BOOKS

The Map of Knowledge

Author: Violet Moller

Rating: 4.0 / 5.0

Rarely have I read a book whose introductory anecdote so well aligns what the book contains. Moller’s introduction describes the famous mural The School of Athens designed by Raphael in the Vatican. She notes that the popular perception of the Renaissance was that those artists and thinkers like Raphael woke up one fine day, went to a library, re-discovered Classical learning and — violà — The Renaissance. Suddenly science, math, architecture, and governance experience a quantum leap and “civilization,” in a form that the Western modern mind recognizes, returns.

But this is clearly impossible. Knowledge that is not practiced or archived will be lost. It must be curated, maintained, and transmitted.

Asks Moller:

One of his most significant achievements was helping to produce the first English translation of Euclid’s Elements, in 1570. But where had this text been and who had looked after it in the 2,000 years between Euclid writing it in Alexandria [and the 16th century]

They had thrived in the Middle East.

As anyone knows who’s played the empire-building video games like Civilization, first you establish a food supply, then safety as guaranteed by a professional military, and then you get the low-yield/high-payoff leaps forward provided by intellectuals. Because this formula had been lost in religious wars and hamletization in the former territories of the Western Empire, these books found refuge with inky-fingered scholars and magnificence-burnishing enlightened Emirs.

Moller shows that over and over when immigration, tolerance, curiosity, translation and respect thrive under secure conditions, civilization blossoms.

In the millennium between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the Florentine Renaissance, the works took a walk-about from Rome, across the Golden Horn to Constantinople or through Alexandria, into the Parthian and then Muslim lands of the Middle East where they were translated to Arabic and were kept safe.

With the Arabian political and military expansion, the ideas rode with the surging Umayyad caliphate into Al-Andalus (and later Spain) and Sicily. As political and military fortunes turned again, a resurgent Iberian monarchy took back Spain into Christendom while a Norman assisted the papacy in re-gaining the southern ends of the Italian peninsula. Scholars’ discovery of the Muslim translations sparked searches for copies of the original books and/or were re-translated themselves.

In places like Italy, Spain, and even France and England, these works were translated into Greek, Latin, or even the vernacular so that they were ready for someone like Raphael to encounter. Moller’s book gives a survey of the places and cultures or leaders who were responsible for helping the books survive and return to Western relevance.

Given the expansive timeline, Moller’s work extends in breadth over depth, but it’s a fun and accessible tale of how the Western heritage was preserved in Arabia. For anyone trying to get the “big picture” of how “big ideas” were preserved and transmitted by some very colorful characters, its an enjoyable and informative tale. I saw one Amazon reviewer went on (…and on) about how the work was insufficiently rigorous to be a true history. It’s true, it doesn’t have the appropriate qualifier words of “maybe” or “quite likely” and makes several assumptions to gather a “big picture” over an academically rigorous-and-full-off-qualifications history. If you’re out to write a thesis, this might not be the best addition to your bibliography. For those who want to see how some of our most revered books survived to nourish the West, it’s a fine survey.

