The Blind Scholar

The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (IEP), an invaluable [sometimes] peer-reviewed resource established by Jim Fieser, has this to say of the work of one particular thinker from the 3rd Century A.D:

The work of Diogenes [Laertius] is a crude contribution towards the history of philosophy…the author is limited in his philosophical abilities and assessment of the various schools…  and is entertaining as a sort of pot-pourri on the subject. Diogenes also includes samples of his own wretched poetry about the philosophers he discusses.. [and] is generally as reliable as whatever source he happens to be copying from at that moment. *

The IEP “is actively seeking an author who will write a replacement article”, but this “anonymous” piece presently stands as the IEP ‘obituary’ to a thinker who produced ten volumes on the history of ideas.  Our entry’s writer (A) concedes Diogenes’ ‘Lives of the Philosophers’ is “an important source of information on the development of Greek philosophy”.  And whilst urging that the “reader should be wary” of his “amusing or scandalous stories about the lives and deaths of various philosophers”, A also acknowledges that Diogenes’ “article on Epicurus .. is quite valuable, since it contains some original letters of that philosopher, which comprise a summary of the Epicurean doctrines.”

A more flattering obituary of a scholar whose own work related to those very same letters appeared in the London Times in 1929:

Mr. R. D. Hicks, the Aristotelian scholar and Fellow of the Trinity College, Cambridge, died yesterday at his residence at Cambridge at the age of 78… Robert Drew Hicks … was elected a scholar [of Trinity] in 1872 and Fellow in 1876.. [and] was college lecturer in Classics from 1884 to 1900. At the close of this period.. he.. suffered the greatest calamity that can befall a student—loss of eyesight. This, to a helluo librorum like Hicks, was an unparalleled disaster. But his courage never faltered…With the help of his wife and some devoted friends, Hicks kept abreast of classical learning and produced a monumental edition of Aristotle’s “De Anima” in 1907…, and a brilliant summary of Greek philosophy for the ‘Cambridge Companion to Greek Studies’… The patience and cheerfulness of the blind scholar were amazing. For the use of fellow-sufferers he produced in 1921, a concise Latin dictionary in Braille type. He was often to be met walking in the country on the arm of a companion, and he dined regularly in Hall. Manchester University conferred on him the hon. degree of D.Litt.

The obituary also mentions that our blind scholar also produced “a small volume on the Stoics and Epicureans in 1910” and “a translation of Diogenes Luertius in the Loeb Classical Library” in 1925.  Both works included (slightly varying) translations of Epicurus’ ‘Letter to Menoeceus’, and those translations remain resources drawn upon today by users of the internet.  Online, you will still find translations of that letter attributed to Hicks, at amongst other, places: The Internet Classics Archive (here) hosted by MIT,  amongst the eBooks (here) hosted by The University of Adelaide, on the Encyclopaedia Britannica site, (here), in the Project Gutenberg Consortia Center Collection (here) and amongst the teaching materials hosted online by The University of Waterloo (here). So, who is responsible for making this important material for students of Epicurus so widely available?

Just as Diogenes must be thanked for (at least) bringing the letters of Epicurus down to us across the millennia, and Hicks must be thanked for the translations he made of those texts, we also must thank a later disseminator of wisdom, one working in the 1990s at the dawn of the Internet Age.  In the 1990s, as B put it “there were very few philosophical texts available on line”. And so like a number of other worthy souls B “transcribed a number that were in the public domain”, typing them out by hand from whatever source he happened to be copying from at that moment and later uploading them. This included ‘The Letter to Menoeceus’ as found in Hick’s 1925 translation of the works of Diogenes Laertius.  Transcriptions of this ilk went on to spread across the internet, giving access to the wisdom of earlier generations to a whole new generation of internet-enabled students.  The labours of all these souls must be applauded.  And it is unbelievable to think that the letters of Epicurus (who lived between 341 BC and 270 BC), were transmitted via Diogenes down to Hicks and then via the transcription of early computer user B in the 1990s right across the World Wide Web without being corrupted.

Or rather it is believable, but not, of course, true. Sadly the ‘Letter to Menoeceus’‏ you will find at all these reputable sources is not exactly the letter translated by R.D. Hicks (in either its 1910 or 1925 versions).  B made an error in transcription (or perhaps his computer did).  This does not diminish the valuable work he was involved in at the time, or the further work he has done in academia since.  But, being human, working late perhaps, a passage got corrupted and then went onto the net and spread and spread and spread.  The error is but a sub-clause.  One I was only able to verify as an error – after some confusion about its meaning – by studying scanned copies of both of Hick’s books. And a baffling sub-clause it is too, one that will presumably have caused innumerable students, and at least one philosopher on this site, to wonder: “what the hell does this mean?”

and so of him anything that is at agrees not with about him whatever may uphold both his happyness and his immortality.

And the truth is that all this means – for surely it is quite incomprehensible – is that B who has gone on to do some very important academic work, made an error in transcription some 25 years ago, one he now wishes “would just disappear”. I wondered whether to name B in this blog post, but in the end, I decided I did not want to appear ungrateful or uncharitable (I’d rather just be that way without being open about it). Like the authors of the unflattering IEP piece on Diogenes Laertius, on balance, I think our B is entitled to remain anonymous.

But as far as B’s rendition of Hicks’ work is concerned, I do think the academic institutions that host the corrupted ‘Letter To Menoceous’ should themselves be ‘actively seeking a replacement article’: the genuine one. Hosting a corrected version of the Letter would not only make the thoughts of the great Epicurus intelligible,  it would stand as a better testament to the work of Diogenes, and as a much more fitting memorial to the immense achievements of our blind scholar R.D. Hicks.

This of course, won’t happen – not right across the web. You can find scanned copies of both of Hick’s books if you look hard enough, and correct transcriptions too but, when it comes to putting things online: once it’s ‘out there’ on the net it stays ‘out there’. And, this is a moral we should all keep in mind whether we are commenting, blogging or publishing. Be careful what you write because all the wishing in the world will not make it “just disappear” after the fact.  And we should all heed this other moral too: don’t trust everything you read, especially online.

This advice applies, of course, to all of the above.

[From the archives: originally published in March 2011]

* [2017: There is a certain irony to the IEP line stating that Diogenes is “generally as reliable as whatever source he happens to be copying from at that moment” as it may well be that this is the only line in the whole entry that’s not just been copied straight out of one or more 19th Century Dictionary/Encyclopedias. Do a quick Google of near any line and you’ll immediately find umpteen hits in books published from at least 1837 on-wards. In saying this I don’t actually mean to have a serious ‘pop’ at the hard-working volunteers at the IEP. Their older ‘proto-articles’ were put there for a good end with entirely noble intent – to fill a gap that then existed in terms of online philosophical resources. And they did this by laboriously transcribing, without payment, apparently still accurate material from old public domain books onto the net.  Its not something that can compete with the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy at what the SEP does. But I don’t think it needs to.  Not to keep on filling a very valuable role: providing shorter more ‘accessible’ but reliable articles for a wider group of readers and writing opportunities for a wider group of academic talent. [You could always contact them with a pitch for a new Diogenes Laertius if you’re qualified to write one here.] Anyway, in the very unlikely event that you’ve been interested by any of the above, I would call your attention to my somewhat related piece here called ‘Quackery and Straws.]


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