January 10, 2021 by libroshombre
Anti-democracy insurgents are storming the Capitol Building and holding Congress hostage as I write this, while the President refuses to authorize national guardsmen to restore order and instead assures the rioters that they’re “special” and he loves them. This seems like a good time to reflect a while on humanity’s finer nature by browsing through the ‘Philanthropy’ issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. One of the greatest benefits derived from writing weekly columns for 37 years has been how composing them puts my mind in a calmer, more focused, and usually pleasanter place, and January 6, 2021 calls for just that.
It’s too soon to know what we’ll call this momentous day: “1/6” doesn’t resonate, but Lapham’s Philanthropy issue included a section titled “Naming Rights: Donors with their names written all over it” which seems apropos. The New York Public Library’s Stephen Schwarzman Building was so named after he donated $100 million to the NYPL system, and a then-new section of the capitol of the Seleucid Empire, a Greek state in Mesopotamia, was called “Epiphania” after King Antiochus IV ordered its construction around 160 BCE. He’d already given himself the nickname “Epiphanes,” or “God Manifest” and naturally named the new neighborhood after himself.
Lapham’s is a timeless collection of literary excerpts, artwork, history and quotations assembled around a quarterly theme that always introduces me to fresh ideas. It’s particularly well-suited to us writers whose columns are essentially collections of excerpts. For example, the philanthropy issue introduced me to Moses ben Maimon, AKA Maimonides, AKA Rambam, a medieval Sephardic Jew born in Cordoba, Spain in 1138 and a monumental thinker. He was one of the greatest Jewish philosophers and theologians, a prominent author, a leading astronomer, and one of the world’s great medical authorities, not to mention Saladin’s personal physician. As for his RAMBAM nickname, JewishVirtualLibrary.org says that in Hebrew Maimonides “is known by the acronym of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, ‘Rambam’.”
In his philosophical capacity Maimonides created “The Ladder of Charity.” The highest level is reached by the person who helps the poor by affording them the wherewithal to provide for themselves and thereby assist others in the future; in short, paying ahead. The next step down is making donations anonymously to the anonymous needy. Next lower is knowing who you’re donating to, but they don’t know you, and so on down to he who “gives less than is fitting but gives with a gracious mien,” and, finally, “him who gives morosely.”
“The Guide for the Perplexed” is considered by many to be Maimonides’ masterwork. It’s a theological book written about 1190 CE that tries to reconcile Jewish beliefs with Aristotelian philosophical thinking. The title attracted my attention because “The Guide for the Perplexed” resides on my “most important books” shelf, only it was written by E.F. Schumacher, “a German-British statistician and economist who is best known for his proposals for human-scale, decentralised and appropriate technologies” who “founded the Intermediate Technology Development Group (now known as Practical Action) in 1966,” according to Wikipedia.
The U.S. State Department hired me in 1975 to write a report on how to keep third world farmers in rural regions rather than immigrating to then-already overcrowded urban centers. My report embraced intermediate technology, like the riding lawnmower-sized tractor that required three people to operate but produced nine times larger crops. As he shelved my report, my State Department boss pointed out the hefty political contributions the John Deere tractor company had made to President Ford’s re-election campaign, while the nonprofit Intermediate Technology folks had contributed not a penny.
That was before the lure of librarianship took hold and a persistent fascination with the evolution of writing, books, libraries, and communication manifested. That explains both the fully functional 1901 Chandler and Price hand press that resides in my garage and my receiving last month from my spouse a copy of Anthony Grafton’s “Inky Fingers: The Making of Books in Early Modern Europe.” It’s a pretty dense read but filled with insights, including excerpting, which “was a standard way to make a book in the early sixteenth century … many humanists saw the notebook as their central tool. They educated themselves by copying passages from classical authors,” thereby reinforcing their arguments with the wisdom of classical thinkers.
We’re all familiar with the sweaty guys hunkered over wooden printing presses, assembling the type, inking the forms, etc., but what about the “castigators” (also known as “correctors”) who were educated and well-read enough to perform the functions of proofreaders and editors? Grafton said the castigators’ duties were so broad they were actually “print professionals.” They corrected author’s copies as well as early proofs from the press, and identified and fixed typos and other errors, divided books into sections and chapters, drew up title pages and indexes, among many other duties around the printshop and were paid precious little for it. It was a job for educated men who couldn’t find work elsewhere.
That was long ago, and it’s hard to find a modern dictionary definition for “castigators” that mentions the benign printing side. Webster’s defines it as “to subject to severe punishment, reproof, or criticism,” and Oxford Dictionaries as “reprimand someone severely.” The Online Etymology Dictionary says “castigate” means “to chastise, punish” but this meaning emerged round 1600 from the Latin from “castigare – to correct, set right.” Appropriate castigation of yesterday’s invaders of the capitol, and their elected enablers, is something to chew over, and, as Horace Fletcher wrote, “Nature will castigate those who don’t masticate.”