100 Best Books for an Education

A Revision and Update of Will Durant's 100 Best Books for an Education


Appendix 14


The Origins of Language




In the beginning was the word, for with it man became man. Think of speech not as a sudden achievement, nor as a gift from the gods, but as the slow development of articulate expression, through centuries of effort, from the mate-calls of animals to the lyric flights of poetry. Without those strange noises called words, or common nouns, that might give to particular images the ability to represent a class, generalization would have stopped in its beginnings, and reason would have stayed where we find it in the brute. Without common nouns thought was limited to individual objects or experiences sensorily—for the most part visually—remembered or conceived; presumably it could not think of classes as distinct from individual things, nor of qualities as distinct from objects, nor of objects as distinct from their qualities. Without words as class names one might think of this man, or that man, or that man; one could not think of Man, for the eye sees not Man but only men, not classes but particular things. The beginning of humanity came when some freak or crank, half animal and half man, squatted in a cave or in a tree, cracking his brain to invent the first common noun, the first sound-sign that would signify a group of like objects: house that would mean all houses, man that would mean all men, light that would mean every light that ever shone on land or sea. From that moment, the mental development of the human race opened upon a new and endless road. For words are to thought what tools are to work; the product depends largely on the growth of the tools. Without words, philosophy and poetry, history and prose, would have been impossible, and thought could never have reached the subtlety of Einstein or Anatole France. Without words, man could not have become man, or woman woman.

    However, gesture seems primary, speech secondary, in the earlier transmission of thought; and when speech fails, gesture comes again to the fore. Among the North American Indians, who had countless dialects, married couples often derived from different tribes, and maintained communication and accord by gestures rather than speech; one couple known to Lewis Morgan used silent signs for three years. Gesture was so prominent in some American Indian languages that the Arapahos, like some modern peoples, could hardly converse in the dark.

    Since all origins are guesses, and de fontibus non disputandum, the imagination has free play in picturing the beginnings of speech. Perhaps the first form of language—defined here as communication through signs—was the love-call of one animal to another. In this sense the jungle, the woods and the prairie are alive with speech. Cries of warning or of terror, the call of the mother to the brood, the cluck and cackle of euphoric or reproductive ecstasy, the parliament of chatter from tree to tree, indicate the busy preparations made by the animal kingdom for the august speech of man. A wild girl found living among the animals in a forest near Châlons, France, had no other speech than hideous screeches and howls. These living noises of the woods seem meaningless to our provincial ear; we are like Anatole France’s philosophical poodle Riquet, who says of M. Bergeret: “Everything uttered by my voice means something; but from my master’s mouth comes much nonsense.” Charles Otis Whitman and Wallace Craig discovered a strange correlation between the actions and the exclamations of pigeons; Dupont learned to distinguish twelve specific sounds used by fowl and doves, fifteen by dogs, and twenty-two by horned cattle; Richard Lynch Garner found that the apes carried on their endless gossip with at least twenty different sounds, plus a repertory of gestures; and from these modest vocabularies a few steps bring us to the three hundred words that suffice some unpretentious men. Perhaps the first human words were interjections, expressions of emotion as among animals; then demonstrative words accompanying gestures of direction; and imitative sounds that came in time to be the names of the objects or actions that they simulated. Even after indefinite millenniums of linguistic changes and complications, every language still contains hundreds of imitative words—roar, rush, murmur, tremor, giggle, groan, hiss, heave, hum, cackle, etc.* The Tecuna tribe, of ancient Brazil, had a perfect verb for sneeze: haitschu. Out of such beginnings, perhaps, came the root-words of every language. Ernest Renan reduced all Hebrew words to five hundred roots, and W. W. Skeat nearly all European words to some four hundred stems.

    The languages of nature peoples are not necessarily primitive in any sense of simplicity; many of them are simple in vocabulary and structure, but some of them are as complex and wordy as our own, and more highly organized than Chinese. Nearly all primitive tongues, however, limit themselves to the sensual and particular, and are uniformly poor in general or abstract terms. So the Australian natives had a name for a dog’s tail, and another name for a cow’s tail; but they had no name for tail in general. The Tasmanians had separate names for specific trees, but no general name for tree; the Choctaw Indians had names for the black oak, the white oak and the red oak, but no name for oak, much less for tree. Doubtless, many generations passed before the proper noun ended in the common noun. In many tribes there are no separate words for the color as distinct from the colored object; no words for such abstractions as tone, sex, species, space, spirit, instinct, reason, quantity, hope, fear, matter, consciousness, etc. Such abstract terms seem to grow in a reciprocal relation of cause and effect with the development of thought; they become the tools of subtlety and the symbols of civilization.

    Next to the enlargement of thought, the greatest of the gifts of speech was education. Civilization is an accumulation, a treasure-house of arts and wisdom, morals and manners, from which the individual, in his development, draws nourishment for his mental life; without that periodical reacquisition of the racial heritage by each generation, civilization would die a sudden death. It owes its life to education. More and more completely, we pass on to the next generation the gathered experience of the past. In the perspective of history, only just begun is the great experiment of education. Adolescence lengthens: we begin more helplessly, and we grow more completely towards that higher man who struggles to be born out of our darkened souls, and becomes the raw material of civilization. Consider education as the development of every potential capacity in him for the comprehension, control, and appreciation of his world. Above all, consider it, in its fullest definition, as the technique of transmitting as completely as possible, to as many as possible, that technological, intellectual, moral, and artistic heritage through which the race forms the growing individual and makes him human. Education is the reason why we behave like human beings. We are hardly born human; we are born ridiculous and malodorous animals. We become human; we have humanity thrust upon us through the hundred channels whereby the past pours down into the present that mental and cultural inheritance whose preservation, accumulation, and transmission place humankind on a higher plane than any generation has ever reached before.

    Education had few frills among primitive peoples; to them, as to the animals, education was chiefly the transmission of skills and the training of character; it was a wholesome relation of apprentice to master in the ways of life. This direct and practical tutelage encouraged a rapid growth in the primitive child. In the Omaha tribes, the boy of ten had already learned nearly all the arts of his father, and was ready for life. Among the Aleuts, the boy of ten often set up his own establishment, and sometimes took a wife; in Nigeria children of six or eight would leave the parental  house, build a hut, and provide for themselves by hunting and fishing. Usually this educational process ended with the beginning of sexual life; an early stagnation followed the precocious maturity. The boy, under such conditions, was adult at twelve and old at twenty-five. This does not mean that the “savage” had the mind of a child; it only means that he had neither the needs nor the opportunities of the modern child. He did not enjoy that long and protected adolescence which allows a more nearly complete transmission of the cultural heritage, and a greater variety and flexibility of adaptive reactions to an artificial and unstable environment. Because the environment  of the natural man was comparatively permanent, it called not for mental agility but for courage and character. The primitive father put his trust in character, as modern  education has put its trust in intellect; he was concerned to make not scholars but men.

