Isidore and the Internet

Yesterday, April 4th, was the memorial of Saint Isidore of Seville, a bishop and doctor of the Church, guiding his diocese, which he assumed after the death of his brother, and fellow bishop, Leander, in the midst of a very tumultuous time, with heresies abounding.  But grace, through figures like Leander and Isidore, abounded all the more.

Isidore is famous for many things, the holiness of his life, the prudence with which he oversaw his flock, and for his voluminous writings, the most famous of which were his Etymologies, a twenty volume (!) early encyclopedia/dictionary summarizing all the knowledge that was then known, much used right up until the early Middle Ages, and oft-quoted by Saint Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica.  This remarkable work of erudition (albeit, with some ‘etymologies’ that were a bit fanciful) provided the basis for all the encyclopedias, summaries and anthologies that were to dot the intellectual landscape in the centuries to follow, culminating, if one wants to think in such terms, in the vast body of knowledge known as ‘Wikipedia’.

That, one may infer, is why Saint Isidore is the patron saint of the internet, or the world wide web.

It is a curious paradox (so sayeth the aformentioned Wikipedia article) that although Isidore’s Etymologies preserved the substance of ancient works that have been irrevocably lost, the work also helped lead to the same very loss of those works.  That is, so it goes, scholars relied so much on Isidore’s summaries, that many works were not copied, or copied enough to be handed on to posterity.

The same could be said for the modern internet, upon which we rely, perhaps, too heavily, ignoring the very primary and secondary sources that they summarize, describe and collate.  It is far easier to read a summary of Sea Wolf, the Iliad, any of Jane Austen’s romantic escapades, or, dare I say it, even the Bible itself, than it is to read the actual works, but the latter is so much more fruitful and rewarding.

I suppose the moral is to use what tools we may for the purpose for which they were created.  Bishop Isidore of course meant for his readers to have read or read the works he summarized, if at all possible. And the internet over which he now oversees from heaven should be used for the same purpose:  To lead us to deeper knowledge, to appropriate what we read, and make it our own, and not take the too easy path too often taken.

As Alexander Pope would warn in 1709:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.