{
  "title": "The Map of Knowledge: A Thousand-Year History of How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found",
  "author": "Violet Moller",
  "highlightCount": 57,
  "noteCount": 2,
  "annotations": [
    {
      "highlight": "One of his most significant achievements was helping to produce the first English translation of Euclid’s Elements, in 1570. But where had this text been and who had looked after it in the 2,000 years between Euclid writing it in Alexandria",
      "location": 101,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "I decided to concentrate on a few specific texts and plot their progress as they passed through the major centres of learning. With my focus on the history of science and, more precisely, “the exact sciences,” three subjects were clearly delineated: mathematics, astronomy and medicine.",
      "location": 109,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Baghdad was the first true centre of learning since antiquity,",
      "location": 131,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "From Córdoba, they were taken to other cities in Spain and, when the Christians began to reconquer the peninsula, Toledo",
      "location": 133,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "In 529, two crucial events tipped the balance even further in favour of Christianity. The Emperor Justinian closed the Academy in Athens, the centre of Neoplatonist philosophy and pagan resistance.",
      "location": 268,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Benedict founded a monastery and, with it, a new religious order that would spread across the world. In the centuries that followed,",
      "location": 271,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "classical curriculum, which was organized into the trivium (rhetoric, logic, grammar) followed by the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music).",
      "location": 293,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "The idea of a universal collection also probably came from Aristotle.",
      "location": 420,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Demetrius of Phalerum, was instrumental in the design and creation of the Library of Alexandria.",
      "location": 421,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "In an age where knowledge and ideas were extremely hard to access, networks of like-minded people underpinned intellectual enquiry, but they were very small.",
      "location": 475,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Alexandria was the capital of the intellectual world for over a millennium,",
      "location": 482,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Euclid transformed his subject by creating universal standards and methods for practising mathematics—introducing the demonstrative method, an idea he probably got from Aristotle, that has been used not only in maths, but in all the exact sciences ever since.",
      "location": 520,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "In the earlier Hellenistic period, mathematical study was characterized by originality and discovery; in contrast, these works are indicative of the systematic nature of mathematics after Euclid, a period of assimilation and organization rather than innovation.",
      "location": 544,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Ptolemy’s approach to the universe was mathematical, an alternative to Aristotle’s physical description of the heavens,",
      "location": 610,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "based on data he took from the earlier Greek astronomer Hipparchus,11 and from his own observations. Ptolemy’s model",
      "location": 617,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "many similarities between Euclid and Ptolemy, so it’s easy to forget that they were separated by four centuries.",
      "location": 621,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "the god Asclepius told him that his son should be a doctor. From that moment on, Galen focused on medicine. It was also the beginning of his own profound personal relationship with the god whose advice, imparted via dreams, he followed for the rest of his life.",
      "location": 655,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "there was an esteemed tradition of producing drugs in Egypt and he was able to get hold of accurate, uncorrupted versions of medicinal recipes.",
      "location": 664,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Galenic corpus.13 Astonishingly, this makes up around half the surviving literature of ancient Greece,",
      "location": 669,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "In 415, a mob of Christian zealots had murdered the philosopher and mathematician Hypatia. Believing her to be a witch, they flayed her alive with oyster shells. Then they turned their attentions to the magnificent Temple of Serapis and its collection of scrolls, taking “apart the temple’s very stones, toppling the immense marble columns, causing the walls themselves to collapse.”",
      "location": 734,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Cultural exchange happened freely in Baghdad, resulting in an explosion of knowledge of all kinds—in",
      "location": 823,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "It is difficult to appreciate how fundamental preordination was to medieval men and women across both the Muslim and the Christian worlds.",
      "location": 828,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "In a world of untold danger and confusion, it was important to feel that whatever you were doing was part of a divine plan—this",
      "location": 829,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "At a time when many Europeans were living on turnips and trying to fend off the Vikings,*2 scientists in Baghdad had measured the circumference of the earth, revolutionized the study of the stars, developed rigorous standards for translation and methods for scientific practice, produced a map of the world, advanced the basis of our modern number system and defined algebra, founded new disciplines in medicine and identified the symptoms of several diseases.",
      "location": 858,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "the city’s four-mile circumference,",
      "location": 954,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "“There is nothing greater in the eyes of God than a man who has learned a science and who has taught it to people.”",
      "location": 971,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Within forty years of its foundation, Baghdad was a thriving metropolis.",
      "location": 992,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "which introduced Baghdad to the concept of “positional notation”—the way we write numbers to this day, using the digits 1 to 9, in columns of units, tens, hundreds and so on. The possibilities that this system opened up were limitless; when it was eventually adopted, it transformed the entire discipline of mathematics by allowing calculations",
      "location": 1109,
      "annotation": "771 CE"
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Brahmagupta listed the rules of zero—mystical symbol of nothingness, the “fulcrum between negative and positive” that “unlocks the secrets of the universe.”",
      "location": 1114,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Unlike the Christians who had lost their dominant position to the Arab settlers and Islam, the Jews were used to retaining their own language, faith and society alongside that of the country in which they lived.",
