The Pragmatics of the New:

Trithemius, McLuhan, Cassiodorus[1]

James J. O'Donnell

The University of Pennsylvania

First a little late news from the net. Books are here to stay:
BOOKS ARE FOREVER, SAYS AUTHOR: Fiction Pulitzer Prize winner E. Annie Proulx says that the information highway is "for bulletin boards on esoteric subjects, reference works, lists and news -- timely, utilitarian information, efficiently pulled through the wires. Nobody is going to sit down and read a novel on a twitchy little screen. Ever." (New York Times 5/26/94 A13)[2]
Of course a successful novelist has a certain conflict of interest that might distort judgment . Whether the fictions that we can and will read on screen will be known as "novels" is a question I leave for others. I have no reason to think that books will disappear within a reasonable future, but the status of the book is surely labile now as it has not been in five hundred years. My purpose today is to meditate on some of our experiences in such labile past times, and to venture to extract a few morals.

Let me begin with a story that played itself out a few miles from San Marino, on the strand at Rimini.

The pope was not happy. He had been summoned from Rome by the government at Ravenna to face accusations, not for the first time, of irregular election and unseemly conduct. To be sure, he had not yet been called, as he was later to be called, to pay back a rather substantial loan made from a Milanese banker taken to sustain the costs of doing business with the grasping functionaries of the government; but on the other hand he had not yet been raised, as he would later be raised, to the formal rank of Saint of the universal church. He was this day breaking his journey to Ravenna at Rimini, walking on the beach and taking the air, when he saw a carriage pass by on the high road to Ravenna carrying women he recognized. They were the very women with whom he had been accused at Rome of illicit association, and he knew at once that they had been summoned to Ravenna to testify against him. Keeping his knowledge to himself, he waited until nightfall, took a single aide, and fled back to Rome, muring himself up in St. Peter's to hold out against the world.[3]

My point is not to tell the story but to call attention to the way we come to know it.

Sometime in the early sixth century, it began to be the practice at Rome for the life of each succeeding pope to be added to a collection of short lives of his predecessors in what came to be known as the Liber Pontificalis. The orthodox collection of these lives was continued well into the Middle Ages and is a standard historical source, whose value for popes from the late fifth century onwards particularly is well known. But this story does not come from the orthodox collection, the one that helps make Symmachus a saint. It is found on the first three folios of a sixth-century manuscript preserved today at Verona.[4] The single life of Symmachus, written according to the rules of the genre embodied in the official Liber Pontificalis, is followed by short entries, also generically resembling the larger Liber, about the other popes down to pope Vigilius, whose death c. 555 gives the manuscript a likely approximate date.

The fifth and sixth centuries were a period in which Latin Christianity was making remarkable strides in adapting to its use the power of the written word.[5] It was not that Latin Christians were beginning to write, but they were now using the written word with sophistication to organize and control their world. In particular, the papacy itself emerges in this period as a textualized artifact: the lives of the popes are one piece of evidence, their chancery-collected letters that begin to survive in substantial numbers are another. The affair in which Symmachus found himself embroiled, the so-called Laurentian schism (named after his rival), testifies to the new power of the written word as well. First, the very survival of this "Laurentian fragment" suggests that not only was the papacy manufacturing itself by publishing official lives, but it was doing so well enough that it made it worth somebody else's while to write the counter-history, to put together a collection in which Symmachus appeared, but in no good light. That text, with which I began, was probably written in ill grace by the losers after the fact. An even more interesting collection of texts came from the winners in the course of the action: the so-called "Symmachan Apocrypha" are four texts, none exactly what it seems, written at the height of the controversy between Symmachus and Laurentius. They purport to be historical documents, e.g., a papal decree, the records of a synod, an account of a trial, dating from as far back as two hundred years earlier, all bearing in one way or another on the history of the papacy. What they have in common is that they provide elegantly forged precedents for various points of argument that Symmachus was making against his rival. The coherence and consistency of these four texts, and the very different faces they are made to wear, make us confident in saying that these were not idle cases of stories told to good effect, but of deliberate creation of textual authorities whose authors had to know they were literally cooking up the books.[6] The main point is obvious: it must have been worth forging those texts in the eyes of the makers, and there must have been an audience in place already conditioned to judge ecclesiastical legitimacy in documentary, textual terms.

