Do words have power?

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Upon reading Johannes Trithemius' excerpt in Writing Material, I think that if you had asked him if words have power, he would have answered a rousing "Yes!" But if you had asked him if written words have more power than their spoken counterparts, then he would have answered with a long speech praising the more lasting benefits of writing and copying words and how they are so much better for preserving ideas.

Trithemius enthusiastically makes the argument that without the written word and those who write or copy them down into books, "...the Church would see faith weakened, love grown cold,hope confounded, justice lost, the law confused and the Gospel fallen into oblivion" (470). However, I do not wholly agree with this sentiment. Ancient cultures managed to create thriving societies before developing a strict form of writing. Several also worshipped a unique and complex religious structure. Ancient societies did not appear to have a difficulty with a loss of faith, no hope, no love an no form of justice. In my opinion, these ancient cultures used their powerful ability to memorize oral tales and used these in place of written texts that Trithemius is so fond of. The ancient peoples suffered no less for their not having a written word, but once they'd developed the ability to write, it opened their minds towards other opportunities.

Trithemius also lionizes the role of the scribe or monk, seeing it as a duty to God to copy books so as to better learn of God's will and work. Trithemius writes, "[The monks of old] knew that [copying] was particularly pleasing to almighty God who wishes that we learn his will and do it and carefully observe his instructions" (472). There is no doubt that without orders of religious monks dutifully copying Ancient Greek and Roman works of literature that they would not have survived for subsequent generations. But even though these diligent copiers preserved such important literary content, there were other works of prose that did not survive the Dark Ages for various reasons including, loss of original manuscript, natural disasters, and war/fighting. Despite the fact that there are perhaps thousands of works lost originating from ancient times, had the monks and scribes not copied down what they did, we definitely wouldn't be quoting Plato or reading Sophocles' plays.

But I was very much struck by Trithemius' notion towards the emerging printing press and it's impact on copying by hand: "The inspired scribe will always find something worth his trouble. He does not depend on the printer, he is free and as a scribe enjoys his freedom. He is by no means defeated by the printer; he must not cease copying just because the art of printing has been invented" (474). To me, Trithemius' statement epitomizes the argument most likely used by aficionados of "old technology" such as cassette tapes, calligraphy, and the like. If you enjoy creating a form of art or literature in an old school fashion, why not continue at it?

Check out what my peers have said on Trithemius and his excerpt.

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