Papyrology and Its Discontents

E.H. Gombrich, The Embattled Humanities:

Some time ago I was privileged to be seated during a social function next to a cabinet minister. Naturally I did not want to spare him my worries, but I cut no ice. He did not see, was his curt response, why the universities should not make sacrifices when everybody else was asked to do so. I gave up. I knew I would not be able to make him see that he was talking nonsense. It is not the universities which are asked to make a sacrifice but those who would have benefited from attending them.

We all know the name of the Moloch on whose altar they must be immolated; he is called ‘Society.’ During one of our periodic student troubles an attractive and eager girl came to interview me for a student paper; when I mentioned the danger – luckily averted – of a post in papyrology* being frozen in my university she replied earnestly, ‘But what if society does not want papyrology?’ What indeed? Admittedly it is hard to imagine how society can make its will in such matters known. Through a referendum? Through rallies in Trafalgar Square or through party manifestos? But how can the voter be made to see that this arcane subject may at any moment transform the picture of our cultural heritage as it has transformed it in the past? A book on political science which fails to take cognizance of Aristotle’s treatise on the Constitution of Athens found in a papyrus is as incomplete as is an account of European comedy that fails to discuss the recently deciphered fragments from Menander, the great playwright who stands at the fountainhead of this tradition.

*Note: To underscore Gombrich’s point, WordPress doesn’t even recognize papyrology as a word.

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