    Bearing so many gifts to men, words seemed to them a divine boon and a sacred thing; they became the matter of magic formulas, most reverenced when most meaningless; and they still survive as sacred in mysteries where, e.g., the Word becomes Flesh. They made not only for clearer thinking, but for better social  organization; they cemented the generations mentally, by providing a better medium  for education and the transmission of knowledge and the arts; they created a new organ of communication, by which one doctrine or belief could mold a people into homogeneous unity. They opened new roads for the transport and traffic of ideas, and immensely accelerated the tempo and enlarged the range and content of life. Has any other invention ever equaled, in power and glory, the common noun?

* Such onomatopoeia remains a refuge in linguistic emergencies. The Englishman eating his first meal in China, and wishing to know the character of the meat he was eating, inquired, with Anglo-Saxon dignity and reserve, “Quack, quack?” To which the Chinese man, shaking his head, answered cheerfully, “Bow-wow.”

E.g., divine is from Latin divus, which is from deus, Greek theos, Sanskrit deva, meaning god; in the Gypsy tongue the word for god, by a strange prank, becomes devel. Historically goes back to the Sanskrit root vid, to know; Greek oida, Latin video (see), French voir (see), German wissen (know), English to wit; plus the suffixes tor (as in author, praetor, rhetor), ic, aI, and ly (= like). Again, the Sanskrit root ar, to plough, gives the Latin arare, Russian orati, English to ear the land, arable, art, oar, and perhaps the word Aryan—the ploughers.

Oral Literature


Enough common nouns strung together generated literature which at first is words rather than letters, despite its name; it arises as clerical chants or magic  charms, recited usually by the priests, and transmitted orally from memory to memory.* Carmina, as the Romans named poetry, meant both verses and charms; ode, among the Greeks, meant originally a magic spell; so did the English rune and lay, and the German Lied. Magicians or shamans apparently developed rhythm and meter, suggested, perhaps by the rhythms of nature and bodily life, to preserve, transmit, and enhance the “magic incantations of their verse.” The Greeks attributed the first hexameters to the Delphic priests whom they believed invented the meter for use in oracles.

    An example of the power of oral composition/transmission may be drawn from ancient India; since writing was less highly valued here than in other civilizations, and oral instruction preserved and disseminated the nation’s history and poetry, the habit of public recitation spread among the people the most precious portions of their cultural heritage. As nameless raconteurs among the Greeks transmitted and expanded the Iliad and the Odyssey, so the reciters and declaimers of India carried down from generation to generation, and from court to people, the ever-growing epics into which the Brahmans crowded their legendary lore. To the naturally poetic soul of the Hindu (as well as pre-literate people generally), everything worth writing about had a poetic content, and invited a poetic form. Since he felt that literature should be read aloud, and knew that his work would spread and endure, if at all, by oral rather than written dissemination, he chose to give to his compositions a metric or aphoristic form that would lend itself to recitation and memory. Consequently, nearly all the literature of ancient India is verse: they presented scientific, medical, legal, and art treatises more often than not in meter or rhyme or both; even grammars and dictionaries have been turned into poetry. Fables and history, which in the West are content with prose, found in India a melodious poetic form.

    Gradually, out of their sacerdotal oral origins, the poet, the orator, and the historian became differentiated and secularized. The orator as the official lauder of the king or solicitor of the deity; the historian as the recorder of the royal deeds; the poet as the singer of originally sacred chants, the formulator and preserver of heroic legends, and the musician who put his tales to music for the instruction of populace and kings. The Fijians, the Tahitians, and the New Caledonians had official orators and narrators to make addresses on occasions of ceremony, and to incite the warriors of the tribe by recounting the deeds of their forefathers and exalting the unequaled glories of the nation’s past: how little do some recent historians differ from these! The Somali had professional poets who went from village to village singing songs, like medieval minnesingers and troubadours. Only exceptionally were these poems of love; usually  they dealt with physical heroism, or battle, or the relations of parents and children. Here, from the Easter Island tablets, is the lament of a father separated from his daughter by the fortunes of war:


The sail of my daughter,

Never broken by the force of foreign clans;

The sail of my daughter,

Unbroken by the conspiracy of Honiti!

Ever victorious in all her fights,

She could not be enticed to drink poisoned waters

In the obsidian glass.

Can my sorrow ever be appeased

While we are divided by the mighty seas?

O my daughter, O my daughter!

It is a vast and watery road

Over which I look toward the horizon,

My daughter, O my daughter!


    We cannot vision or recall the long ages of ignorance, impotence, and fear that preceded the coming of letters. Through those unrecorded centuries, men could transmit their hard-won lore only by word of mouth from parent to child. If one generation forgot or misunderstood, people had to climb anew the weary ladder of knowledge. Nevertheless, everywhere simple tribes living for the most part in comparative isolation, and knowing the happiness of having no history, felt little  need for writing. Their memories were all the stronger for having no written aids; they learned and retained, and passed on to their children by recitation, whatever seemed necessary in the way of historical record and cultural transmission. It was probably by committing such oral traditions and folklore to writing that written literature  began. However, little or no use was made of writing in primitive education. Nothing surprises the natural man so much as the ability of Europeans to communicate with one another, over great distances, by making black scratches upon a piece of paper.

* Much oral poetry involves verbatim rote memorization—and human memory is vast; a modern example is the Qur’an: it contains more than 77,000 words and verbatim memorization is achievable.

Greek epic poetry was composed in dactylic hexameter lines. The Oral-formulaic composition theory created by Milman Parry and his student Albert Lord illustrates how the second step in text preservation took place. Instead of memorizing the entire work verbatim, which in the case of the Iliad runs to over 155,000 words and is at the extreme end of what human memory is capable of holding, each part of the line was broken into metrical formulas, i.e. fractions of a line with a certain number of long and short syllables. These usually involved noun-epithet combinations, and about 90% of “Homer” is just such combinations. If a line began, perhaps a hemistich, with three long syllables, it could end with another three long syllable hemistich and so forth. All that was required was to memorize the oral-formulas and then mix and match them— millions of combinations could be generated without a verbatim recitation of the text, but one that was close enough. 


