From my diary

For a few days now I have been wading through Bart Ehrman’s Forgery and counterforgery.  It’s a long book, not very well structured, and written in an off-putting way.  So it is taking time, which I rather grudge, from other things.

Much the most interesting section so far is on the question of whether or not it was acceptable for the pupils of philosophers to attribute their own works to the master, on the basis that they were, in reality, articulating the values of the school.  I don’t have strong views either way on this; in which, apparently, I differ from Dr. E.  For F&C, as I am coming to call it, addresses this in a polemical way, unfortunately.  Which is a pain.

How would you or I investigate such a topic?  Well, I think that we would gather the ancient sources that relate to the subject, tabulate them, and form an opinion based on that.  If we wrote a book, we would give the sources (in the original, with translation), as our first item.

E. doesn’t do this.  Instead he writes his opinions and offers arguments, revealing sources now and then as convenient for the purpose.  It’s deeply annoying, if you want to know the facts rather than what E. has to say.  After a while you grow to mistrust him, for this alone; for if the sources truly say what he wants us to believe, why not set them all out first, and let them speak?

I was amused to find a sudden rush of sources which (he thought) supported his view, right towards the end of the section.  Discuss one or two passages which are opposed, cast whatever doubts on them you can, then offer in a rush a load which seem to support you … yes, that’s a debater’s trick.  It’s massaging the data by the way you present it in order to cause the unwary reader to suppose that all the data favours you.  It makes an old hand like myself horribly suspicious to see that sort of thing tried, when I (truly) have no opinion on the point at issue either way.

In general, it is deeply frustrating that primary sources are generally alluded to rather than given.  One important source is a passage about Porphyry and Pythagoras from Ibn Abi Usaibia’s History of Physicians.  The only translation known to me is online; but it doesn’t contain the passage Ehrman quotes!  This suggests that perhaps the text is rather fluid; something that would not surprise me a bit with a medieval Arabic text.  Has the text even been critically edited?  An edition is listed, but since it was published in Cairo, we may reasonably wonder.

Now E. doesn’t give the Arabic; only a translation by a colleague.  He does so in order to disagree with previous scholars; who rendered it differently.  But he doesn’t indicate how they read the text.   So you can’t see the text, and you can only see his translation and not the one he discusses.  It’s very wearying.

Of course it makes it much harder for critics to disagree with him, so there’s no mystery as to why someone would write in such a fashion.  Polemicists seek to close down disagreement all the time.  But in a work of scholarship we are entitled to expect better.  We are entitled to have all the primary data — it can hardly be extensive — tabulated in a systematic chronological way, without having to look for it.

Anthony Grafton, in his book on The Footnote, describes a scholar who took a book by a despised rival, ignored the text, and simply used the footnotes as a guide to assist him in writing his own book.  One can’t help feeling that someone ought to do the same with F&C.

Sorry if that sounds grumpy.  But I resent scholarly books that make accessing learning so very difficult.

2 thoughts on “From my diary

  1. Thanks for your posts on this book, Roger. I haven’t read it. However, at second hand, I agree that right from the title, you get a value judgment that comes from the 21st century. This kind of thing can get in the way of the project of understanding a text in its original historical context.

    This kind of thing also can have its intended effect of transmitting this value judgment to the reader. And if that judgment is a hostile one, this can lead someone to be less interested in studying the texts as a person living in the 21st century. The sum result being, the more popular this judgment becomes, the less interested people are in studying these ancient books. As someone who enjoys working with them and knows how there is still work to be done by new generations of scholars, I find that disappointing.

    I doubt that Bart Ehrman looks at it this way, of course, and I’m sure it is a cracking good read. It probably will introduce as many people to the subject, who go on to read more, as it might dissuade by its dismissive tone with the texts it treats. Maybe more.

  2. I think you pick up on my concern with the effect of much of Ehrman’s work. It seems designed to cause people to treat ancient literature as systematically untrustworthy as a source of information, and the transmission of texts as not giving us reliable texts.

    This is frustrating to me, as I see my own role as encouraging people to see what they can find, what they can learn, from ancient texts, and to treat the texts transmitted as basically accurate, and worth taking the time to study (and worth the effort to try to heal whatever damage has occurred).

    There is, as you say, huge amounts to be done.

    In this case I am finding Ehrman treats an interesting subject — the question of how things worked in a philosophical school — in a way that will tend to discourage people from taking an interest in the subject. That is really not good at all.

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