TOLFA Segment 17 Literature

Roman imperialists destroyed Athens in 86 BC, along with its considerable scholastic library; so by a quirk of history Alexandria, across the Mediterranean in what is now Egypt, then became the pre-eminent center of scholarship. Reportedly it held an incredible 600,000 books (rolled papyri) of which 120 formed an index. Such was the volume of ancient Greek literature.

Seventeen centuries later, a young genius called Isaac Newton entered Trinity College, Cambridge and found a library whose predominant works were those of Aristotle, written two thousand years earlier. What, we may reasonably wonder, had been going on for all that time? Did no scholar write anything worth reading?

Humans were not less intelligent during those 18 or 20 centuries. It's just that all the most literate were siphoned off into monasteries, after the Christian Church became "established" in 323 AD by the Emperor Constantine. That situation prevailed for over a thousand years, and Newton was one of the brightest (though not the first) to break the mold.

The key to what followed - the way that monopoly was broken - lay in the printing press, and we can stand in awe and wonder today at two associated things:


For all of history until 1450, written works - usually of theology after 323 - had to be copied by hand if they were to be copied at all. That's what kept all those scholarly monks so busy. Errors were inevitable, and the work was so laborious that few copies were made. The idea of making scores of thousands of copies of a valuable book for sale at Ye Barnes and Ye Noble was simply not on; books were for a few scholars only, and even then accessible only in a library.

The technical breakthrough came in 1450 and the inventor was Johannes Gutenburg of Mainz (the photo shows his press) and the world was never the same afterwards. His first printed book was a huge copy of the Bible, and a quarter century later William Caxton issued the first book ever printed in English, an obscure work followed swiftly by the better-known "Canterbury Tales." The choice of more widely saleable publications was a stroke of genius on its own and enabled Caxton, unlike Gutenburg, to prosper.

Gutenburg's key invention was that of movable type. Reverse metal characters were cast once in a mold, then used any number of times to arrange any number of pages at the rate of some hours of work to assemble one page, which could then be reproduced in any quantity by cranking a wooden screw to press the paper down hard. Horribly slow, but lightning fast compared to hand scripting.

By 1500 the craft had spread to Italy, where his Gothic font type was replaced by more easily readable Italic and other cursive fonts, and throughout Europe. Fifty printers worked by that year in Strasbourg alone, each turning out 200 pages an hour.

There was a thousand-year thirst for knowledge to be slaked, and as a visit to any bookshop will confirm, it's still raging. The printing press first disseminated knowledge of theology and so broke the priestly monopoly of the Roman Church, enabling the Reformation to explode in the 1500s; then it spread knowledge of science from the 1600s (starting with "Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica" which Newton wrote in Latin so as to reach the largest number of scholars likely to grasp its great significance - including his Laws of Gravity) so starting the Scientific Revolution and triggering the Industrial one that has led to all the prosperity that surrounds us today.

"Disseminated" is the key word above. Printing permitted knowledge to be spread widely, to all who wished to acquire it, instead of being reserved to some elite. Boundless benefits resulted. We stand now on the very cusp of boundless more.


Grinding poverty, subsistence living, has been the norm for humanity since the get-go, all the way through the 17th Century. Only the science and engineering of the Industrial Revolution which printing disseminated, and the relative freedom to make profits from that development has caused comfort and prosperity to spread from a governing elite to the bulk of the population. A fresh explosion of near-universal prosperity now depends on the further dissemination of the knowledge of liberty; and the Internet is providing it.

Printing permitted knowledge to spread downwards, from expert to student. The Net enables it to spread sideways, from one sovereign individual to another. You're now reading one example, here in TOLFA. The costs of publication - hitherto large - are now, happily, close to zero

Widespread knowledge counters Authority. That's why the Roman Church was so determined to suppress popular knowledge and possession of the Bible in the languages commonly spoken, and why it was dislodged from power when it was foiled. That's why for 150 years government has pretended to educate everyone, but has monopolized schools so as to control what gets taught - and then carefully prevents a real understanding of freedom being learned. That's why the Internet, almost fully beyond government control, is so enormously significant.

"Almost" fully is the warning for us: there are a few things government can do to prevent full access to knowledge by ordinary people. One is practiced in China: hundreds of government snoops contantly monitor the Net for subversive material (information likely to reduce a Chinese resident's respect for the gerontocracy in Beijing) and then instruct all Chinese ISPs to block access. Here is shown one such site (and the pride the owners express in that fact!) Who knows, TOLFA may one day share the honor.

In 2005 Google shamefully agreed to modify its search engine for its Chinese language service, to placate the Chinese Government, and other sites have done likewise. Meanwhile The Register reports that "Eurocops want seven-year retention of all phone, Net traffic" and this site suggests what we can do about it. Elsewhere on the TOLFA site there is strong advice to all students to download a copy so that the Academy can continue unimpeded if and when is removed by the Censors. Meanwhile, the sun shines. Let's make hay!


There are a few things we can do, to wonder at the marvel of liberated literature, and first we can recognize how important the printing & publishing industries have been, in the last few centuries, for the good of mankind.

Then we can take full advantage of the Internet, here on this site as we have been doing, and in very many other good places as (partly) listed in Segment 18. There is an inexhaustible wealth of knowledge on the Internet already, and as years pass more and more will be added; perhaps not the whole of human wisdom is available at our fingertips - but a large part of it is there now, waiting for us to explore with indexing (search engines) of unprecedented power, intelligence and speed. The Net also makes classic works of literature available to read on-line or download for reading as e-books; Google your favorite Brontë novel, and see!

Then we can build a physical library of good books, including those recommended at the foot of most TOLFA segments.

And most of all, as spelled out in Segment 18, we can find one new TOLFA student per year, to use the Internet to bring about another explosion in human wellbeing even greater than the one that Gutenburg began. It's a simple enough task, yet it will make each of us vital participants in what will prove to be the most important and beneficial change in all of human history.

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