WritingPre-Phonetic Writing


Nevertheless, they were not without mnemonic aides. The Peruvian Indians kept complex records, both of numbers and ideas, by knots and loops made in diversely colored cords (i.e. a quipu); perhaps some light is shed upon the contacts of the South American Indians by the fact that a similar custom existed among the natives of Indonesia and Polynesia. Originally, as we infer from a passage in Laozi, the Chinese used knotted cords to communicate messages, and he called upon them to return to the simple life with the proposition that they should go back to their primeval use of knotted cords. Some tribes used notched sticks (i.e. tally sticks) to help the memory or to convey a message; others, like the Algonquin Indians, not only notched the sticks but painted figures upon them, making them into miniature totem poles; or perhaps these poles were notched sticks on a grandiose scale. Totem poles were pictograph writing; they were, as W. A. Mason suggests, tribal autographs.*

    Doubtless, a long and holy opposition as something calculated to undermine morals  and the race met with the invention of writing. An Egyptian legend relates that when the god Thoth revealed his discovery of the art of writing to King Thamos, the good  King denounced it as an enemy of civilization. “Children and young people,” protested the monarch, “who had hitherto been forced to apply themselves diligently to learn and retain whatever was taught them, would cease to apply themselves, and would neglect to exercise their memories.”     

    By far the most important step in the passage to civilization was writing. It seems to be a product and convenience of commerce; here again culture may see how much it owes to trade. Writing was in its beginnings—as it still is in China and Japan—a form of drawing, an art. Of course, we can only guess at the origins of this wonderful toy. As the increase of trade occurred among connected tribes of diverse languages, it made desirable then necessary a system of mutually intelligible record and communication, which became a mode of some written signs whose first forms were rough and conventional pictures of commercial objects and accounts. Writing, like painting and sculpture, is probably in its origin a ceramic art; it began as a form of etching and drawing, and the same clay that gave vases to the potter, figures to the sculptor, and bricks to the builder, supplied writing materials to the scribe. From such a beginning to the cuneiform writing of Mesopotamia would be an intelligible and logical development. Writing was a by-product of pottery, and began as identifying “trademarks” on vessels of clay by potters who had marked their vessels. Bits of pottery from Neolithic remains show, in some cases, painted lines, which several students have interpreted as signs. This is doubtful enough; but it is possible that writing, in the broad sense of graphic symbols of specific thoughts, began with marks impressed by nails or fingers upon the still soft clay to adorn or identify pottery. Presumably, numerals were among the earliest written symbols, usually taking the form of parallel marks representing the fingers; we still call them fingers when we speak of them as digits. Such words as five, the German fünf and the Greek pente go back to a root meaning hand; so the Roman numerals indicated fingers, “V” represented an expanded hand, and “X” was merely two “V’s” connected at their points. For centuries, therefore, writing was a tool of commerce, a matter of contracts and bills, of shipments and receipts, and ceramic trademarks. Secondarily, perhaps, it was an instrument of religious record, when the priests devised a system of pictures with which to write and to preserve their magical or medical formulas, ceremonial procedures, sacred legends, prayers, and hymns from alteration or decay. Finally, the secular and clerical strains in history, usually in conflict, merged for a moment to produce the greatest human invention since the coming of speech.  

    Writing gave a new permanence to the achievements of the mind; it preserved for thousands of years, and through poverty and superstition, the wisdom found by philosophy and the beauty carved out in drama and poetry. It bound the generations together with a common heritage; it created that Country of the Mind in which, because of writing, genius need not die. The development of writing almost created civilization by providing a means for the recording and transmission of knowledge, the accumulation of science, the growth of literature, and the spread of peace and order among varied but communicating tribes brought by one language under a single state. The earliest appearance of writing marks that ever-receding point at which history begins. Over time, many tribes learned to write by imitating their civilized exploiters; but some, as in northern Africa, remained letterless despite five thousand years of intermittent contact with literate nations. In general, writing is a sign of civilization, the least uncertain of the precarious distinctions between civilized and primitive men.     

    Precisely how was writing invented? The oldest graphic symbols known to us are those found by Sir William M. Flinders-Petrie on shards, vases, and stones discovered in the prehistoric tombs of Egypt, Spain, and the Near East, to which, with his usual generosity, he attributes an age of seven thousand years. This “Mediterranean Signary” numbered some three hundred signs; most of them were the same in all localities, indicating commercial bonds from one end of the Mediterranean to the other as far back as 5000 B.C. They were not pictures but chiefly mercantile symbols—marks of property, quantity, or other business memoranda; the berated bourgeoisie may take consolation in the thought that literature originated in bills of lading. The signs were not letters, since they represented entire words or ideas; but many of them were astonishingly like letters of the “Phoenician” alphabet. Petrie concludes,


a wide body of signs had been gradually brought into use in primitive times for    various purposes. These were interchanged by trade, and spread from land to land, . . . until a couple of dozen signs triumphed and became common property to a group of trading communities, while the local survivals of other forms were gradually extinguished in isolated seclusion.


That this signary was the source of the alphabet is an interesting theory, which Professor Petrie has the distinction of holding alone.

    Whatever may have been the development of these early commercial symbols, there grew up alongside them a form of writing that was a branch of drawing and painting, and conveyed connected thought by pictures. Every word and every letter known to us was once a picture, even as trademarks and the signs of the zodiac are to this day.  Rocks near Lake Superior still bear remains of the crude pictures with which the American Indians proudly narrated for posterity, or more probably for their associates, the story of their crossing the mighty lake. The primeval Chinese pictures that preceded writing were called ku-wan—literally, “gesture-pictures.” As men used gestures when they could not use words, so they used pictures to transmit their thoughts across time and space.

    These primitive pictograms were the original form of the six hundred signs that are now the fundamental characters in Chinese writing.* Some two hundred and fourteen of them have been named “radicals” because they enter as elements into nearly all the characters of the current language. The present characters are highly complex symbols, in which additions designed to define the term specifically overlaid the primitive pictorial element, usually through some indication of its sound. Not only every word, but also every idea, has its own separate sign; one sign represents a horse, another sign “a bay horse with a white belly,” another “a horse with a white spot on his forehead.” Some of the characters are still relatively simple: a curve over a straight line (i.e., the sun over the horizon) means “morning”; the sun and the moon together represent “light”; the sun and a tree together mean “east”; a mouth and a bird together mean “singing”; a dog and mouth means “bark”; a woman beneath a roof means “peace”; a woman, a mouth and the sign for “crooked” constitute the character for “dangerous”; a man and a woman together mean “talkative”; “quarreling” is a woman with two mouths; “wife” is represented by signs for a woman, a broom and a storm.

