Obsessing over detail

Correction in action. A leaf from an 8th-century manuscript containing works by St Jerome, one of the leading Church Fathers. Some corrections were made directly in the text (see the erasure and superscript correction in the lower part of the page). Others were added on sewn-in strips of parchment, as the (cropped) piece of parchment at the top shows, St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 126

One way to read the modern world and to distinguish it from previous ages is to recognise its relentless obsession over details and the small print. In philosophy, science, technology, governance, history, business, even the arts, progress has been made as a result of refinement, readjustment, recombination, the sense that good is never good enough, and that there’s always room for improvement, whether it may lead to reform or revolution.

The sources of this typically modern and western idea lies in centuries of philosophical debates, paradigms replacing each other as medieval and modern Europe, the incubator of this genetic configuration, came to understand itself. Volumes have been written on what made the modern world modern and us the heirs to what we see around us. Here’s my own halfpenny.

The Western obsession with and over detail didn’t start either with philosophy or science – the prime suspects of most genetic accounts of modernity. Instead, it is my opinion that it started in textual criticism – the exercise of editing and correcting authoritative texts, whether poetic or theological. Homer and the Bible. Few outside philology will have considered the cultural impact of texts and those working with them. But if science is about the small print, the minute calculation, the tiniest detail; if governance and law are about making adjustments to bring justice, freedom and equality to as many as possible, then one must look for the West’s earliest manifestation of this spirit of tenacious and focused inquiry, the sense that spending enough time at the microscopic level may lead to macroscopic change. And that first occurred in and among texts. The librarians of ancient Alexandria inventing the art of correcting texts, the medieval scribes and copyists blackening endless manuscripts with corrections and emendations, the world-shattering force of the Renaissance humanists recovering and purging the textual inheritance of the ancient world, the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries of critical editions, more critical editions, more texts, more improvements, the incessant push towards more purity and genuineness through the belief that the devil is in the philological detail.

The reader of a classical text today may wonder why so much ink has been spilt over something as insignificant as a double s, an extra word or a different word order. But rather than dismissing the efforts of generations of desk-chained philologists as irrelevant, we should acknowledge the mark these masters and weirdos of detail left on the surface of Western culture : the belief that the smallest change, the minutest correction may end up changing everything. And I believe they were right.

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