The City Fall 2013

Page 46

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Paul D. Miller


n the Middle Ages there were book hunters. These were men who specialized in locating and preserving ancient manuscripts of great books. They knew a trove of invaluable knowledge was buried in royal, scholastic, and monastic libraries. They also knew that it was at risk of vanishing from human culture forever because of general ignorance and neglect. Mold, fire, and insects literally ate books, turning the last copies of Aristotle’s second book of Poetics, Cicero’s tragedies, most of Livy’s History of Rome, and almost all of the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles into ash and worm dung. Book hunters salvaged the few scraps of ancient culture we have today. Western culture is no longer at risk from bugs and mold. The internet has assured the survival of its great works until nuclear winter or the Second Coming brings an end to all things. But the physical endurance of the west’s artifacts does not assure the survival and success of the ideas that animated them. Western civilization can be undone just as easily from disinterest as from destruction. A civilization exists in the hearts and minds of those who read its books, know its history, and speak its languages. Without such people, civilization vanishes like a forgotten memory. That is why, as the saying goes, we are always only one generation away from barbarism. Or, possibly, we are already there. The renowned philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre concluded his seminal 1981 book After Virtue with a warning that a new barbarism had already taken hold. Classical western civilization came to an ignominious end when its educat45