    From some points of view, this primitive language has by supreme conservatism survived into “modern” times. Its difficulties are more obvious than its virtues. We are told that the Chinese takes from ten to fifty years to become acquainted with all the 40,000 characters in his language. However, when we realize that these characters are not letters but ideas, and reflect on the length of time it would take us to master 40,000 ideas, or even a vocabulary of 40,000 words, we perceive that the terms of the comparison are unfair to the Chinese. What we should say is that it takes anyone fifty years to master 40,000 ideas. In actual practice, the average Chinese gets along quite well with three or four thousand signs, and learns these readily enough by finding their “radicals.” The clearest advantage of such a language—expressing not sounds but ideas—is that it can be read by Koreans and Japanese as easily as by the Chinese, and provides the Far East with an international written language. Again it unites in one system of writing all the inhabitants of China, whose dialects differ to the point of mutual unintelligibility; the same character is read as different sounds or words in different localities. This advantage applies in time as well as in space. Since the written language has remained essentially the same while the spoken language has diverged from it into a hundred dialects, the literature of China, written for two thousand years in these characters, can be read today by any literate Chinese, though we cannot tell how the ancient writers pronounced the words, or spoke the ideas, which the signs represent. This persistence of the same script amidst a flux and diversity of speech made for the preservation of Chinese thought and culture, and at the same time served as a powerful force for conservatism; old ideas held the stage and formed the mind of youth. This phenomenon of its unique script symbolized the character of Chinese civilization: its unity amid diversity and growth, its profound conservatism, and its unrivaled continuity. This system of writing was in every sense a high intellectual achievement; it classified the whole world—of objects, activities and qualities—under a few hundred root or “radical” signs, combined with these signs some fifteen hundred distinguishing marks, and made them represent, in their completed forms, all the ideas used in literature and life. We must not be too sure that our own diverse modes of writing down our thoughts are superior to this apparently primitive form. Leibnitz in the seventeenth century, and Sir Donald Ross in the twentieth century, dreamed of a system of written signs independent of spoken languages, free from their nationalist diversity and their variations in space and time, and capable, therefore, of expressing the ideas of different peoples in identical and mutually intelligible ways. But precisely such a sign language, uniting a hundred generations and a quarter of the earth’s inhabitants, already exists in the Far East. The conclusion of the Oriental is logical and terrible: the rest of the world must learn to write Chinese.

* The third step in the preservation of a text involved the use of these mnemonic devices. Quipus, tally sticks etc. encode numbers that represent individual oral-formulaic phrases; it became a simple process to associate a particular number with an oral-formulaic phrase—precisely as a modern computer associates a number with an alphanumeric character. In our example from “Homer,” we see that each oral-formulaic phrase can now be coded with a number. It becomes a relatively simple task to memorize a couple of thousand number-phrases thus ensuring that they are permanently preserved. Perhaps Chinese knotted cords served this function


* The fourth step in text preservation was pictographic/ideographic writing, and Chinese offers a perfect example of this stage of the development.


Phonetic Writing


More highly developed forms of writing appear sporadically among nature men. Hieroglyphics have been found on Easter Island, in the South Seas; and on one of the Caroline Islands a script has been discovered which consists of fifty-one syllabic signs, picturing figures and ideas. Tradition tells how the priests and chiefs of Easter Island  tried to keep to themselves all knowledge of writing, and how they read the tablets annually to the assembled people. Writing was obviously, in its earlier stages, a mysterious and holy thing, a hieroglyph, or sacred carving. However, we cannot be sure that these Polynesian scripts did not derive from some of the historic civilizations.         

    A similar evolution of drawing into writing seems to have taken place throughout the Mediterranean world at the end of the Neolithic Age. Certainly by 3300 B.C., and probably long before that, Elam, Sumer, and Egypt had developed a system of thought-pictures, called hieroglyphics because practiced chiefly by the priests. A similar system appeared in Crete ca. 2500 B.C.*

    The startling fact in the Sumerian remains is writing. The marvelous art seems already well advanced, fit to express complex thought in commerce, poetry, and religion. The oldest inscriptions are on stone and date apparently as far back as 3300 B.C. In the earliest Sumerian hieroglyphics, the pictograph for bird bears a suggestive resemblance to the bird decorations on the oldest pottery at Susa, in Elam; and the earliest pictograph for grain is taken directly from the geometrical grain-decoration of Susan and Sumerian vases. The linear script of Sumer, on its first appearance is apparently an abbreviated form of the signs and pictures painted or impressed upon the primitive pottery of lower Mesopotamia and Elam. Towards 3200 B.C. the clay tablet appears, and from that time on the Sumerians seem to have delighted in the great discovery. It is our good fortune that the people of Mesopotamia wrote not upon fragile, ephemeral paper in fading ink, but upon moist clay deftly impressed with the wedge-like (“cuneiform”) point of a reed stylus. With this malleable material, the scribe kept records, executed contracts, drew up official documents, recorded property, judgments and sales, and created a culture in which the stylus became as mighty as the sword. Having completed the writing, the scribe baked the clay tablet with heat or in the sun, and made it thereby a manuscript far more durable than paper, and only less lasting than stone. This development of cuneiform script was the outstanding contribution of Sumer to the civilizing of humankind.       

    Sumerian writing reads from right to left; the Babylonians were, as far as we know, the first people to write from left to right. The linear script, as we have seen, was apparently a stylized and conventionalized form of the signs and pictures painted or impressed upon primitive Sumerian pottery. Presumably, from repetition and haste over centuries of time, the original pictures were gradually contracted into signs so unlike the objects which they had once represented that they became the symbols of sounds rather than of things. We should have an analogous process in English if the picture of a bee should in time be shortened and simplified, and come to mean not a bee but the sound be, and then serve to indicate that syllable in any combination as in be-ing. The Sumerians and Babylonians never advanced from such representation of syllables to the representation of letters never dropped the vowel in the syllabic sign to make be mean b; it seems to have remained for the Egyptians to take this simple but revolutionary step.

    The transition from writing to a written literature probably required many hundreds of years. Nevertheless, by 2700 B.C., great libraries had formed in Sumer; at Tello, for example, in ruins contemporary with Gudea, Ernest De Sarzec discovered a collection of over 30,000 tablets ranged one upon another in neat and logical array. As early as 2000 B.C. Sumerian historians began to reconstruct the past and record the present for the edification of the future; portions of their work have come down to us not in the original form but as quotations in later Babylonian chronicles. Among the original fragments, however, found at Nippur is a tablet bearing the Sumerian prototype of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Some of the shattered tablets contain dirges of no mean power, and of significant literary form. Here at the outset appears the characteristic Near Eastern trick of chanting repetition i.e. parallelism—many lines beginning in the same way, many clauses reiterating or illustrating the meaning of the clause before. Through these salvaged relics, we see the religious origin of written literature in the songs and lamentations of the priests. The first poems were not madrigals, but prayers.    

