December 24, 2003
With the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, Europe lost more than just its imperial government; it also lost thousands of manuscripts - Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil - the intellectual foundation of the Pax Romana.
In How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill tells the long-overlooked story of how the fifth century Irish - a Stone Age people, only recently exposed to Christianity and alphabetic literacy – managed in the short span of less than a century to preserve Western civilization from almost certain oblivion.
The Irish scribes, literally insulated from the continental ravages of Goths and Vandals, not only preserved the classical texts, but also recorded their own indigenous Celtic mythologies, folklore - whatever they could write down. But the scribes were more than just transcriptionists; Cahill challenges the stereotypical historical view of the scribe as human Xerox machine:
Cahill also captures the distinctive spirit of the early Celtic Church: non-hierarchical, community-minded, gender-equal, geared towards individual contemplation rather than the institutional dogmatism of the Roman church that would later supplant it. Some writers have even compared early Celtic Christianity to Buddhism (there are even some out-there theories about the Druids having been taught by Buddhist missionaries).
The roots of Western hierarchical systems lie deep in the imperial structuralism of the Roman church. Could the early Celtic Church - with its anti-hierarchical, individualist emphasis - serve as a useful reference point in our current era of disintegrating institutions and emergent self-organizing systems. And in the archetype of the Irish scribe - the original literary intertwingler - can we recognize a distant ancestor of today's blogger?
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