There is much else from just that period to show how the "library of the Fathers" was coming into existence, with all manner of supporting documentation, and how far the public and spiritual life of Christianity was beginning to be regulated by authoritative texts. Vincent of Lérins, author in the 430s of a Commonitorium that attacked (discreetly and anonymously) the authority of Augustine of Hippo, may himself have been the first author to speak of the "fathers" of the church as figures of textual authority.[7] In one sense this was inevitable, for the generation of Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine had a very thin collection of Latin texts on which to rely and could not depend on authority of that kind. Those writers and their contemporaries left behind by comparison a vast body of work of imposing power and persuasiveness, and those who read such books had to begin to make sense of what it was like to live in a Christianity where the bishop in your church's pulpit was surrounded by a moat of dead writers. By the sixth century the power of dead writers was felt strongly enough that it began to make sense to condemn them. A vital issue at and before the second Council of Constantinople of 553 was whether authors who had died in the peace of the church could be subject to retrospective condemnation. In one sense it is outrageous that such postponed judgment should be imposed. But if it is no longer a question of the living deeds, but the dead textual word of an author that lives on after him, then condemning authors was only an acknowledgement that books had begun to dominate discourse.

The late antique Latin experience in the making and shaping of power and community through the written word had a technological basis in the adoption of the codex form of the book,[8] but the real change was cultural and social. So too, at other moments of transformation, the impulse, often very powerful, can be technological, but what saves the process from determinism is that thousands of small and particular choices are made by individuals and institutions to channel that force into the shaping of society and its institutions. The Latin Christian "textual community"[9] that emerged in late antiquity is one of the most powerful and long- lasting of such communities. In many ways it was more powerful than that of Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman antiquity, inasmuch as the direct line from Mediterranean antiquity was broken decisively in the destruction of the ancient libraries, while there are still today physical collections of books that have been kept together and valued for their contents from the sixth, perhaps the fifth, century.[10] The organon of knowledge that we inherit, though influenced by ancient models in various ways, is that created in late antiquity, where it is no longer poetry that forms the center of the collection, but "non- fiction" -- scripture and its supporting texts.[11] The modern skeptical scholar works in research libraries that share exactly that preference for non- fiction and enshrine it in their cataloguing systems, cataloguing systems that in other ways reflect the late antique and medieval, but not specially the ancient, ways of organizing the mental world.[12]

We will return to late antiquity for further meditation after considering some more recent upheavals. The introduction of movable type made a revolution, no question. That story has been often and movingly told.[13] It bears remark that the story of that revolution is regularly told in print and by partisans of the revolution. It may very well be that this revolution was a good thing, but any historical event recounted entirely by partisans is open to reconsideration. What I have to say now began when I asked those partisan narrators a question they were not very well equipped to answer: who didn't like the technology of print, and why didn't they like it?

The applicability of the question to our own time is obvious. If we can return to the last comparable watershed between ways of recording and distributing words and look for the history of resistance to the new technology in that period, we can gain some advantage of perspective on controversies in our own time, when it is far from clear to many people that the revolution that is upon us will be a benign one. To find the answer to that question was not easy, precisely because the partisans wrote the history of the revolution. The occasional mentions that are made of resistance to print are for the most part inaccurate, and thoroughly patronizing.[14] I persisted, and found more than I expected to. History, it should come as no surprise, repeats itself repeatedly.[15]

A good place to begin is with a standard popularization published forty years ago in a Penguin edition. There we read of another great man who passed time in the neighborhood of San Marino, Duke Federigo of Urbino, legendary bookman and father of the duke fainéant who figures in Castiglione's Il Cortegiano. In the memoirs of his agent Vespasiano da Bisticci c. 1490 we are told that in his library 'all books were superlatively good and written with the pen; had there been one printed book, it would have been ashamed in such company.'[16] The argument is one from esthetic rather than utilitarian grounds, and the Duke must be given full credit. The Urbino manuscripts now in the Vatican Library give ample evidence of an elegance and an artistry of presentation that few printed books before the late twentieth century have ever rivaled, and in some cases none will ever rival. The "Urbino Bible", for example, is an elaborate and massive triumph of manuscript illumination. A theologian may well prefer a more workaday copy of a philologically sound critical edition of the scriptural text, and may even prefer a text in some language other than Latin, but few would argue that the devout are at least as well served by the grandeur of this book as by the shabbiness of modern puritanical black binding and fine print.[17] But Federigo also had numerous lesser works copied into manuscript from printed sources.[18]

In the same Penguin we read of Cardinal Giuliano da Rovere, later pope Julius II, patron of Michelangelo and father of the modern St. Peter's Basilica, who had Appian's Civil Wars copied in 1479 from the Speier edition of 1472. He retained the colophon and changed it only from "impressit Vendelinus" ("Wendelin printed") to "scripsit Franciscus Tianus" ("F.T. wrote/copied"). That report brings us to one of the things that everyone who works in this period knows casually and imperfectly, that there were people having printed books copied by hand. Why?