    Meanwhile, the pictographic writing of the pre-dynastic Egyptians seems to have come in from Sumer. Their language had probably come in from Asia; the oldest specimens of it show many Semitic affinities. Again, the earliest writing, as in Sumer, was apparently pictographic—an object was represented by drawing a picture of it: e.g. the word for house (Egyptian per) was indicated by a small rectangle with an opening on one of the long sides. As some ideas were too abstract to be literally pictured, pictography passed into ideography: certain pictures were by custom and convention used to represent not the objects pictured but the ideas suggested by them; so the forepart of a lion meant supremacy (as in the Sphinx), a wasp meant royalty, and a tadpole stood for thousands. As a further development along this line, abstract ideas, which had at first resisted representation, were indicated by picturing objects whose names happened to resemble the spoken words that corresponded to the ideas; so the picture of a lute came to mean not only lute, but good, because the Egyptian word-sound for lute—nofer resembled the word-sound for good—nefer. Queer rebus combinations grew out of these homonyms—words of like sound but different meanings. Since the verb to be was expressed in the spoken language by the sound khopiru, the scribe, being puzzled to find a picture for so intangible a conception, split the word into parts, kho-pi-ru, expressed these by picturing in succession a sieve (called in the spoken language khau), a mat (pi), and a mouth (ru); use and wont, which sanctify so many absurdities, soon made this strange assortment of characters suggest the idea of being. In this way the Egyptian arrived at the syllable, the syllabic sign, and the syllabary—i.e. a collection of syllabic signs; and by dividing difficult words into syllables, finding homonyms for these, and drawing in combination the objects suggested by these syllabic sounds, he was able, in the course of time, to make the hieroglyphic signs convey almost any idea.      

    Only a single step remained—to invent letters.* Hieroglyphics are as old as the earliest dynasties; from this, the evolution of letters in Egypt seemed inevitable. For example, as stated earlier, the sign for a house meant at first the word for house—per; then it meant the sound per, or p-r with any vowel in between, as a syllable in any word. Then the picture was shortened, and used to represent the sound po, pa, pu, pe or pi in any word; and since vowels were never written, this was equivalent to having a character for P. By a like development the sign for a hand (Egyptian dot) came to mean do, da, etc., finally D; the sign for mouth (ro or ru) came to mean R; the sign for snake (zt) became Z; the sign for lake (shy) became Sh. . . . The oldest examples of alphabetic characters known to us appear first in inscriptions left by the Egyptians in the mines of the Sinai Peninsula, variously dating back to an uncertain age between 1900 and 1500 B.C. At Serabit-el-khadim, a little hamlet covering a site where anciently the Egyptians mined turquoise, Sir William M. Flinders-Petrie found inscriptions in a strange language; though these inscriptions have only very partially been deciphered, it is apparent that they were written not in hieroglyphics, nor in syllabic cuneiform, but with an alphabet. In the 1990’s, other archaeologists found similar writing in limestone inscriptions in Egypt at Wadi el-Hol. This writing dates to around the 19th century B.C. during the twelfth dynasty, a time when numerous Semitic Canaanites immigrated to Egypt, and perhaps they made the final step in modifying the Egyptian alphabet. Once done, they took it back with them to Canaan/Syria. At Zapouna, in southern Syria, French archaeologists discovered an entire library of clay tablets some in hieroglyphic, some in a Semitic alphabetic script. As Zapouna seems to have been permanently destroyed about 1200 B.C. during the Late Bronze Age collapse, these tablets go back presumably to the thirteenth century B.C., and suggest to us again how old civilization was in those centuries to which our ignorance ascribes its origins.

    Whether wisely or not, the Egyptians never adopted a completely alphabetic writing; like modem stenographers they mingled pictographs, ideographs and syllabic signs with their letters to the very end of their civilization. This has made it difficult for scholars to read Egyptian, but it is quite conceivable that such a medley of longhand and shorthand facilitated the business of writing for those Egyptians who could spare the time to learn it. Since English speech is no honorable guide to English spelling, it is probably as difficult for a contemporary lad to learn the devious ways of English orthography as it was for the Egyptian scribe to memorize by use the five hundred hieroglyphs, their secondary syllabic meanings, and their tertiary alphabetic uses. Almost simultaneously with the development of hieroglyphics, a more rapid and sketchy form of writing was developed for manuscripts, as distinguished from the careful “sacred carvings” of the monuments. Since the priests and the temple scribes first made this corruption of hieroglyphic it was called by the Greeks hieratic; but it soon passed into common use for public, commercial, and private documents. Over the course of time the common people developed a still more abbreviated and careless form of this script and therefore it came to be known as demotic. On the monuments, however, the Egyptian insisted on having his lordly and lovely hieroglyphic—perhaps the most picturesque form of writing ever made.

    The Phoenicians deserve some niche in the hall of civilized nations, for it was probably their merchants who taught the Egyptian alphabet to the nations of antiquity. The result of the Canaanite/Phoenician experiments in Egypt was an alphabet of twenty-four consonants, which passed with Egyptian and Phoenician trade to all quarters of the Mediterranean, and came down, via Greece and Rome, as one of the most precious parts of our Oriental heritage. Not the ecstasies of literature but the needs of commerce brought unity to the peoples of the Mediterranean; nothing could better illustrate a certain generative relation between commerce and culture. We do not know that the Phoenicians introduced this alphabet into Greece, though Greek tradition unanimously affirms it, it is possible that Crete gave the alphabet to both the Phoenicians and the Greeks. Nevertheless, it is more probable that the Phoenicians took letters where they took papyrus. About 1100 B.C. we find them importing papyrus from Egypt; for a nation that kept and carried many accounts it was an inestimable convenience compared with the heavy clay tablets of Mesopotamia; and the Egyptian alphabet was likewise an immense improvement upon the clumsy syllabaries of the Near East. About 960 B.C. King Hiram of Tyre dedicated to one of his gods a bronze cup engraved with an alphabetic inscription; and about 840 B.C. King Mesha of Moab announced his glory (on a stone now in the Louvre) in a Semitic dialect written from right to left in letters corresponding to those of the Phoenician alphabet. The Greeks reversed the facing of some of the letters, because they wrote from left to right; but essentially their alphabet was that which the Phoenicians had taught them, and which they were in turn to teach to Europe. These strange symbols are the most precious portion of our cultural heritage.

    But upon what and with what were they writing? In the higher grades, the ancient Egyptian student was allowed to use paper—one of the main items of Egyptian trade, and one of the permanent gifts of Egypt to the world. The stem of the papyrus plant was cut into strips, other strips were placed crosswise upon these, the sheet was pressed, and paper, the very stuff (and nonsense) of civilization, was made. How well they made it may be judged from manuscripts written by them five thousand years ago that are still intact and legible. They combined sheets into books by gumming the right edge of one sheet to the left edge of the next; in this way, they produced rolls that were sometimes over forty meters in length; they were seldom longer, for there were no verbose historians in Egypt. They made ink, black and indestructible, from the most ancient antiquity, by mixing water with soot and vegetable gums on a wooden palette; the pen was a simple reed, fashioned at the tip into a tiny brush. From the earliest dynasties, the Egyptians too used parchment as a writing material, as many others used it elsewhere. In ancient India dried palm-leaves then later bark served as writing material, and an iron stylus as a pen; they treated the palm-leaf/bark to make it less fragile, and after the pen scratched letters into it, ink was smeared over the surface and remained in the scratches when the rest of it was wiped away. Ink, too, came from the Far East; it was from China that Europe learned the trick of mixing it out of lampblack; “India ink” was originally Chinese. Red ink, made of sulfide of mercury (cinnabar), had been used in China as far back as the Han Dynasty; black inksticks appeared there in the fourth century, and henceforth the use of red ink was made an imperial privilege. Black ink encouraged printing, for it was especially adapted for use on wooden blocks, and enjoyed almost complete indelibility. Blocks of paper have been found, in Central Asia, which had lain under water so long as to become petrified; but the writing, in ink, could still be clearly read.

* The fifth step in the preservation of a text occurred in the Near East ca. 3300 B.C. Word-signs became sound-signs. As we shall see, these hieroglyphics, representing thoughts/words, were by the corruption of use schematized and conventionalized into syllabaries—i.e., collections of signs indicating syllables.


* During the sixth step, syllable-signs were used to indicate not the whole syllable but its initial sound, and therefore became letters. Such alphabetic writing probably dates back to Semitic Canaanites living in Egypt ca. 1900 B.C. and in Crete it appears ca. 1600 B.C. The Phoenicians (Northwestern Canaanites) did not create the alphabet, they marketed it; taking it apparently from Egypt and Crete, they imported it piecemeal to Tyre, Sidon and Byblos, and exported it to every city on the Mediterranean; they were the intermediaries, not the producers, of the alphabet. By the time of Homer, the Greeks were taking over this Phoenician—or the allied Aramaic—alphabet, and were calling it by the Semitic names of the first two letters (Alpha, Beta; Hebrew Aleph, Beth).

PrintingThe Far East


Printing itself, as imprinting, was older than Christianity. The Babylonians had printed letters or symbols upon bricks, the Romans and many others upon coins, potters upon their wares, weavers upon cloths, bookbinders upon book covers; any ancient or medieval dignitary used printing when he stamped documents with his seal. Some had employed similar methods in the production of maps and playing cards. Block printing—by blocks of wood or metal engraved with words, symbols, or images—goes back in China and Japan to the eighth century, probably beyond; the Chinese in this way printed paper money in or before the tenth century.

    Printing entered like an imperceptibly completed revolution into the literary life of the Chinese during the Song dynasty. It had grown gradually through many centuries; now it was ready in both its phases—blocks to print whole pages, and movable type cast of metal in matrices—as a thoroughly Chinese invention, the greatest, after writing, in the history of our race. The first step in the development had to be the discovery of some more convenient writing material than the silk or bamboo that had contented the ancient Chinese. Silk was expensive, and bamboo was heavy; Mozi needed three carts to carry with him, in his travels, the bamboo books that were his chief possession; and Shihuangdi had to go over fifty-four kilograms of state documents every day. About the year 105, one Cai Lun informed the Emperor that he had invented a cheaper and lighter writing material, made of tree bark, hemp, rags, and fishnets. Cai was given a high title and office by the Emperor, was involved in an intrigue with the Empress, was detected, “went home, took a bath, combed his hair, put on his best robes, and drank poison.” The new art spread rapidly and far, for the oldest existing paper, found by Sir Aurel Stein in a spur of the Great Wall, is in the form of state documents pertaining to occurrences in the years 21-137, and apparently contemporary with the latest of those events. It is dated, therefore, about 150, only half a century after Cai Lun’s report of his invention. These early papers were of pure rag, essentially like the paper used in our own day when durability is desired. The Chinese developed paper almost to perfection by using a “sizing” of glue or gelatin, and a base of starchy paste, to strengthen the fibers and accelerate their absorption of ink. When the Chinese taught the art to the Arabs in the eighth century and by the Arabs to Europe in the thirteenth, it was already complete.

    The use of seals in signatures was the unconscious origin of print; the Chinese word for print is still the same as the word for seal. At first, these seals, as in the Near East, were impressed upon clay; about the fifth century, they were moistened with ink. Meanwhile, in the second century, the text of the Chinese Classics had been cut in stone; and soon thereafter, the custom arose of making inked rubbings from these inscriptions. In the sixth century we find large wooden seals used by the Taoists to print charms; a century later the Buddhist missionaries experimented with various methods of duplication, through seals, rubbings, stencils, and textile prints—the last an art of Indian derivation. The earliest extant block prints are a million charms printed in Japan about the year 770, in the Sanskrit language and Chinese characters, an excellent instance of cultural interaction in Asia. Many block prints were made during the Tang Dynasty, but they were apparently destroyed or lost in the chaos of revolution that followed Minghuang. In 1907 Sir Aurel Stein persuaded the Taoist priests of Chinese Turkestan to let him examine the “Caves of the Thousand Buddhas” at Dunhuang. In one of these chambers, which had apparently been walled up about the year 1035 and not opened again until 1900, lay 1,130 bundles, each containing a dozen or more manuscript rolls; the whole formed a library of 15,000 books, written on paper, and as well preserved as if they had been inscribed the day before their modern discovery. It was among these manuscripts that the world’s oldest printed book was found—the Diamond Sutra—a roll ending with these words: “Printed on (the equivalent of) May 15,* 868, by Wang Jie, for free general distribution, in order in deep reverence to perpetuate the memory of his parents.” Three other printed books were found in the mass of manuscripts; one of them marked a new development, for it was not a roll, like the Diamond Sutra, but a tiny folded book, the first known of its now multitudinous kind. As in late medieval Europe and among primitive peoples in recent times, the first stimulus to printing came from religion, which sought to spread its doctrines by sight as well as sound, and to put its charms and prayers and legends into every hand. Almost as old as these pious forms of print, however, are playing cards—which appeared in China in 969 or sooner, and were introduced from China into Europe near the end of the fourteenth century, followed soon thereafter by the technique of printing block books.

