectacle! where you may see the Phoebus of philosophers, the all-wise Aristotle, whom God Himself made master of the master of the world, enchained by wicked hands and borne in shameful irons on the shoulders of gladiators from his sacred home. There you may see him who was worthy to be lawgiver to the lawgiver of the world and to hold empire over its emperor, made the slave of vile buffoons by the most unrighteous laws of war. O most wicked power of darkness, which does not fear to undo the approved divinity of Plato, who alone was worthy to submit to the view of the Creator, before he assuaged the strife of warring chaos, and before form had put on its garb of matter, the ideal types, in order to demonstrate the archetypal universe to its author, so that the world of sense might be modelled after the supernal pattern. O tearful sight! where the moral Socrates, whose acts were virtue and whose discourse was science, who deduced political justice from the principles of nature, is seen enslaved to some rascal robber. We bemoan Pythagoras, the parent of harmony, as, brutally scourged by the harrying furies of war, he utters not a song but the wailings of a dove. We mourn, too, for Zeno, who lest he should betray his secret bit off his tongue and fearlessly spat it out at the tyrant, and now, alas! is brayed and crushed to death in a mortar by Diomedon.

In sooth we cannot mourn with the grief that they deserve all the various books that have perished by the fate of war in various parts of the world. Yet we must tearfully recount the dreadful ruin which was caused in Egypt by the auxiliaries in the Alexandrian war, when seven hundred thousand volumes were consumed by fire. These volumes had been collected by the royal Ptolemies through long periods of time, as Aulus Gellius relates. What an Atlantean progeny must be supposed to have then perished: including the motions of the spheres, all the conjunctions of the planets, the nature of the galaxy, and the prognostic generations of comets, and all that exists in the heavens or in the ether! Who would not shudder at such a hapless holocaust, where ink is offered up instead of blood, where the glowing ashes of crackling parchment were encarnadined with blood, where the devouring flames consumed so many thousands of innocents in whose mouth was no guile, where the unsparing fire turned into stinking ashes so many shrines of eternal truth! A lesser crime than this is the sacrifice of Jephthah or Agamemnon, where a pious daughter is slain by a father’s sword. How many labours of the famous Hercules shall we suppose then perished, who because of his knowledge of astronomy is said to have sustained the heaven on his unyielding neck, when Hercules was now for the second time cast into the flames. The secrets of the heavens, which Jonithus learnt not from man or through man but received by divine inspiration; what his brother Zoroaster, the servant of unclean spirits, taught the Bactrians; what holy Enoch, the prefect of Paradise, prophesied before he was taken from the world, and finally, what the first Adam taught his children of the things to come, which he had seen when caught up in an ecstasy in the book of eternity, are believed to have perished in those horrid flames. The religion of the Egyptians, which the book of the Perfect Word so commends; the excellent polity of the older Athens, which preceded by nine thousand years the Athens of Greece; the charms of the Chaldaeans; the observations of the Arabs and Indians; the ceremonies of the Jews; the architecture of the Babylonians; the agriculture of Noah the magic arts of Moses; the geometry of Joshua; the enigmas of Samson; the problems of Solomon from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop; the antidotes of Aesculapius; the grammar of Cadmus; the poems of Parnassus; the oracles of Apollo; the argonautics of Jason; the stratagems of Palamedes, and infinite other secrets of science are believed to have perished at the time of this conflagration.

Nay, Aristotle would not have missed the quadrature of the circle, if only baleful conflicts had spared the books of the ancients, who knew all the methods of nature. He would not have left the problem of the eternity of the world an open question, nor, as is credibly conceived, would he have had any doubts of the plurality of human intellects and of their eternity, if the perfect sciences of the ancients had not been exposed to the calamities of hateful wars. For by wars we are scattered into foreign lands, are mutilated, wounded, and shamefully disfigured, are buried under the earth and overwhelmed in the sea, are devoured by the flames and destroyed by every kind of death. How much of our blood was shed by warlike Scipio, when he was eagerly compassing the overthrow of Carthage, the opponent and rival of the Roman empire! How many thousands of thousands of us did the ten years’ war of Troy dismiss from the light of day! How many were driven by Anthony, after the murder of Tully, to seek hiding places in foreign provinces! How many of us were scattered by Theodoric, while Boethius was in exile, into the different quarters of the world, like sheep whose shepherd has been struck down! How many, when Seneca fell a victim to the cruelty of Nero, and willing yet unwilling passed the gates of death, took leave of him and retired in tears, not even knowing in what quarter to seek for shelter!

Happy was that translation of books which Xerxes is said to have made to Persia from Athens, and which Seleucus brought back again from Persia to Athens. O glad and joyful return! O wondrous joy, which you might then see in Athens, when the mother went in triumph to meet her progeny, and again showed the chambers in which they had been nursed to her now aging children! Their old homes were restored to their former inmates, and forthwith boards of cedar with shelves and beams of gopher wood are most skilfully planed; inscriptions of gold and ivory are designed for the several compartments, to which the volumes themselves are reverently brought and pleasantly arranged, so that no one hinders the entrance of another or injures its brother by excessive crowding.

But in truth infinite are the losses which have been inflicted upon the race of books by wars and tumults. And as it is by no means possible to enumerate and survey infinity, we will here finally set up the Gades of our complaint, and turn again to the prayers with which we began, humbly imploring that the Ruler of Olympus and the Most High Governor of all the world will establish peace and dispel wars and make our days tranquil under His protection.

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