“Second best at everything”

1 Vermeer astronomer

Have you ever come across an all rounder? One of those talented people who are good at lots of things? I knew one at school who not only came first in every class and won all the prizes offered but was also the school’s best cricket player, captain of the team. I wonder what drives these people not to specialise? It seems to do them little good.

Another term for these people is polymath, nothing to do with maths, but the Greek word polumathes, learned: you hear them called ‘Renaissance Man’ sometimes, a bit stuffy now, a reference I suppose to Leonardo da Vinci, who started life as an accomplished singer and musician, became a pioneer in the science of military engineering, the most famous and influential painter of his time (some think, of all time), then, from the 1490s,  he investigated for almost the first time a huge range of sciences, such as optics, anatomy, geology, botany, and invented many strikingly innovative machines. And that just scratches the surface of his accomplishments. But Leonardo left a lot of unfinished work behind him when he died.

2 Leonardo Portrait of a Musician

Every now and again I come across other all rounders, like Sir Richard Francis Burton, who did a racy translation of the One Thousand Nights and One Night in 1885. Burton knew 30 languages, wrote 50 books, explored Africa and Arabia, was an expert swordsman, served in the British Army with distinction, did pioneer work in anthropology, and was interested in topics such as erotica, astrology and spiritualism. And that just scratches the surface of his accomplishments. Burton wasn’t trusted by his employers, and languished most of his life away in minor posts.

3 Richard Francis Burton

In the ancient world there were also many of these all rounders, such as the philosopher Plato, who was not just a philosopher, but a politician, and may have been a poet and playwright too if some of the known writings of these kinds written by someone called Plato were by the philosopher. But the most extraordinary all rounder of antiquity was Eratosthenes, somewhat misleadingly known as one of the chief librarians of the Museum at Alexandria. He was described by a colleague as being “second best at everything”. What drives these all rounders? Why are they always asking ‘why’?

4 Eratosthenes

There were quite a lot of famous libraries in antiquity, forming centres of scientific and cultural exploration. Ptolemaios I Soter (the Saviour) was a Macedonian general of Alexander the Great who became king of Egypt 323-283 BC and began a dynasty of rulers that ended only when Kleopatra VII was defeated by Octavian and Egypt absorbed into the Roman Empire 30 BC. Ptolemy founded the Museum (Mouseion) in Alexandria, a kind of ancient world Franklin Institute, some time at the turn of the third century BC, in between fighting wars to secure his position from inroads by other of Alexander’s generals. Like most public buildings of the Greeks, the Museum was a temple (as was the Parthenon in Athens, dedicated to Athena Parthenos, the Maiden), a sign of the way religion in ancient Greece was an intrinsic part of public life. It consisted of not only a temple to the Muses, but a research institute, a school, a library, and a smaller library known as the Serapeum (another temple, this one dedicated to Serapis). The Museum survived damage from military action by Julius Caesar in 48 BC and Aurelian in 270 AD and partial destruction by fundamentalist Christian movements in 390 AD worried by the study of ‘paganism’ to finally end in rubble at the conquest of the city by the forces of Islam in 640 AD, almost 1,000 years of existence, though its greatest achievements were made under the early Ptolemies, before 150 BC. Long before its final destruction, according to the cynical verdict of Edward Gibbon, the shelves were empty of ancient manuscripts of any value and filled with disputations on arcane matters of Christian theology, anathema to the Islamic conquerors. However, many good editions of ancient writers, and much scientific research, had been passed on to the library in Constantinople, where it was to benefit both Islamic and Christian scholars. The library of Pergamon in Turkey, the largest of ancient libraries other than that of Alexandria, was founded about 150 BC. Its holdings were transferred to Alexandria by Mark Anthony about 40 BC.

5 Eratosthenes map

Having conquered Alexandria the Arabs did much to preserve earlier culture, and much useful work in the sciences, the foundation of Western science of the 16th and 17th centuries. Harun Al-Rashid (he of the Arabian Nights tales) founded the House of Wisdom in Bagdad in about 800. Here the sciences were researched, books translated and preserved from antiquity, both Greek and Indian, and a large library assembled, in an admirable co-operative venture of Islamic and Christian scholars. At the time the Mongols burnt it to the ground, 1258, it was said to be the largest library in the world. A later institute with the same name was burned by American troops in 2003. Ideas and translations from the first House of Wisdom travelled to Umayyad Granada, and were studied by and influenced Italian scholars through to 1492; then original manuscripts from the Library of Constantinople were bought to Europe by scholars fleeing the French and Italians who burnt the city in 1204 (destroying, it was said, the only complete edition of Sappho’s poems in existence), and the Turks who conquered it in 1453.

There seems a chain of culture and intellectual development constantly being overtaken by political and military conflict. Pergamon to Alexandria, Alexandria to Constantinople, Constantinople to Bagdad, Bagdad to Granada, Granada to Florence. Chinese emperor  Qin Shi Huangdi started something when he ordered the burning of works by Confucian scholars in 210 BC. Ever since, conquering forces have been careless about preserving the cultural achievements of people they have ‘conquered’. Nothing so dangerous as ideas, as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 of 1953 points out.

6 Eratosthenes 1

Famous scholars, scientists, philosophers and poets were drawn to the Museum (some worked in all these fields). Aristarchus of Samos 310-230 BC, a precursor of Copernicus, who wrote an (incomplete) description of the solar system in which he showed the planets revolved around the sun.  Euclid of Alexandria c. 300 BC who organised all previously known geometrical knowledge and his Elements used in schools from his day up to the 20th century. Archimedes of Syracuse 287-212 BC, greatest mathematician and engineer of ancient times, who inspired Galileo. Apollonios of Alexandria c. 250 BC author of Argonautica. And Eratosthenes of Cyrene in Libya 276-194 BC, inventor of the science of geography.

