The Press

2004-03-14

In his Novum Organon (1620), Francis Bacon wrote:

We should note the force, effect, and consequences of inventions which are nowhere more conspicuous than in those three which were unknown to the ancients, namely, printing, gunpowder, and the compass. For these three have changed the appearance and state of the world.

I've just finished reading The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe by Elizabeth L. Eisenstein (an abridged version of her two-volume work The Printing Press as an Agent of Change). Eisenstein argues that the shift from script to print in the fifteenth century wrought far-reaching changes within Western civilization, and that looking at early modern Europe from the perspective of the printing revolution puts a wide range of changes into clearer focus, including the rise of Protestantism and the emergence of modern science.

There are two key causal factors at work here: the sheer volume and availability of printed information, and what Eisenstein calls "the preservative powers of print". Hand-copied information was never widely available, largely because of the enormous number of hours required to copy a text (the fate of images, maps, and diagrams was even worse: ancient authors such as Galen and Pliny probably included them in their works, but they were lost during scribal transmission because they were even harder to copy than text). The printing press made it possible to produce so many more copies of a text, image, map, or diagram that for the first time scholars, students, and the general reading public did not have to rely on oral descriptions or travel long distances to access specialized libraries and scriptoria (where they would likely have to write out the book themselves if they wanted a copy). This introduced a great freedom of information, which, for example, enabled astronomers like Copernicus and Tycho Brahe to truly compare existing theories and data for the first time, resulting in significant progress even before the invention of the telescope.

The preservative powers of print made possible what Carroll Quigley calls "the gradual and communal search for truth": a kind of "permanent Renaissance" that is essential to the resilience of Western civilization. Many commentators have pointed out that in the early years of printing, all manner of falsehoods were made available in large number: Ptolemaic maps and theories, the pseudoscience of Hermes Trismegistus, reports of dragons and monsters, etc. But this outpouring did not necessarily reflect an unscientific outlook, merely the process of printing everything available as a precursor to sifting fact from fiction. Certainly, for example, those old Ptolemaic maps of the world were seriously in error; but it took many decades of correction (e.g., through the incorporation of first-hand reports from sailors and travellers) before maps were published that more accurately tracked reality. The important thing to recognize is that accurate maps could be made now because printing technology enabled the kind of cumulative and public improvement of information that was impossible during the days of isolated scriptoria, a paucity of material, and widespread scribal error. (The same goes for texts, most explosively for the Christian tradition in the case of the Bible; paradoxically, the search for the original meaning of the text, initially pursued with universalist zeal by scholars of Latin and Greek and Hebrew, morphed into the vernacular translation movement, resulting in nationalist parochialism, solitary Protestant readers as opposed to masses of Catholic listeners, and even the modern fundamentalist literalism that is the exact opposite of a permanent Renaissance.)

Surprisingly, Carroll Quigley takes no notice of the printing revolution in his description of the resilience of Western civilization in The Evolution of Civilizations. He says that "about 1440 new life began to spring up" but connects it with "the activities of a new instrument of expansion, commercial capitalism" rather than with a fundamentally new and more permanent mode of storing and retrieving information (and thereby organizing human culture, which is simply the sum of a society's information). Granted, the early printers were in the vanguard of the new commercial capitalism; but enormous advances in the ability to disseminate, preserve, and improve information accelerated or even made possible much that followed: scientific insight, navigation (resulting exploration and colonization), contract law (as captured especially in the Lex Mercatoria), and the sharing of commercial techniques such as double-entry bookeeping -- to name just a few. And obviously printing went hand-in-hand with many other advancements, not the least of which were the gunpowder and compass mentioned by Francis Bacon. But it was printing above all that enabled Western civilization to record and build on past successes, reliably correct errors, and slowly but surely accumulate a store of (always-provisional) truths that turned human beings away from the contemplation of some past golden age and toward the construction of a better future.

Here is how Victor Hugo captured this revolution (for what is a revolution but a "turning around"?) in Book Five, Chapter Two of Notre-Dame de Paris:

In the fifteenth century, everything changed.

The human mind discovered a means of perpetuating itself which was not only more lasting and resistant than architecture but also simpler and easier. Architecture was dethroned. The lead characters of Gutenberg succeeded the stone characters of Orpheus.

The book was to kill the building.

The invention of the printing-press is the greatest event in history. It was the mother of revolutions. It was the total renewal of man's mode of expression, the human mind sloughing off one form to put on another, a complete and definitive change of skin by that symbolic serpent which, ever since Adam, has represented the intelligence.

In its printed form, thought is more imperishable than ever; it is volatile, elusive, indestructible. It mingles with the air. In the days of architecture, thought had turned into a mountain and taken powerful hold of a century and of a place. Now it turned into a flock of birds and was scattered on the four winds occupying every point of air and space simultaneously.

We repeat: who cannot see that in this guise it is far more indelible? Before, it was solid, now it is alive. It has passed from duration to immortality. You can demolish a great building, but how do you root out ubiquity? Come a flood and the mountain will long ago have vanished beneath the waters while the birds are still flying; let a single ark be floating on the surface of the cataclysm and they will alight on it, will survive on it, and, like it, will be present at the receding of the waters; and as it awakes, the new world which emerges from the chaos will see the ideas of the drowned world soaring above it, winged and full of life.

Nowadays we are in the midst of yet another momentous change in the way that the human mind perpetuates itself: whereas in the fifteenth century we moved from handwritten information to printed information, now we are moving from printed information to electronic or digitized information. It is only a matter of time before all the data ever collected by humankind is online and available in electronic format; and again not just texts, but maps, images, and a flood of data about everything from economic statistics to the human genome (and perhaps your every movement and transaction, as well). Will future historians look back on these days and say, as of the fifteenth century, that "everything changed"? Will the computer, like the printing press, be the mother of revolutions, a nursery of new sciences, a vessel for exploration and colonization, a spur to commerce, and a tool for tyrants and reformers alike? It already seems to be that and more.

Interesting times, indeed.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal