Scrolls of Sappho, Hard Drives of Heraclitus

When it comes to achieving personal immortality through the memory of history, few have been able to surpass Hammurabi. The king of Babylon etched his draconian code of law into an unyielding slab of basalt, and it is still readable after thirty-eight centuries of erosion. 

hammurabi code
Hammurabi’s Code, 18th century BCE

Historical preservation does not seem so dramatically physical today. It does not seem to require much effort to preserve the past in a world where almost all communications are instantly transcribed into some form of memory. To the contrary, the digital world is experienced as a rogue archivist, insatiably capturing and recording every aspect of our lives without any scholarly sense of priority. Silicon preserves all things equally. Where the material distinction between a trivial conversation and Hammurabi’s code was once obvious, today the law and personal banter are encoded in the same way, appearing alongside each other in identical browsing tabs. 

But while the digital historical record has become almost ubiquitous, modern information technology actually has a relatively short expected lifespan. According to Fedscoop, experts report that digital media should not be expected to last longer than a well-preserved book or photograph.

Unless you have a very high-quality CD, two to five years is the best you’ll get before you’re in trouble. DVDs are more at risk because they hold more data; if one section is lost, much more data is at stake.

Magnetic hard drives only get about seven years of use, and flash drives eight to 10 years. Premium-grade media such as gold-plated CDs and enterprise hard drives add years…

The answer, for now at least, is LTO tape. Despite technological advances, tape is still the best way to store data. The enterprise class tapes have a 10 to the minus 19th rate of error. The tapes can last about 30 years, and the systems usually go out of date before the tapes start deteriorating.

If the most reliable means of storage can only be expected to last for thirty years, electronic records have in no way transcended the pre-modern paradigm of cultural preservation. In the Middle Ages, scholars and monks chose which texts would be copied onto fresh pages for a new generation. While this process grew easier with the invention of the printing press, books that do not reach a certain critical mass of interest fall out of print. And despite the illusion of a permanent ethereal realm of fluid digital information, we are also going to have to decide which data should be recopied as it approaches thirty years in long-term storage. From the invention of the Gutenberg press to the modern day, the copying of data has become cheaper and more efficient, but it has not escaped the same necessary patterns of historical maintenance. 

Now perhaps there is a mistake in thinking that we will need ‘long-term storage’ for anything but the most bulky and uninteresting of government data. In the current model of the internet, published content typically resides on servers regularly maintained and renewed by companies charged with their maintenance. In this model, YouTube and WordPress will simply keep updating their servers ad infinitum, preserving any actively published material in a continually supported ‘short-term’ storage.  However, as many peer-to-peer advocates would note, the entire notion of large, freely maintained content servers assumes the continued existence of the current economic model of the internet, in which corporations earn money from the content their own users create and upload. People may opt for a different model, or tech companies may be forced to reconsider their role as data managers, closing free accounts. Paywalls may come to characterize those parts of the internet which seem like eternal public domains of effortless respawning.

Regardless, we will always encounter some form of financial or material friction whenever we hope to copy information into new formats. And at whatever level this friction occurs, those entrusted with this process make historical value judgments with lasting repercussions. The historical record comes about through intentional acts of cultural transmission. It is not solely through chance that some works of classical antiquity are well preserved while others, like the “Tithonus” poem of Sappho, are found wrapped around a mummy. As Laura Swift notes, Sappho was considered the Tenth Muse of the Greeks, and her work had a great influence over Roman poets who lived centuries later. A writer as important as Sappho does not simply disappear without reason. Yet historians will find no explicit source detailing the editorial decisions of monks. Still dissatisfied, the popular imagination may then imagine some final bonfire of classical learning, like the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, to explain the disappearance of sources.

Perhaps overly influenced by the dystopian literature of the 20th century, we imagine that such a rich intellectual tradition must have met a violent and persecuted end, but, to quote Alfred North Whitehead, philosophies are more generally abandoned than they are refuted. The new feminine archetype, the maternal virgin Mary, could in no way incorporate Sappho’s unapologetic sensuality. She was unceremoniously deleted from the historical record in the same way an embarrassed heir might quickly toss away a picture of his mother with an old boyfriend. Despite our focus on the grand ideological designs of philosophers and kings, a monk’s blush may have had more final influence over the historical record. The first draft of history may be written by the winners, but the second and third drafts often fall to the offended, the embarrassed, and the simply disinterested. 

Likewise, we have almost entirely preserved the works of Plato and Aristotle across millennia, but of the pre-Socratic philosophers, who wrote only three or four centuries earlier, we have only fragments. This may in part be due to the fact that philosophy had yet to develop a fully textual culture, yet Heraclitus, arguably the most influential of the pre-Socratics, wrote a full text entitled On Nature. While Heraclitus did not have as deep an influence over the Roman world as the later Greek thinkers, it is incredible that no complete version of the work, which both Plato and Aristotle cite, survived. Moreover, it is impossible to know when exactly it was ‘deleted’ from the historical record. Diogenes reports that Heraclitus dedicated his book at the temple of Artemis, so perhaps it was considered a sacred text specific to the site, and was not to be widely copied even in antiquity. Equally plausibly, the Neoplatonists and Scholastics of the later Christian tradition, eager to validate an eternal God beyond the transformations of time, read πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει, “Everything ebbs and flows; nothing stays fixed”, and discarded Heraclitus out of hand. 

Even so, many such Christian philosophers would have appreciated Heraclitus, and found Christian precepts in him. However, every historical tradition is only as well preserved as the most recent generation. It is known for certain that Hippolytus of Rome found the study of Heraclitus to be a source of heresy, and he also suggests that the theologian Noetus, associated with Heracltius’ native city of Ephesus, had fallen into error by studying Heraclitus. Whatever the legacy and importance of any author, they become fragmentary, and implicitly ‘second-rate’, if they suffer a single generation of such ill reception. The historical record may be regarded the product of a unanimous consensus of every generation that has come before us. 

At first, this realization radically disturbs our sense of history. What if Sappho, the Tenth Muse, had been brought down through the ages as an equal of Homer? Suddenly, in Sappho’s very personal voice, Greek culture matures beyond the Percy Jackson fantasy realm of strident gods, heroes, and monsters it has become in the popular imagination, which is heavily influenced by Homer’s dominating literary stature. Furthermore, what if first year philosophy students were taught about a trinity of great ancient Greek philosophers — Heraclitus, Plato, and Aristotle? Such a curriculum would present a more coherent picture of Greek thought, including its fundamental embrace of Becoming and its penchant for paradoxical, oracular expressions. Have we historians been lead astray by our apparently scientific interest in textual research?

Surely we classicists need to be more precise in our definition of what it is we are studying — not Greece and Rome per se, but those aspects of Greece and Rome continuously deemed worth preserving for the past two millennia. In one respect, we may take this consensus of the generations as a mark of their wisdom, as an assurance that our time will be well spent with these texts. In another respect, we may be certain that many of our ancestors have presented us with a very partial picture of the world they have so tantalizingly introduced, censoring them even unintentionally, giving priority to what they thought was most important. 

The omissions in the historical record may be the most interesting parts. They truly teach us about ourselves by showing us what we have lost and what we are still seeking. The poems of Sappho and the paradoxes of Heraclitus were, in antiquity, a part of the Western tradition; now they are the subjects of speculation for feminists and process philosophers, who would like to make a new break with the historical record.

It should not surprise us that these two lost voices illuminate aspects of life still not well understood in the 21st century. Sappho’s love poems to women are still uncomfortable for many, and she is still not well understood as a social and cultural phenomenon even by those who would be sympathetic. Heraclitus encouraged his followers to “investigate many things” as the key to wisdom, and he would be a wayward generalist in a world of academic specialization, seamlessly interweaving cosmology, philosophy, physics, and morality. 

In the patriarchal, doctrinaire environment of late antiquity, in which both the Romans and the emerging church were eager to enforce a narrow orthodoxy,  both were left aside. Yet now, over 2000 years later, they seem very relevant. In the wake of a sexual revolution, Sappho challenges our basic assumptions about human sexuality, while Heraclitus provides a cosmological framework which may resolve many of the most intractable problems of the physical sciences. We find Sappho and Heraclitus in footnotes, yet their work is supremely relevant to the social and intellectual questions of the early 21st century. Because we have, at some point, forgotten them, and proceeded without their aid, they may now offer us the most original and penetrating insight.

Dr. Vinton Cerf, a pioneer of the internet, has warned that future historians may be entirely without a record of the early 21st century, as a ‘digital dark age‘ may result from the decay and obsolescence of digital records. The hapless investigators of our time would likely be finding fragments of important materials scattered across the globe, perhaps attempting to piece together American foreign policy from the text messages of a government minister in Cairo. They would be like us trying to read Sappho and Heraclitus, though they may also know that our dark age, just like the last one, arose from the breakdown of the historical sense, from the inability come to a generational consensus about what is sacred and worth preserving. 

But, after indulging this despair, they may then build their society with a new, more intentional sense of purpose. Gazing into the shattered fragments of our lives,  and perceiving the mess of memes, advertising, and bureaucracy, they may broaden their sense of historical significance. The amnesiac still knows that there was a past, and wishes to remember it. Likewise, when we find only fragments, we are given the fossils of a once living whole.

ἓν τὸ σοφόν, ἐπίστασθαι γνώμην, ὁτέη ἐκυβέρνησε πάντα διὰ πάντων

Wisdom is one thing. It is to know the reason by which all things navigate through all other things.

Heraclitus, DK fragment 41

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