Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Pedantic Park

My review of Anthony Grafton's book on the Republic of Letters, Worlds Made of Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West, is up at the First Things website. Excerpt:
Grafton shows that in the republic’s early centuries the bracketing of religious differences tended to confuse those who did not understand, or did not follow, the community’s distinctive practices. When Isaac Casaubon failed to employ his vast knowledge of Scripture and the Church Fathers to refute Catholicism, many observers assumed that this meant he was sympathetic to the Catholic cause and ripe for conversion. They could not understand that he was simply trying to assess the historical evidence fairly, which in his case meant that he could not fully sympathize with a French Catholicism that was increasingly Ultramontane or with the hard-line Calvinists within whose orbit he was educated. His loyalties to the Republic of Letters would not allow him to place his learning at the service of partisanship.
This refusal tended to make life difficult for Casaubon, and eventually he left France for England. He did not find England’s communities all that they should have been, but while at Oxford he did become fascinated with the recently opened Bodleian Library and, Grafton explains, was especially pleased that the books in the library did not circulate. “The library is open for scholars seven or eight hours a day,” he wrote to a friend in France. “You would see many scholars there, eagerly enjoying the feasts spread before them. This gave me no little pleasure.”
Three hundred and fifty years later, a scholar sat in that same library — Duke Humfrey’s Library, as the oldest part of the Bodleian had come to be called — and over a period of several years read every volume from the sixteenth century that the library contained. Eventually he wrote a book about what he had read, a book supposedly about the nondramatic literature of that period but, in fact, a sweeping intellectual history of the whole century. He managed the extraordinary feat of admiring and celebrating — within the limits set by scholarly honesty — some of the great enemies of that period, notably Sir Thomas More and William Tyndale, who were, he argued, far closer to each other in theology and ethics than they had been able to discern.
The scholar’s name was C.S. Lewis, and Isaac Casaubon would have loved both his learning and his charity. Just after finishing that book, Lewis was named to a chair at Cambridge University, and in his inaugural address he referred to himself as one of the last examples of Old Western Man — a “dinosaur,” he said, and, we may add, remarkably like the other dinosaurs that roam Pedantic Park. I would say “May their tribe increase,” but that seems unlikely, as I think Anthony Grafton would agree. May it at least not die out.


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