      "location": 1555,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "It is no coincidence that al-Saffar’s father was a brass worker, and this fertile communion of art and science produced some astonishingly beautiful objects.",
      "location": 1611,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Gerard of Cremona will be responsible for bringing the great ideas of ancient Greece and medieval Islam to Western Europe.",
      "location": 1852,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Like their Venetian cousins to the north, the inhospitality of their homeland forced the Amalfitans to be imaginative, to look outwards towards the sea to make their fortunes.",
      "location": 2412,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "a manuscript copy of the Pantegni, produced in the Montecassino scriptorium and supervised by Constantine himself in the late eleventh century, has survived and is now in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague.",
      "location": 2526,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "William was an incomparable king, “whose court is a school, whose retinue is a Gymnasium, whose own words are philosophical pronouncements, whose questions are unanswerable, whose solutions leave nothing to be discussed, and whose study leaves nothing untried.”16",
      "location": 2892,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Untangling the web of connections between the different versions of a text is extremely difficult and, at times, intensely confusing.",
      "location": 2994,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Throughout this story we have seen how trade opens up routes through which knowledge and ideas flow, propelled by merchants and diplomats, who were often scholars, too.",
      "location": 3037,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Fibonacci. The product of the Pisan trading empire, he was educated by the finest Arab mathematicians in Bougie (modern-day Béjaïa), on the coast of North Africa, where his father worked for the Pisan Chamber of Commerce. This enabled him to combine the theoretical genius of al-Khwarizmi’s algebra, the Hindu-Arabic numerals and system of positional notation with the practical demands of Pisan commerce.",
      "location": 3127,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Liber de numero (also known as the Liber abaci), originally written in 1202, set out the principles of arithmetic and helped to popularize the Hindu-Arabic numeral system in Europe.",
      "location": 3131,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Fibonacci also mentions that he has written a book called Practica geometriae. Building on The Elements, this treatise especially focuses on the irrationalities listed in Book 10, using algebra to devastating effect in differentiating between the roots of cubic equations and quadratic irrationalities.",
      "location": 3134,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "The Normans stand beside the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs in the pantheon of rulers whose personal intellectual interests and talents expanded the frontiers of science.",
      "location": 3159,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "A place more like an entire world than a city. —Aldus Manutius",
      "location": 3174,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Here, where the coast curves around the top of the Adriatic Sea, the two elements unite across a vast, flat expanse. The water slips over the fluctuating sands, islands appear and disappear, forests of reeds grow in the marshy ground, and the light, shining through billions of droplets of evaporating water, appears pearlized, supernatural, conjuring mirages on the horizon, a luminescent haze separating the bright blue of the sky from the pale aquamarine of the water.",
      "location": 3189,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "While the rest of Europe was yoked under the feudal system, with noble families tearing themselves and everyone around them apart in violent power struggles, Venice prospered as the first republic of the post-classical world.",
      "location": 3223,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Venice seems frozen in time, a historical theme park where the modern world does not really intrude, a place where beauty and antiquity prevail, where even dilapidation is imbued with splendour.",
      "location": 3254,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Unfortunately, the plan was ruined by an argument about Aristotelian logic with some of Venice’s patricians. Furious, Petrarch loaded his manuscripts onto a boat and sailed back to the mainland, never to return.",
      "location": 3268,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "De rerum natura, by the Roman philosopher Lucretius—a book that had not seen the light of day for centuries, about which there had only been rumours. Condemned and suppressed by the Church for over a millennium, this lyrical, complex epic poem contained ideas that were so iconoclastic, so threatening to the existing order, it was a miracle that it had survived at all.",
      "location": 3297,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "When it came to religion, De rerum natura was implacable: “All organized religions are superstitious delusions…[and] are invariably cruel.”",
      "location": 3308,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "As legate, he had stayed at the Benedictine monastery on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, from where he could",
      "location": 3405,
      "annotation": "Where was our honeymoon hotel? Here?"
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Fibonacci’s theory of arithmetic, as set out in his Liber abaci.",
      "location": 3456,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Perugian scholar called Luca Pacioli",
      "location": 3458,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "epithet, “the father of accounting,” thanks to his lucid explanation of the “method of Venice”",
      "location": 3469,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Aldus Manutius was able to bring all these strands together. He was the colossus of Venetian printing, creator of italic script, small-format books, clearly legible Greek fonts, the semicolon and a host of other innovations,",
      "location": 3579,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "His epiphany finally came when he noticed that Galen described an extra vertebra, one that was present in apes but not in humans. From this, he realized that Galen had never dissected human bodies, only those of pigs and apes; his own anatomical knowledge, based on extensive examination of cadavers, was therefore superior.",
      "location": 3767,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Rigorous observation of the natural world had triumphed over ancient wisdom.",
      "location": 3769,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us [Joshua 10:13] that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth,” spluttered Martin Luther, on hearing a rumour about Copernicus’ theory.",
      "location": 3809,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "the conditions that allowed scholarship to flourish: political stability, a regular supply of funding and of texts, a pool of talented, interested individuals and, most striking of all, an atmosphere of tolerance and inclusivity towards different nationalities and religions.",
      "location": 3830,
      "annotation": ""
    }
  ]
}