Friday, March 03, 2017


Literary Modesty

John Hill Burton (1809-1881), The Book-Hunter etc. (London: William Blackwood & Sons, 1862), pp. 103-104:
There are those terrible folios of the scholastic divines, the civilians, and the canonists, their majestic stream of central print overflowing into rivulets of marginal notes sedgy with citations. Compared with these, all the intellectual efforts of our recent degenerate days seem the work of pigmies; and for any of us even to profess to read all that some of those indomitable giants wrote, would seem an audacious undertaking. But, in fact, they were to a great extent solemn shams, since the bulk of their work was merely that of the clerk who copies page after page from other people's writings.

Surely these laborious old writers exhibited in this matter the perfection of literary modesty. Far from secretly pilfering, like the modern plagiarist, it was their great boast that they themselves had not suggested the great thought or struck out the brilliant metaphor, but that it had been done by some one of old, and was found in its legitimate place — a book. I believe that if one of these laborious persons hatched a good idea of his own, he could experience no peace of mind until he found it legitimated by having passed through an earlier brain, and that the author who failed thus to establish a paternity for his thought would sometimes audaciously set down some great name in his crowded margin, in the hope that the imposition might pass undiscovered. Authorities, of course, enjoy priority according to their rank in literature. First come Aristotle and Plato, with the other great classical ancients; next the primitive fathers; then Abailard, Erigena, Peter Lombard, Ramus, Major, and the like. If the matter be jurisprudence, we shall have Marcianus, Papinianus, Ulpianus, Hermogenianus, and Tryphonius to begin with; and shall then pass through the straits of Bartolus and Baldus, on to Zuichemus, Sanchez, Brissonius, Ritterhusius, and Gothofridus. If all these say the same thing, each of the others copying it from the first who uttered it, so much the more valuable to the literary world is deemed the idea that has been so amply backed — it is like a vote by a great majority, or a strongly-signed petition.

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