In 1952 Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. published a series of books with the goal of presenting the so-called “Great Books” in a single package of 54 volumes. This was just one of endless attempts at defining the set or “canon” of books that exemplify the peak of human intellect. Confronted with those attempts, I am always left wondering about the ones that are not even considered because, although we are aware of their existence, they were destroyed by wars or human ignorance or even those for which no indirect references were preserved and have been utterly obliterated by the sands of time…
In many ways, we must realize that we are just cataloguing and ranking the remains of a shipwreck that we happen to encounter on the vast shore of human history. A few examples can easily remind us of what is regrettably beyond our reach.
Consider the works of Archimedes of Syracuse (c. 287 BC – c. 212 BC), an unparalleled scientific genius that excelled as a mathematician and engineer. It is not widely known that seven of his treatises have been lost and for which we just possess second-hand references. For example Pappus of Alexandria mentions “On Sphere-Making” and another work on polyhedra, while Theon of Alexandria hinted at another work about refraction. Or Aristotle (384–322 B.C.), who needs little introduction as one of the founding fathers of philosophy and several branches of science. A towering intellectual figure despite of the fact that his preserved works are just lecture notes, drafts, working papers, and intended not for a general audience but for an inner circle of his Lyceum. Yet, we have clues about the value of what we have missed…Cicero observed that if Plato’s prose was silver, Aristotle’s was a flowing river of gold.
Epicurus (341–270 B.C.), another giant of the greek tradition and with far-reaching influence despite that his only surviving complete works s are three letters, which are to be found in Diogenes Laertius’ “Lives of Eminent Philosophers”, and two groups of quotes. Since some fragments have escaped the ravages of fanatics, scholars have confirmed that he wrote a thirty-seven volume treatise “On Nature” among others, but sadly, we will not benefit from them.
Finally and closer to our time, Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821 – 1890 A.D.) an extraordinary character and a leading geographer, explorer, translator, writer, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, linguist, poet and fencer . He made his reputation with his countless travels and explorations across Asia, Africa and the Americas, as well as his extraordinary knowledge of languages and cultures. It has been estimated that he spoke over 25 European, Asian and African languages. Alas, after his death his wife burned many of his papers, including journals and a planned new translation of The Perfumed Garden to be called The Scented Garden, that had been regarded as his “magnum opus”.Some may argue that those writings would have made little difference to the course of human history but I disagree. Even leaving aside the pleasure that they could have provided us, and the limitless inspiration that at least some people would have drawn from them, let us remember the huge impact that the reception of Greek classical works had on medieval Europe. Works that sparked an ideological revolution that eventually led to the Renaissance. How would our view of the world be if it had been influenced by those books? On a more practical level, think about the finding of the Antikythera mechanism designed to calculate astronomical positions. It has been dated to the early 1st century BC., yet, anything approaching its complexity and workmanship did not appear again until the 1,400 years later and it took decades for modern scientists to recreate a model of the mechanism. It is now believed that the original design was produced in Corinth and likely to have been the work of Archimedes.
Even though I realize that these exercises in counterfactual history change nothing, I cannot help feeling a deep sadness when I sense the looming presence of that ghost library whispering what could have been gained if we humans had been just more discerning and less dogmatic.