The authoritative study of the topic is that of M.D. Reeve,[19] who makes several points:

1. Printing so multiplied the number of copies available that the old technology, looking for a book to copy, was more likely to hit on a printed than a handwritten exemplar.
2. Further, if the Consolatio ad Liviam (a fifteenth century discovery, and perhaps creation, since recognized as spurious) is printed in the works of Ovid, there will have been many who wanted just that poem and copied it out, rather than buy the whole book. For these first two reasons, at least 10 of 16 and possibly 12 of 16 MSS of the Consolatio ad Liviam come from printed editions.
3. What is clear is that the fifteenth century did not sing the praises of printed editions on textual grounds, indeed had reason to be suspicious of them (see below), so they were not chosen as models (or cannot be proved to have been chosen) on those grounds.
4. A few idiosyncratic owners account for most of the MSS made from printed books. Apart from Urbino, the two bibliophiles Bartolomeo Fonzio and Raphael de Marcatellis loom quite large in the literature on surviving examples of this type of book.

Raphael de Marcatellis has been the object of two important studies by Albert Derolez.[20] Marcatellis was abbot at Ghent and died in 1508. What is clear from Derolez' studies is that two considerations were foremost in the minds of such a patron. First, luxury -- and a preference for luxury is often a preference for an older, hand-made product without any prejudice to the general utility or inevitability of mass-produced goods -- and second, access. For hand-copying was also a way of getting books not yet circulating in your own country. In the case of Marcatellis, more than half the incunabula that served as models for his manuscripts are not to be found in any present-day Belgian collection. They were probably not on the book-market in the low countries, and he would have borrowed them from Italian friends. We may also note that hand copying was the only way to obtain a coherent corpus on a given subject. We now praise electronic texts for their malleability in this way, forgetting sometimes that the relative stasis, not to say intransigence, of the printed book is the anomaly in the history of the written word, and that user-made anthologies are the norm.

But if we can explain away some of this resistance to the new technology of print, or at least minimize its force, other complaints had more validity. The earliest known call for press censorship was from a classical scholar (Niccolo Perotti) upset about Andrea de Bussi's shoddy classical editions being printed in Rome. Perotti asked the Pope, in a 1471 letter, to establish prepublication censorship to ensure that editions were carefully edited. (The appeal was unavailing, and de Bussi became Vatican Librarian.) And the correspondence of the Basel publishing house of Amerbach[21] is full of letters to Johannes Amerbach contrasting his careful work with most printers' cheap output.[22]

The wisest men foresaw as well that the superabundance of books would lead to the promulgation of uncomfortably divergent opinions. The famous chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean Gerson, had already complained of overabundance and the seeds of error in 1439, and voices were heard as early as 1485 in Nürnberg lamenting that it was not only the wide distribution of error but the uniformity and consistency of error in print that made it powerful.[23] All the copies of the printed book are alike and therefore it is impossible to compare and correct copies one with another. An error inserted in one is in all and there is no control as there was in collating individually prepared manuscripts.

Worse, an abundance of words would lead to confusion -- of this, men were certain already in the fourteenth century. Nicholas of Lyre, in his second prologue to the literal commentary on the Bible was mistrustful of the limited hypertexting of the glossed manuscript page: 'Although they have said much that is good, yet they have been inadequate in their treatment of the literal sense, and have so multiplied the number of mystical senses that the literal sense is in some part cut off and suffocated among so many mystical senses. Moreover, they have chopped up the text into so many small parts, and brought forth so many concordant passages to suit their own purpose that to some degree they confuse both the mind and memory of the reader and distract it from understanding the literal meaning of the text.'[24]

Old and new were uncomfortably assorted in other ways. There were defects of presentation for a long time, often eerily resembling those of our own day: the scholar who has struggled to get the right Greek font for his printer will sense a kindred spirit in the printer whose incunabular edition of Servius left blank spaces in which Greek words and phrases could be written in by hand. At what date contemporaries became sensitive to the loss of historical value in their treatment of manuscripts is an open question. Not until the mid-sixteenth century were large numbers of medieval manuscripts scrapped once they had been supplanted by print, and to be fair, it was not their technology but their contents that rendered them liable to destruction: law texts and the Latin Aristotle had other reasons for obsolescence than the form in which they were presented. At the time of the Reformation, service books of the old liturgy suddenly faced rapid destruction.[25]

