From the Guardian‘s book section:
Would it have been better had some surviving works of ancient authors been lost?
Classical studies are driven by the ambiguities of survival. It is not a question of what we have versus what we do not have (the surviving books of Dio’s History of Rome measured against the lost books of Tacitus’ – no doubt infinitely sharper – history of the last days of Nero). Classics, as a subject, engages in the curiosities, problems and discontents of survival. It builds on the puzzling, changing identifications of works that are transmitted via the scholarly hands of the monkish middle ages, or those dug up from the sands of Egypt. It makes us face how little we know about what the “survival” (or “loss”) of literature means.
Sometimes it’s clear enough. Diogenes, the second-rate, second-century AD epicurean philosopher, ensured his own survival by having his thoughts inscribed on the wall of his home city of Oenoanda in what is now Turkey. There was little chance of destroying that. But usually “survival” is a trickier question. Take the short essay “Constitution of Athens”, now attributed to the anonymous “Old Oligarch”. Is this a work of the Athenian renegade politician Xenophon (with whose works it has been transmitted in medieval manuscripts)? Or is it a weird rightwing tract by a not very bright anti-democrat of about the same period – that is, the late fifth century BC? (Moses Finley always used to say that the modern pseudonym “Old Oligarch” was the problem here: it made him sound like an engaging elderly pub-philosopher, when in fact he was the closest the ancient word came to a fascist – with the exception of Plato.)
Or think, rather differently, of the archaic Greek poetess Sappho. A few of her poems survive, brilliant enough to define the history of love poetry for the next two and a half millennia (“Phainetai moi . . .” as the best one goes in Greek, copied by the Roman poet Catullus in “Ille mi par esse . . .”). But maybe Sappho’s reputation has been helped by what we no longer have. Most of her output was, we fear, interminable marriage hymns for the young ladies in her entourage. Lost, and well lost, perhaps.
To think more widely (and not to forget that the origin of Christianity was in the Roman empire), what difference has it made that the four canonical gospels have been canonised as such – so effectively consigning the variants to the scrap heap? The recently published Gospel of Judas gives a hint of a very different tradition, and one in which – as never happens in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – Jesus actually laughs (with all the theological complexity that that involves – does God laugh?). Survival, or not, has theological implications and a theological history.
But the key example is that holy grail of classical scholarship – a holy grail because no one can agree whether it is lost or not – the second book of Aristotle’s Poetics (written in the mid fourth century BC). The first book of the Poetics deals with Aristotle’s theory of tragedy (the famous discussion of pity, fear and catharsis). The second book, or so we glean from other references in Aristotle, brought the reader back to comedy and to that tricky problem of laughter. The usual scholarly line here is to lament that this work did not make it through the middle ages. Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose (“spaghetti structuralism” according to Slavoj Žižek, but fun all the same) dramatised the disappearance of the last surviving copy: literally eaten as a subversive tract by a gloomy “agelastic” monk, before his whole monastery goes up in flames. And recently such leading scholars as Quentin Skinner have mourned its disappearance: if only we had Aristotle’s essay on comedy, writes Skinner, we would understand ancient laughter.
But has it disappeared? And what counts as disappearing? According to Richard Janko, valiantly reviving a (nearly lost) 19th-century theory, the weird little treatise “On Comedy” in a 10th-century manuscript (Tractatus Coislinianus, now in Paris, once on Mount Athos) is actually a summary of this lost work.
So is it or isn’t it? Scholarship has not gone with Janko. The essay in the Tractatus is a very mediocre little tract, and most likely – so the orthodox view goes – a jejune compendium of Aristotelian thought by a none-too-bright Byzantine monk. It includes, for example, some very plodding ideas of what makes an audience laugh (“silly dancing”, is one prompt to laughter). But could we see it differently? According to Michael Silk (no admirer of the intellectual power of lost Aristotle) we might actually think that, in all its mediocrity, this mediocre work was a reasonable summary of some very mediocre Aristotle – altogether not worth saving. Let’s not lament its loss.
Who knows? But this should remind us of the perils of survival (as the question asks us to reflect). Sometimes the best may not survive (and classical nostalgia always suspects that we have inherited some dross while losing some gems). But maybe (and this would be a simplified version of Silk’s position on the second book of the Poetics) what we have lost was second-rate all along. Perhaps the history of the transmission of classical texts has been a pretty efficient sorting mechanism: the survival of the fittest.
In a way it was summed up towards the beginning of Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love. The play’s “hero”, AE Housman, Cambridge professor and celebrity classicist, is going down to Hades from the Evelyn Nursing Home in Cambridge. He is delighted to interrogate Charon, the boatman taking him across the Styx, wanting to find out more about what happened in Aeschylus’ lost play, Myrmidons. Charon looks as if he can deliver. But the joke is that he only tells Housman the lines that Housman knows already, preserved in later quotations and no surprise at all.
The allure of survival turned out to be the survival of what Housman already knew. It complicates the idea of choice and loss.
… other authors are asked different questions