    These early volumes had been printed with wooden blocks. In a Chinese letter written about 870 we find the oldest known mention of such work: “Once when I was in Szechuan I examined in a bookshop a schoolbook printed from wood.” Already, it seems, the art of printing had been developed; and it is interesting to observe that this development seems to have come first in western provinces like Szechuan and Turkestan, which had been prodded on to civilization by Buddhist missionaries from India, and had for a time enjoyed a culture independent of the eastern capitals. Block printing was introduced to eastern China early in the tenth century when a prime minister, Feng Dao, persuaded the Emperor to provide funds for the printing of the Chinese Classics. The work took twenty years and filled one hundred and thirty volumes, for it included not only the texts but the most famous commentaries. When it was completed, it gave the Classics a circulation that contributed vigorously to the revival of learning and the strengthening of Confucianism under the Song kings.

    One of the earliest forms of block printing was the manufacture of paper money. Appearing first in Szechuan in the tenth century, it became a favorite occupation of Chinese governments, and led within a century to experiments in inflation. Block printing appeared in Tabriz in 1194, in Egypt toward 1300; but the Muslims preferred calligraphy to printing, and did not serve in this case, as in so many others, to carry cultural developments from the East to the West. In 1294, Persia imitated this new mode of creating wealth; in 1297, Marco Polo described with wonder the respect that the Chinese showed for these curious scraps of paper. It was not till 1656 that Europe learned the trick, and issued its first paper currency.

    Typography—printing with separate and movable type for each character or letter—was also a Chinese invention of one Bi Sheng who formed movable type of earthenware as early as 1041. But the absence of an alphabet, and the presence of 40,000 characters in written Chinese, made its use an impossible luxury in the Far East, and little use was found for the invention. In 1314, Wang Zhen employed nearly 60,000 wooden movable type characters to print a book on agriculture; he had tried metal type first, but had found that it did not take or hold ink as readily as wood. Again, movable type, offered little advantage or convenience to a language that had no alphabet, but had 40,000 separate characters; consequently block printing remained customary in China till the nineteenth century. From the days of Feng Dao to those of Li Hongzhang the Chinese clung to block printing as the most feasible form for their language.

    Despite this limitation, Chinese printers poured out a great mass of books upon the people, for the art of block printing was one of the sources of the Song Renaissance. Stimulated with this liberating invention, Chinese literature now became an unprecedented flood. By two hundred years, China anticipated all the glory of the Humanist revival in Italy. Writers found themselves armed with a weapon that they had never had before; their audience was widened from the aristocracy to the middle, even to part of the lower, classes; literature took on a more democratic tinge, and a more varied form. The entire Buddhist canon, in five thousand volumes, was completed by 972. A hundred editions and a thousand commentaries honored the ancient classics. Scholarly historians captured and put down for millions of readers in the new marvel of type the life of the past; dynastic histories in hundreds of volumes were issued between 994 and 1063. Vast anthologies of literature were collected, great dictionaries were compiled, and encyclopedias like mastodons made their way through the land. The first of any moment was that of Wu Shu (947-1002); for lack of an alphabet, it was arranged under categories, covering chiefly the physical world. In 977 the Song Emperor Taizong ordered the compilation of a larger encyclopedia; it ran to thirty-two volumes, and consisted for the most part of selections from 1,690 preexisting books. Later, under the Ming Emperor Yongle (1402-24), an encyclopedia was written in ten thousand volumes, and proved too expensive to be printed; of the one copy handed down to posterity all but one hundred and sixty volumes were consumed by fire in the Boxer riots of 1900. Never before had scholars so dominated a civilization.  

    In 1403, the Koreans produced the first metal type known to history: character models were engraved in hard wood, molds of porcelain paste were made from these models, and from these molds, baked in an oven, the metal type was cast. The greatest of Korean emperors, Taejong, at once adopted the invention as an aid to government and the preservation of civilization. “Whoever is desirous of governing,” said that enlightened monarch,


must have a wide acquaintance with the laws and the Classics. Then he will be able to act righteously without, and to maintain an upright character within, and thus to bring peace and order to the land. Our eastern country lies beyond the seas, and the number of books reaching us from China is small. The books printed from blocks are often imperfect, and moreover it is difficult to print in their entirety all the books that exist. I ordain therefore that characters be formed of bronze, and that everything without exception upon which I can lay my hands be printed, in order to pass on the tradition of what these works contain. That will be a blessing to us to all eternity. However, the costs shall not be taken from the people in taxes. I and my family, and those ministers who so wish, will privately bear the expense.


From Korea the casting of movable type spread to Japan and back again to China, but not, apparently, until after Gutenberg’s belated discovery in Europe. In Korea, the use of movable type continued for two centuries and then decayed; in China, its use was only occasional until merchants and missionaries from the West, as if returning an ancient gift, brought to the East the methods of European typography.

* All dates are Gregorian.

Ed. Note: This was a codex, but hardly the first, as the Mediterranean world had them in Roman times.



What put an end to the Middle Ages? Many causes, operating through three centuries: the failure of the Crusades; the spreading acquaintance of renascent Europe with Islam; the disillusioning capture of Constantinople; the resurrection of classic pagan culture; the expansion of commerce through the voyages of Henry the Navigator’s fleet, and Columbus, and Vasco da Gama; the rise of the business class, which financed the centralization of monarchical government; the development of national states challenging the supranational authority of the popes; the successful revolt of Luther against the papacy; printing.

    In Europe before Gutenberg, nearly all education had been in the hands of the Church. Books were costly; copying was laborious and sometimes careless. Few authors could reach a wide audience until they were dead; they had to live by pedagogy, or by entering a monastic order, or by pensions from the rich or benefices from the Church. They received little or no payment from those who published their works; and even if one publisher paid them they had no copyright protection, except occasionally by a papal grant. Libraries were numerous but small; monasteries, cathedrals, colleges, and some cities had modest collections, seldom more than 300 volumes; the books were usually kept inside the walls, and some were chained to lecterns or desks. Charles V of France had a library renowned for its size—910 volumes; Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, had 600; the library of Christ Church Priory at Canterbury was probably as large as any outside of Islam, having some 2,000 volumes in 1300. The best publicized library in England was that of Richard de Bury St. Edmunds, who wrote affectionately of his books in The Philobiblon (1345), and made them complain of their maltreatment by “that two-legged beast called woman,” who insisted on exchanging them for fine linen or silk.

    As schools multiplied and literacy rose, the demand for books increased. The business classes found literacy useful in the operations of industry and trade; women of the middle and upper classes escaped, through reading into a world of compensatory romance; by 1300 the time had passed when only the clergy could read. It was this rising demand, even more than the increased supply of paper and the development of an oily ink, which led to Gutenberg. Muslims had brought paper manufacture to Spain in the tenth century, to Sicily in the twelfth; it passed into Italy in the thirteenth, into France in the fourteenth; the paper industry was a hundred years old in Europe when printing came. In the fourteenth century, when linen clothing became customary in Europe, castoff linens provided cheap rags for paper; the cost of paper declined, and its readier availability cooperated with the extension of literacy to offer a material and market for printed books.     

