Censorship doesn’t work

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A copy of Aristotle’s Physica in an early 15th century copy representing the philosopher’s victory over the 13th-century wave of condemnations and censorship which had shaken the European intellectual scene. Aristotle is here depicted writing at his desk. (Aix-en-Provence, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 1537)

That the pen is, if not mightier than the sword, than perhaps just as lethal was something humanity understood rather quickly.

The history of writing is also the history of censorship because writing has always been a question of power, and power always leads to control, to distinctions between those who have it and those who don’t, those who should have it and those who shouldn’t.

The 13th century was an age of censorship. It was also an age of ineffective censorship. Forget it, all ages of censorship are ages of ineffective censorship because suppression always dies of and on its own sword.

And then there’s the irony of it.

Between 1210 and 1277, the young university of Paris issued a series of condemnations against the works of Aristotle. Now Aristotle had just become the bestselling author in intellectual Europe. Almost overnight, the West became Aristotelian. There was something absolutely riveting about Aristotle’s disquisitions on pretty much everything that mattered to ancient and medieval minds from plants to God. Then Paris called it heretic and closed its doors to it.

What happened? Censorship followed condemnation, but there can be no real censorship where the book trade and the teaching curriculum are only loosely organised and controlled.

Now the irony. The more the university of Paris – the epicentre of Western European education – condemned the writings of Aristotle, the more Aristotle rose in prominence to the point that from the 13th to the 16th century, Western intellectual culture became a series of footnotes to Aristotle. What was meant to be suppressed ended up suppressing all other voices. The scholastic age of the late medieval period is the embodiment of this colossal irony of censorship.

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