Ages of information

What do the Hellenistic period (4th-1st centuries BCE) and the Western High Middle Ages (1100-1300 CE) have in common? At first sight, this is a silly question. More than a thousand years separate the two periods, so to find something they share seems like a red herring. And yet, in the long history of European culture, these two periods are surprisingly kindred.

The Greek historian Polybius (c. 200–118 BCE) once thought he cracked the code of political sequencing. According to his doctrine of political evolution known as anacyclosis, monarchy engenders tyranny, which leads to aristocracy. This dissolves into oligarchy, which produces democracy. Democracy, in turn, succumbs to ochlocracy, whose contradictions are resolved into monarchy, and the cycle restarts. While this theory doesn’t always work in practice, Polybius understood that culture sometimes follows a cyclical pattern.

One such pattern may arguably account for the similarities between the two periods mentioned at the beginning of this piece. A period of intense production in the field of knowledge (literary, scientific,etc) is often followed by one in which production slows down and a concern for organisation and systematisation takes over. This is what happened during the Hellenistic period as well as during the central Middle Ages in the West. In the period following the death of Alexander the Great and up until the end of the 1st century BCE, the ancient Mediterranean world focused on a project of arranging all knowledge acquired in the past, building libraries, developing tools of research and referencing, creating traditions. It was a period of housekeeping. The library of Alexandria developed, textual criticism emerged, encyclopedias were produced.

Something very similar happened after 1100 CE. In the West, universities emerged as specialised centres of teaching and research. This was an age of compilations and careful cataloguing of past knowledge. Guidebooks proliferated, new tools of organising knowledge were born as scholars paused to think about the achievements of past centuries and the best ways to leverage the available wisdom, knowledge and information. The Renaissance was the result of this sustained effort of bringing everything together, of achieving overviews. It was an age of information, just as the Hellenistic age had been one in relation to the archaic and classical periods. Our own age of information seems to follow the same pattern. We just have new tools to bring to the game.

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