The patron saint, so to speak, of critics of print is the immensely (if not always prudently) learned abbot Johannes Trithemius, of the Benedictine house of Sponheim near Frankfurt (later of Würzburg). Few who pass this way will fail to have heard of his book, printed in 1492, de laude scriptorum;[26] the ironical will also have recalled that years later in his chronicle of the monastery of Hirsau (1515), he praises printing, 'ars illa mirabilis et prius inaudita imprimendi et characterizandi libros'. What do we make of this marvel of erudition in an age of transition who cannot make up his mind? Shall he be our patron saint of indecision?

Some of his criticisms make him out a typical foot-dragger. Anything prepared on paper won't last very long, he alleges. (There were already manuscripts on paper, but he is correct that the lighter, cheaper material was more commonly used by printers.) For if writing is placed on skins, it can last for a thousand years; but print, when it is a thing of paper, how long will it last?'[27] The shelf-life of paper he estimates at 200 years, and of course he is not entirely incorrect.

The higher quality of the manuscript artifact and the value added by the scribes and illuminators also merit his dispraise for print. Scribes are more careful than the slapdash artisans of print, and so the spelling and the other features of books are much more carefully looked after.[28]

Let me pause now to observe something about the criticisms of print that I have so far catalogued, both from Trithemius and others. They are all true and valid. Every negative claim made about print is correct, and every negative prophecy came true. Take the argument about the likeness of copies making collation and correction impossible: a perfectly valid point. Why did it not derail print in its glorious career? I suggest two reasons.

First, the point, though valid, is not decisive, that is, for all that we idealize correctly-made books, we do put up with a light admixture of error. The value of the book is not seriously degradedby its errors; indeed, if that were the case, then the written manuscript book would have been insufferable, but users were well acquainted by the 15th century with the praxis of deciphering imperfect books.

Second and more important still: the system of communication introduced by print was so large, so fast, so powerful, and ultimately such a source of wealth that the defects of the system could be remedied as far as need be. Proofreading was labor-intensive and wasteful in a manuscript scriptorium, but quite cost-effective in a print shop; and if the print shop is busy preparing stock prospectuses where tens of millions of dollars are at stake, proofreading of a madly obsessive-compulsive nature is both cheap and sane in view of the possible losses from error. Second, if the collection and comparison of errors is important, then the nineteenth century could in due course perfect the strategy of the "critical edition", gathering and cherishing precisely the variant readings of manuscripts, multiplying and then freezing them in print, and perpetuating whatever informational value they have to offer.

In short, in the end, the defects of print and the criticisms they drew didn't matter. This is a lesson worth mulling at length.

I want to suggest, however, that Trithemius particularly was no mere Luddite, voicing fears drowned out by the roar of progress. For the pieces of criticism of print that I have extracted here, as others have done before me, are only a small part of his whole treatise. His true topic is the undermining of the ethos and culture of the monastic scriptorium. Writing is the spiritual manual labor par excellence, and that way of life was threatened. 'In no other business of the active life does the monk come closer to perfection than when caritas drives him to keep watch in the night copying the divine scriptures. . . . The devout monk enjoys four particular benefits from writing: the time that is precious is profitably spent; his understanding is enlightened as he writes; his heart within is kindled to devotion; and after this life he is rewarded with a unique prize.' There then follows the story of a dead Benedictine who was such a passionate copyist that after they buried him, 'post multos annos', it was found that his three writing fingers were miraculously preserved while the rest of his body had rotted away.[29]

Furthermore, the technology of writing had worked its way deeply into the social and economic structure of the community. The monks who didn't know how to write were put to work binding, rubricating, making pens, and the like. The life of the monastic community had been permeated by the technology and the spirituality of writing. To let it go was to let go something that was perhaps not essential to the monastic ideal, but that had become integral to its practice. It is the undermining of the monastery that Trithemius most feared.