His name includes a reference to the Muse of poetry, Erato, so it is not surprising that Eratosthenes was considered a great poet in ancient times. He was famous as both an epic and elegiac poet, and his reputation resulted in an invitation from Ptolemy to work at the Museum. He worked there with a celebrated poet, Kallimachos. Eventually he was offered a post as chief librarian, succeeding Apollonios in that position. He was said to have collated many texts of Homer into a more accurate one. Perhaps because of his interest in the Iliad Eratosthenes turned to history, and he composed a work on historic dates. He tried to separate mythic events from historic ones, and order the later in a more probable way, thus creating a valuable tool for historians.

Surrounded by some of the finest thinkers of that day at the Museum, Eratosthenes began to investigate scientific subjects. He calculated the circumference of the world reasonably accurately, within 1% of the true figure, given his lack of precision measuring instruments. He then created the first atlas, and invented the idea of lines of longitude and parallax to form a grid by which the relative position could be established of one location to another. In this work he calculated that the world was round. Not content with this, Eratosthenes began to map the solar system. He calculated the distance between sun and earth correctly, but was not so successful in determining the size of the sun. Greek science is sometimes criticised for being overly theoretical, but all these innovations were highly practical ones, of enormous use to rulers and merchants of that time. Eratosthenes finished his run of inventions by inventing the calendar in use for hundreds of years, usually credited to Julius Caesar. He also worked in and published texts on pure mathematics and on philosophy. And all this probably just scratches the surface of Eratosthenes’ accomplishments. He wrote and edited a large range of publications, all lost save fragments.

7 Leonardo fetus

There is nothing like the free and vigorous circulation of ideas, no matter how contradictory, for the establishment of personal freedom and development. The three men I’ve mentioned, Eratosthenes, Leonardo and Richard Francis Burton, lived in such times. In Alexandria all the writings, theories and ideas of the previous thousand years of Greek culture were examined, studied and preserved, and the result was an explosion of new ideas, in areas never studied previously. In Leonardo’s Florence and Milan the studies of Erasmus and Thomas Moore and their peers had led indirectly to a reinvention of the arts of painting and sculpture and the invention of moveable type. In Burton’s case the slow expansion of the British Empire had caused a widespread fascination with foreign lands and cultures.

It’s worth noting that the personal freedom to explore new ideas was guaranteed by, in all three cases above, despotic governments. The Ptolemies were pharaohs, gods. The Sforza and Medici and other noble houses of the Renaissance were also absolute rulers, and England in the 19th century was not only ruled nominally by an Emperor, but effectively by an oligarchy in the House of Lords. In all three cases international trade flourished, and much wealth was accumulated by the kinds of people otherwise prone to fight among themselves and burn libraries down. The scientists, philosophers and inventors in all three cultures of course had to proceed with caution, mindful of criticism by conservative elements in each society. In Alexandria it was the later Ptolemies, then the Christians, who repressed and finally shut down the Museum; in Renaissance Italy it was the enormous temporal power of the Papacy, who could have fed Leonardo to the fires of the Inquisition at any time had he been less circumspect, as they later curbed Galileo. And the British Empire became null and void as a talentless upper class clung on to privilege and excluded those gifted men of the lower classes with new ideas, until the bloodbath of WWI unseated them.

8 Scheherazade

The all rounder always wants to know more. The specialist gets humbler and humbler as it becomes apparent that each discovery in their special subject leads to further and further unknown matter. But the all rounder often thinks, as they go from subject to subject, that complete knowledge is possible. Practical reasons are usually behind what an all rounder investigates i.e. understanding the mechanism of tools they have used so as to make them more accurate, or principles of operation of subjects observed, the ‘laws’ of nature.

The ideas of other investigators need to be confirmed or refuted. Although Africa was the ‘Dark Continent’ in Burton’s time, many inaccurate stories of that and other parts of the world flourished, and his journeys were undertaken in part to obtain reliable information (such as the true source of the Nile). Leonardo in his notebooks mentions 52 book titles he owned. As Gutenberg’s (another all rounder) printing press had only been in operation since about 1460, Leonardo may have been one of the first people in Europe to take advantage of the possibility of accumulating a personal library (though some of his books may have been in manuscript). Much he read was in need of revision. Eratosthenes found inaccurate texts of epic and dramatic writers, and confusion about historic events, and wrote partly to ascertain reliable information. There was also an audience for whom one could display the result of one’s enquiries or one’s discoveries, the Royal Society, or the ‘school of learning’ assembled at the Medici court in Leonardo’s time, or the scholars and the king himself in Egypt.

The waves of invention continue to wash new knowledge ashore, while applied technology now inexorably constructs a society in which knowledge is accessible but can safely be ignored, and war can destroy all that has been gained. Our history’s not a happy one. Poets like Sappho write and their works are vandalised and burnt, thinkers like Leonardo invent the future but are persecuted, explorers like Burton return with findings disregarded, and the knowledge of Eratosthenes is lost so an army can capture a strategic point in a pointless war. Our long delayed nuclear war, which will bring the end of human civilisation when it comes, will leave new species of men to discover again what has been learnt in the past. And there will be scope for more all rounders.

©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


3 thoughts on ““Second best at everything”

  1. Takes me about a week to write an essay. This one was cobbled together from remarks about Eratosthenes made by Carl Sagan in Cosmos which I recently re-viewed, a long standing fascination with Leonardo, a previous post I had written on Burton, and some facts about libraries i found in Wikipedia. Not clearly thought out at all, it’s the basis for a discussion should anyone want to pursue one.

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