The Wizard and the Great Zeitgeist

“House of Knowledge” by Jaume Plensa 

If the internet or blogs were old enough to have what one might call a tradition, we can be sure that it would be predominantly based in retelling what is new, what is breaking or just broken, what is currently trending or being viewed, right now, at this moment, look! But the internet and blogs are still young, and a few years of repetitive habits does not a tradition make. But leaving aside questions of classifying a tradition, I believe I will break the habit, pattern… whatever you want to call it, and dredge from its recesses two discoveries – one very old, and one not quite so old (but still predating the Google-epoch*). Both of which I believe shed some light on how the internet has changed the way information is spread, though doesn’t change the ways we interpret it.**

Anyone with a cursory interest in current events must feel at times inundated by the constant flow of news and discoveries and new information. It would be a full time job for any one person to keep up with all the revelations of any given sort circulated online. Everything from large, possibly world changing events – like the Arab Spring or evidence of the Higgs Boson (the “God particle”) – to less-than-world-changing revelations, like did you hear Rafalca, Mitt Romney’s ballerina horse, lost the Olympics, or that the Orioles have yet to squander their winning record – and that’s to say nothing of the I-wish-that-tree-would-fall-in-a-forest-without-being-heard revelations that are tweeted and re-tweeted from the many TMZ-like sites that populate the web. Save a few controversial exceptions (evolution springs to mind), we accept most of these discoveries and news stories with an unspoken understanding that though it might be true today, tomorrow is another day entirely.

Ideas on truth and accuracy fluctuate as the piles of information grow. It seems we have cultivated an understanding that truth is a matter to be decided later, that we will either take note as we watch the evidence grow or we will quickly forget when another event comes storming along and blows the whole mess somewhere beyond our concern and past the scope of our Yahoo news feed. Without even giving it much thought, we assume that someone else has reviewed and edited all these tiny pieces of info; we trust, intrinsically, subconsciously, that the framework exists to discern truth from fiction and will eventually let us know the verdict. Yet this framework for fact-checking ­– as vague and large and unclassifiable as it is – breaks down more than we care to imagine. Most of the falsities are quickly forgotten, but others, more than I care to recall, get stuck in the teeth of the Great Zeitgeist, and live, looming over us, as a reminder of how gullible we sometimes are (what religion is Obama again?).

But the accepted assurance that there are, somewhere, cavernous rooms brimming with the echoes of clacking keyboards and men in sweaty suits diligently checking every fact as it passes the ticker, was not always as ingrained in society. Much of Europe, for hundreds of years, were disconcertingly suspicious of anyone who went against dogma or commonly held beliefs no matter the evidence they supposedly had. Before, and even into the Age of Reason, men and women with too much of a smart idea were considered outcasts and subject to imprisonment (see Galileo), excommunication (see again Galileo and Baruch de Spinoza), burned at the steak (see Giordano Bruno), or chased out of town as a witch or wizard.

One of my favorite examples of the later is an obscure Scottish scholar and priest named Michael Scot (no relation to Steve Carell’s character on The Office). While England was floundering in the Dark Ages, Michael Scot was traveling to Spain and Italy and the Middle East to find, to his astonishment, that they had not burned all the damnable, paganistic texts of the Greeks and Romans and Indians, but instead were translating them, studying them, filling large extravagant libraries full of them and giving these libraries grand names, like The House of Knowledge. Scot learned Arabic and quickly began to translate these texts back into Latin and English. Upon arriving back in Italy and England, stories abounded of his occult powers, of his strange ability to read the stars and predict the future. “He’s a wizard,” they’d say. “He can raise and lower the tides… make him mad and he’ll black out the moon and the sun.” After his reputation spread throughout Europe, he was granted the such notorious honors as a special place in Dante’s Eighth Circle of Hell, for having truly known the game of magic frauds, as well as becoming the source for one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, The Tempest.

Now, of course, we know that he held no special powers; he was predicting eclipses not causing them, and was not predicting the breath of the ocean but tracking the relationship between earth, sun and moon to tell the tides in the same way WJZ does now. But the power in the information that Michael Scot found, the importance of the documents that the Arabic scholars saved, is real. It has proven to be the foundation of all modern science, philosophy, mathematics and literature. Those documents have been the cause of untold discoveries, have led to countless innovations, have laid the groundwork to all modern medicine and saved millions of lives. It happened because one man reached into the archives of the past and pulled up what everyone had cast off as old, blasphemous sophistry.

-By Adam Shutz

*The “not quite so old” discovery will be featured in Part 2 (Oct. 8th)

**Please, consider this an assurance by your humble author, that I will swerve hard as my limbs are able to avoid falling into the trap of relying on esoteric epistemological arguments that’ll probably bore everyone to tears – “How do we know what we think we know?” “How do we know what we know is true?” If you care to know, I can answer these questions right off the bat: We don’t; and we can’t. [Sound of hands wiping each other clean.]

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