And of course he was right. Benedictine monasteries show a growth curve from 500-1000 ticking sharply upwards toward the end, then roaring forward with a lusty growth and sustained prosperity from 1000-1500, but the last 500 years have shown at best mixed results. At the very least, the social and cultural domination of much of European society by monasticism and allied institutions (I here count the friars and other extra-claustral religious orders, who paid their own tribute to monasticism by the care with which they withdrew from it and rivaled it) faded rapidly in the sixteenth century. I make no determinist suggestion here, but only observe that the ability of the institution to survive depended on its ability to adapt itself to the new technological environment (universities did much better, until now at least, than monasteries, after all, though in the fifteenth century they shared many common traditions), and that was an adaptation that Trithemius could not bring himself to theorize. If in practice he approved of print and used it, he could still not find a way to bring print into his picture of the monastic life.

He was not alone. A few places maintained scriptoria and print shops in the same house, such as an Augsburg monastery where the two coexisted c. 1471-76, but most such arrangements lasted only for a short time. So, for example, at the house of the Strasburg Carthusians Heinrich Eggestein worked a while to print the life history of Ludolf of Saxony, their prior, and taught some of the monks the new technique.[30] In practice, print was a business that flourished in less salubrious parts of town, among grubby businessmen unafraid of dirty hands. It was there that a new information order was created, and the social order found itself wrenched, sometimes agonizingly slowly, sometimes shockingly quickly, to align itself with what technology had created.

To see what became of the technology, its critics, and the social order at the time of the introduction of print to Europe, and to see this not only as a triumphant but as a complex tale of fractioning and regrouping, would put us in a much better position to see the way forward from here in our own time of transition. The exciting contemporary work on the history of the book is of great intrinsic interest, but, like all best historical writing, tells us important things about ourselves as well.[31] I will leave that story for others to pursue and move once again disconcertingly quickly forward through centuries nearly to our own time.

The most visible anti-Trithemius of our time was undoubtedly Marshall McLuhan.[32] There are other prophets even still among us (I think of Ted Nelson and his vision of Xanadu), but McLuhan seized the high ground of public visibility at an opportune moment. Even George Steiner in those days, while finding very little specifically to praise or agree with, found him worth reading for reasons he could not well articulate.[33] Every lesson that Trithemius failed to grasp, McLuhan had learned at an early age. It was perhaps precisely his lavish impatience with any criticism of new media of communication that most shocked his readers; and it was his eager willingness to imagine large-scale social transformation far ahead of the curve that distinguished his contribution to our common vision. He was both of his time and ahead of his time, of course; if we do not yet live in a global village, we still live in a world bound closer by satellites and CNN than was the case even thirty years ago. Think of the film "The Gods Must Be Crazy", where the artifact of mass consumption culture dropped from the sky offers a first link between the bushman and the greater world; only thirty years ago, locations far less remote were at least as cut off from the marketing strategies of Atlanta and New York.

It was the prophetic role that McLuhan cut out for himself that represented his greatest success and his lasting failure. Though it may seem self-evident that new media of communication bring a powerful set of forces into play, McLuhan did not succeed in seizing the high ground of intellectual discourse, did not succeed in creating a line of successors, disciples, and pedantic periphrasts to follow him, and did not finally achieve the respectability that would have guaranteed that his ideas had been rendered harmless.

What I say is obvious and commonplace and I will not prolong it. I think two points can be made in explaining the anomaly, that the prophet who most explicitly and for the most part the most successfully addressed the conditions of knowing and communicating in our time is still so largely without honor.

First, prophecy is a mug's game. Aeneas could have told McLuhan that. He had seen all the Roman future before him in his visit to the underworld, but whatever he saw there did him precious little good in what followed. The prophets of Israel were famously ineffectual in shaping the behavior of their people. Prophecy embodies a high and definite example of that style of telling the truth which assures that it will not be believed. (Prophets say many untrue things as well, McLuhan his share of them, and that is no help, but everyone speaks untruths, yet we don't make that fact an absolute disqualification for credibility.) Prophecy is very gratifying to the prophet, especially if and as he has the fortune to live to the stage of seeing his prophecies come true (though often the prophet's personal status and even health may be made to decline at the point of verification: Cassandra found that out quite clearly), but it is far from clear what useful social function the prophet plays. Does he shape behavior usefully? Evidence is hard to come by. The true usefulness of a prophet is for us to digest his theorized future after the fact, and it is early days yet to put McLuhan to this use.