    Printing from movable type In Europe may have developed first in Holland; according to Dutch traditions not traceable beyond 1569, Laurens Coster of Haarlem printed a religious manual from movable metal type in 1430; but the evidence is inconclusive. Nothing further is heard of movable type in Holland till 1473, when Germans from Cologne set up a press in Utrecht. But these men had learned the art in Mainz.

    Johann Gutenberg was born there of a prosperous aristocratic family about 1395. His father’s name was Gensfleisch—Gooseflesh; Johann preferred to use his father’s ancestral home, Gutenberg, as his surname. At that time, Mainz was a hub for many goldsmiths and jewelers, and he might have been taught the required skills in metalworking from his uncle who was master of the mint. For political reasons, he lived most of his first forty years in Strasbourg, and appears to have made experiments there in cutting and casting metal type. Toward 1448, he became a citizen of Mainz. On August 31, 1450, he entered into a contract with Johann Fust, a rich goldsmith, by which he mortgaged his printing press to Fust for a loan of 800 guilders, later raised to 1,600. Gutenberg probably printed a letter of indulgence issued by Nicholas V in 1451; several copies exist, bearing the oldest printed date, 1454. In 1455, Fust sued Gutenberg for repayment; unable to comply, Gutenberg surrendered his press. Fust carried on the establishment with Peter Schöffer, who had been employed by Gutenberg as typesetter. Some believe that it was Schöffer who had by this time developed the new tools and technique of printing: a hard “punch” of engraved steel for each letter, number, and punctuation mark, a metal matrix to receive the punches, and a metal mold to hold the matrix and letters in line.

    In 1456, Gutenberg, with borrowed funds, set up another press. From this he issued, in that year or the next, what has been generally considered his first type-printed book, the famous and beautiful “Gutenberg Bible”*—a majestic folio of 1,282 large double-columned pages. In 1462 Mainz was sacked by the troops of Adolf of Nassau; the printers fled, scattering the new art through Germany. By 1463, there were printers in Strasbourg, Cologne, Basel, Augsburg, Nuremberg, and UIm. Gutenberg, one of the fugitives, settled in Eltville, where he resumed his printing. He struggled painfully through one financial crisis after another, until Adolf gave him (1465) a benefice yielding a protective income. Some three years later he died.

    Doubtless his use of movable type would have been developed by others had he never been born; it was an obvious demand of the times; this is true of most inventions. A letter written in 1470 by Guillaume Fichet of Paris suggests how enthusiastically the invention was welcomed:


There has been discovered in Germany a wonderful new method for the production of books, and those who have mastered the art are taking it from Mainz out into the world. . . . The light of this discovery will spread from Germany to all parts of the earth.


Nevertheless, not all welcomed it. Copyists protested that printing would destroy their means of livelihood; aristocrats opposed it as a mechanical vulgarization, and feared that it would lower the value of their manuscript libraries; statesmen and clergy distrusted it as a possible vehicle of subversive ideas. It made its triumphant way nevertheless. In 1464 two Germans set up a press in Rome; in or before 1469 two Germans opened a printing shop in Venice; in 1470 three Germans brought the art to Paris; in 1471 it reached Holland, in 1472 Switzerland, in 1473 Hungary, in 1474 Spain, in 1476 England, in 1482 Denmark, in 1483 Sweden, in 1490 Constantinople. Nuremberg with the Koberger family, Paris with the Êtiennes, Lyons with Dolet, Venice with Aldus Manutius, Basel with Amerbach and Froben, Zurich with Froschauer, Leiden with the Elzevirs, became humming hives of printing and publishing. Soon half the European population was reading as never before, and a passion for books became one of the effervescent ingredients of the Reformation age. “At this very moment,” writes a Basel scholar to a friend,


a whole wagon load of classics, of the best Aldine editions, has arrived from Venice.   Do you want any? If you do, tell me at once, and send the money, for no sooner is such a freight landed than thirty buyers rise up for each volume, merely asking the price, and tearing one another’s eyes out to get hold of them.


The typographical revolution was on.

    To describe all its effects would be to chronicle half the history of the modern mind. Erasmus, in the ecstasy of his sales, called printing the greatest of all discoveries, but perhaps he underestimated speech, fire, the wheel, agriculture, writing, law, even the lowly common noun. Printing replaced esoteric manuscripts with inexpensive texts rapidly multiplied, in copies more exact and legible than before, and so uniform that scholars in diverse countries could work with one another by references to specific pages of specific editions. Often they sacrificed quality to quantity, but the earliest printed books were in many cases models of art in typography and binding. Printing published—i.e. made available to the public—cheap manuals of instruction in religion, literature, history, and science; it became the greatest and cheapest of all universities, open to all. It did not produce the Renaissance, but it paved the way for the Enlightenment, for the American and French revolutions, for democracy. It made the Bible a common possession, and prepared the people for Luther’s appeal from the popes to the Gospels; later it would permit the rationalist’s appeal from the Gospels to reason. It ended the clerical monopoly of learning, the priestly control of education. It encouraged the vernacular literatures, for the large audience it required could not be reached through Latin. It facilitated the international communication and cooperation of scientists. It affected the quality and character of literature by subjecting authors to the purse and taste of the middle classes rather than to aristocratic or ecclesiastical patrons. And, after speech, it provided a readier instrument for the dissemination of nonsense than the world has ever known until our time.

    Now, as writing united the generations, print, despite the thousand prostitutions of it, can bind the civilizations. It is not necessary any more that civilization should disappear before our planet passes away. It will change its habitat; doubtless, the land in every nation will refuse at last to yield its fruit to improvident tillage and careless tenancy; inevitably, new regions will lure with virgin soil the lustier strains of every race. But a civilization is not a material thing, inseparably bound, like an ancient serf, to a given spot of the earth; it is an accumulation of technical knowledge and cultural creation; if these can be passed on to the new seat of economic power the civilization does not die, it merely makes for itself another home. Nothing but beauty and wisdom deserve immortality. To a philosopher it is not indispensable that his native city should endure forever; he will be content if its achievements are handed down, to form some part of the possessions of humankind.

* Also known as the “Mazarin Bible,” because it was discovered about 1760 in the library left by that cardinal. Forty-six copies survive. The Morgan Library of New York in 1953 paid $75,000 to a Swiss monastery for a “Constance Missal” which it believes was printed by Gutenberg before the Bible, probably in 1452.