Socrates. ‘Amen, then.... Let us go.’
Here we have, as it seems to me, a marriage, without impediment, of wisdom and beauty between two minds that perforce have small acquaintance with books: and yet, with it, Socrates’ confession that anyone with a book under his cloak could lead him anywhere by the nose. So we see that Hellenic culture at its best was independent of book-learning, and yet craved for it.
When our own Literature awoke, taking its origin from the proud scholarship of the Renaissance, an Englishman who affected it was scarcely more cumbered with books than our Athenian had been, two thousand years before. It was, and it remained, aristocratic: sparingly expensive of its culture. It postulated, if not a slave population, at least a proletariat for which its blessings were not. No one thought of making a fortune by disseminating his work in print. Shakespeare never found it worth while to collect and publish his plays; and a very small sense of history will suffice to check our tears over the price received by Milton for “Paradise Lost.” We may wonder, indeed, at the time it took our forefathers to realise—or, at any rate, to employ—the energy that lay in the printing-press. For centuries after its invention mere copying commanded far higher prices than authorship. Writers gave ‘authorised’ editions to the world sometimes for the sake of fame, often to justify themselves against piratical publishers, seldom in expectation of monetary profit. Listen, for example, to Sir Thomas Browne’s excuse for publishing “Religio Medici” (1643):
Had not almost every man suffered by the press or were not the tyranny thereof become universal, I had not wanted reason for complaint: but in times wherein I have lived to behold the highest perversion of that excellent invention, the name of his Majesty defamed, the honour of Parliament depraved, the writings of both depravedly, anticipatively, counterfeitly imprinted; complaints may seem ridiculous in private persons; and men of my condition may be as incapable of affronts, as hopeless of their reparations. And truly had not the duty I owe unto the importunity of friends, and the allegiance I must ever acknowledge unto truth, prevailed with me; the inactivity of my disposition might have made these sufferings continual, and time that brings other things to light, should have satisfied me in the remedy of its oblivion. But because things evidently false are not only printed, but many things of truth most falsely set forth, in this latter I could not but think myself engaged. For though we have no power to redress the former, yet in the other, the reparation being within our selves, I have at present represented unto the world a full and intended copy of that piece, which was most imperfectly and surreptitiously published before.
This I confess, about seven years past, with some others of affinity thereto, for my private exercise and satisfaction, I had at leisurable hours composed; which being communicated unto one, it became common unto many, and was by transcription successively corrupted, untill it arrived in a most depraved copy at the press ...