There is a more interesting point. The intellectual domain that McLuhan inhabited is one that is unusually difficult to master satisfactorily. For it is striking that scholars who address the questions McLuhan did, whatever the historical period under review, find it hard to conduct their discussion of the history of the conditions of intellection in a way that satisfies the ordinary criteria of intellectual discourse. McLuhan, Ong, and Havelock knew one another and found solidarity in their mutual experience of marginalization, and it might almost be enough to explain that marginalization by some defect they shared. The problem runs deeper. The categories by which we do our intellectual business in the academic world are so deeply ingrained in us that to turn our power to relativize those categories, historicize them, and leave them as it were sous rature, intact but relativized, is, and rightfully is, unsettling and disturbing. Consequently, to work our way fairly into other mentalities is in the end a fantasy impossible of realization. It is no more possible than the task of imagining that I am someone I am not. In the end, a McLuhanite or Havelockian reconstruction of technology-influenced mentalities of other times is and will remain a fiction by the terms of the system of discourse in which it is practiced; "Plato's doctrine of the forms" is, by constrast, hard, cold, reassuring positivist fact. I say, "by contrast": that is, within the terms of our world of discourse, we may interpret Plato's texts to the point of extracting a doctrine from them, and we may show that the steps we take to do that are all valid. Reasonable minds may very well remark that the product, "Plato's doctrine of the forms", is something that Plato could not possibly recognize or approve of, but within the terms of our world of discourse, that does not matter and has not mattered -- the transformations are licit ones, therefore the results are licit ones. The problem with the intellectual challenge of McLuhanism in all its forms is that it insists on asking us to perform transformations that our own senses tell us are illicit, to engage in a kind of magic thinking about the past or even about the immediate future. We may agree with every certainty that the newly-literate Greeks were very different from the scholars of the era of the dawn of print, but we have not the tools to bring those two systems of discourse in line with each other. We have only a system of discourse of our own, time-bound and technologically conditioned.[34]

And so we fall away from McLuhan's visions unpersuaded, and rightly unpersuaded, even as we accord him prophetic status and prophetic dishonor. If we are circumspect, we see that the problem is not unique to the history of communications media, but is the underlying problem in the history of mentalities.[35] Whether self-consciously postmodern reconstruction of mentalities will prove in the long run any more successful is perhaps to be doubted; if it succeeds, it will have been because it begins so self-consciously, so self- doubtingly -- precisely the feature that makes such forms of investigation and discourse so rebarbative to the bien pensant cultural community beyond.

In short, I am saying two things about McLuhan: his work is of great value, but does not have the value it seems to have. It is instructive, stimulating, and maddening -- and perhaps most effective when most maddening. But its prophecies do not lend themselves to guide practical applications. If judged as myths, they are high quality myths; if judged as history or sociology, they fail.

So if we find ourselves in a whirlwind of conflicting ideas and new technologies, what then is a better way to proceed? Clinging cautiously to older social institutions is bad for those institutions themselves; bellowing prophecies into the whirlwind persuades few and leads to no concrete advances. Both roles have their important functions and will find practitioners, but we may be forgiven for pressing on to seek out a via media.

For my last exemplar, let me come back and arrive where I started and know the place for the first time (so to speak). Cassiodorus suffered the indignity of serving as my dissertation topic and lent his name to my first book -- quite passively in both cases.[36] I came to him in part because of a reputation that I later was at some pains to demolish, his reputation for having snatched declining classical civilization from the barbarians, locked it up in the cloister, and taught the monks how to copy the classics -- a Romantic image, and entirely untrue.[37] I did not realize at the time that I had stumbled upon someone with his own eery appositeness to the issues I have been discussing here.

Cassiodorus belonged to that century or so of Latin Christian writers who were inventing Latin textual Christianity. He knew personally figures like Dionysius Exiguus, who founded canon law and calculated the dating scheme AD/BC,[38] Eugippius of Naples, who produced the first one-volume edition of what one might call The Essential Augustine, and of course Boethius. Toward the end of a long career as statesman, Cassiodorus had in mind a very conservative educational program of innovation: the establishment of a Christian school ("university", but the word is wildly anachronistic) at Rome, with the support of pope Agapetus (535-6). Given his own way, Cassiodorus would have patronized this place into his declining years. It is important to note that he had in mind to found such a place, not because he thought it time to unseat the classics, but because he thought the classics could take care of themselves, and that it was Christian textual study that lacked funding. (I would argue that such Christian textual study needed to be invented before it could be lacking in support, and it was Cassiodorus' own age that was more or less finishing the job of invention.) But war broke out, the war Justinian fought to restore Italy to the Roman empire, the war that shattered Italian political unity for the next 1300 (or more?) years, and Cassiodorus found himself an honored guest, that is to say a political refugee, in Constantinople, writing a commentary on the book of Psalms. When the war ended, he returned to Italy, not now any of the important cities where he had spent his career, but to his remote Calabrian estate of Vivarium, where he had founded a monastery on the family property. There c. 554 he picked up where he had left off twenty years earlier, with what is visibly and expressly the same intellectual project that he had thought to pursue at Rome. His Institutes are the intellectual schematic diagram of that project and a precious piece of evidence for early medieval Christian Latin culture.

In many ways, the project there was a misfire. If it has been made out to be a turning point, it is because our narratives of the past insist on having turning points. There is no sign that Cassiodorus did a very effective job at inculcating Christian textual culture into his monks. He left them Pelagius' own Paul commentary to be expurgated after his example (he did Romans himself, left the rest for them), and they made a cheerful hash of it, with the engaging result that this detailed commentary on Paul's epistles, still full to brim with Pelagian assumptions and interpretations, but sanitized of the most objectionable slogans, went forth into the middle ages as though it had a guarantee of orthodoxy about it, and it boasted stray quotations here and there from Augustine: in this way, Augustine was made the unwilling and unconscious guarantor of the survival of Pelagius' ideas in this particular pervasive form.[39] The last we see of Cassiodorus, he is still trying to train his monks as scribes by compiling a treatise on spelling, but the enterprise seems to have gone for naught: a few years after his death, the monks are seen squabbling with the local bishop and their community subsides into oppressed obscurity. Enough copies of Cassiodorus' works survived to circulate in the middle ages, with varying effect.[40] It was at least 150 years after his death before serious monastic scribal culture took root in Britain, and the spread thereafter was slow and uneven. In many important respects Cassiodorus was a failure.

I have come also to see that this deflated savior of western civilization I learned to mistrust when young had nevertheless had the right idea. He did not despise the new, he used it wholeheartedly; he did not reject old social institutions, he found new ways to adapt them, and when thwarted one way, found another, odder but still functional, way to use them; and he did not tarry to prophesy a new age of learning and wisdom. Most of all, he did things. The larger scheme within which he did them was not widely imitated, nor was it imitable. Even to say that is to reveal what is so often wrong about our expectations of ourselves and our cultural heroes: we dream of strong leaders, men on white horses, people who change history. Those are the fools and the demons of our past. The most effective change is that wielded by those who do not expect to create or manipulate a closed system, but those who recognize that effective change takes place in an open system, in one where it is the accumulation of shrewd and collaborative actions of the many that generates unexpected harmony. The monastic, Latin middle ages were predicted by no one, chosen by no one, built by no visionary hand.[41] At a distance we can all argue how we could have built a better middle age. But that neglects the true merit of an age that out of unpromising materials achieved far more than it had reason to expect, and did so because it had stumbled upon forms of enhancing and institutionalizing autonomy and local responsibility -- and if it is not obvious that I think here of the large social movements conventionally labeled "feudalism" and "monasticism", then in just that failure of obviousness is our failure to imagine successfully how complex societies really are, how slowly they change, and how impressive coherent change of any kind really is.

So where does that leave us? By implicitly excluding the pragmatics of the old (Trithemius) and the theoretics of the new (McLuhan), I consciously rule out two forms of behavior that academics in particular are fond of. What the partisans of the book are less instinctively good at is just the pragmatics of the new. I suggest that Trithemius makes a good patron saint for our conservatives, and McLuhan an equally good patron saint for our theoreticians. In Cassiodorus, I would rather find not a patron saint, but a colleague, a practitioner who innovated, failed, innovated again, and did so on a scale and with a modesty of purpose that guaranteed him that he would eventually suffer the indignity of a young whippersnapper paying him the tribute of a debunking, but that an older, more subdued practitioner of the new would recognize him at last as a colleague. Cassiodorus solved nothing: that is his virtue.

I mean by this construction no disrespect, I should emphasize, for "theory", but perhaps a repositioning. When the great lady Philosophia appears in Boethius' chamber, the Greek letters Pi and Theta on her garment and the ladder ascending from the former to the latter inscribe the precept that Theoria follows on Praxis. A true pragmatics is not theory-less, but seeks indeed the apotheosis of theory arising out of practice. The pragmatician is the person who rather hopes that at the end of the day the morning's theory will not have been vindicated but enhanced, even transformed, ready to reinvigorate practice and at the same time ready to be transformed again.

So Cassiodorus found ways to use the modern[42] codex book to display the novel kinds of texts from his time.[43] We cannot now reconstruct fairly just how novel, just how annoying, what he did might have seemed. The younger Cassiodorus seems as much a man of his time as the elaborately mannerist Ennodius, as the elaborately erudite Boethius; the older Cassiodorus goes clearly beyond their traditionalism, and at any rate he abandoned their world of civil and ecclesiastical careers for a different kind of textual life. Would Boethius have gone to live in a monastery on the Ionian Sea? Ennodius, a social climber on the fringes of Boethius' circles, wrote his own educational prescription for young men of his time:[44] to read that side by side with Cassiodorus is to see the difference between old and new in a single generation.

It also seems to me no coincidence that Cassiodorus is a name more readily recognized by graduates of library schools than by Ph.D.'s. For the task he undertook, of imposing the most transparent possible intellectual organization on the body of texts before him, is quintessentially that of the librarian. In ages when knowledge was scarce, those who created it were the heroes of the tribe, and librarians their acolytes. But in an age of information overload, production and even dissemination of knowledge will be child's play. Publishers hope that I will still be willing to pay for special pieces of information in the future, but I wonder if they are not too optimistic, not too much like Trithemius hanging on desperately to an obsolete social structure. The thing I am sure that I will be willing to pay for as the oceans of data lap at my door is help in finding and filtering that flood to suit my needs. Of the participants in the production, dissemination, and consumption of knowledge today, it is the librarians who have already made that kind of skill their specialty. The librarians of the world have, moreover, already led the way, for academics at least, into the new information environment, not least because they are caught between rising demand from their customers (faculty and students) and rising supply and prices from their suppliers, and so have already been making reality-based decisions about ownership vs. access, print vs. electronic, etc. In short, they are just now our leading pragmatists.[45] Can we imagine a time in our universities when the librarians are the well-paid principals and the teachers their mere acolytes in a distribution chain? I do not think we can or should rule out that possibility for a moment.

Pragmatism is a difficult discipline. To reconstruct ourselves to fit the world in which we find ourselves is often a distasteful chore. I like to invoke the image of St. Jerome in his study, that familiar topic of Renaissance painting. We look at one of these paintings and even today, those of us who inhabit traditional academic fields (or even only feel a nostalgia for them) find it easy to project ourselves into them. In my favorite, that of Antonello da Messina in the National Gallery in London,[46] recent scholarship sees that the projection of present into the past was already part of the original program;[47] what is presented as Jerome in his study is also probably a flattering implied portrait of the polymath cardinal Nicholas of Cusa. To project ourselves into the same setting is too easy; likewise, when I read the familiar lines of Machiavelli about putting on the robes of state and retreating to his study to study the classics of an evening,[48] I am too easily seduced into thinking that my own relation to these old texts is a similar one. The difficulty is to recognize that we are already impossibly far from Jerome and even impossibly far from the Renaissance, and that our work lies elsewhere.[49]

Perhaps one way to make that self-awareness easier is to make ourselves deliberately more conscious of the unnaturalness of this whole affair our culture has had with books. We long ago ceased to see the oddity of textuality and its institutions -- publishers who produce books, libraries who treasure and make them available, scholars who pass on the mystic arts of interpretation to students. Is it not strange that we take the spoken word, the most insubstantial of human creations, and try through textuality to freeze it forever; and again, try to give the frozen words of those who are dead and gone, or at least far absent, control over our own experience of the lived here and now? Cultural continuity resides in memory, which is to say, in the keeping in mind of that which does not exist, not any longer. That is an extraordinary way to be human, and we may very well find someday a species in a remote corner of the galaxy that manages something like humanness without that elaborate construction of continuity. For now, perhaps it suffices to realize that everything we do in this line has something of the Rube Goldberg construction about it. Every now and then the complex and gawky constructions will be rebuilt, may perhaps even partially collapse of their own gaudiness, and that the genuine spirit of our culture is not in applying small pieces of cellotape to hold together the structure we received, but to pitch in joyously to its ongoing reconstruction. In that vein, I would suggest that for all the passion and affection I bring to books, I have very little business caring for the future of the book. Books are only secondary bearers of culture. "Western civilization" (or whatever other allegorical creature we cook up to embody our self-esteem) is not something to be cherished. "Western civilization" is us and making it, remaking it, is our job. The thought that we come here in a generation that will have as many opportunities to botch the job as we will have might be frightening -- or it might better be exhilarating.