Mike Aquilina

The Copy Cat

Thursday July 06th 2006, 3:37 am

James J. O’Donnell is a brilliant and generous scholar of late antiquity, and he now holds the office of provost at Georgetown. I have occasionally bothered him with questions about Augustine’s mother, Monica, and the man — who must be incredibly busy — has always astonished me by answering rapidly and completely.

I’m sorry to see that many reviewers are taking him apart for his new biography of Augustine. But the book is, by almost all accounts, filled with loathing for its subject. One British reviewer says the book is more than anti-Augustine; it’s anti-Christian. I, for my part, had about as much of the book as I could handle while browsing at Barnes & Noble. To his credit, Dr. O’Donnell has posted all the reviews, good and bad, on his web page.

But I come to praise the man, not to bury him. For Rogue Classicism tells us the very good news that Dr. O’Donnell has posted his 1979 study of Cassiodorus (University of California Press) for free online.

O’Donnell describes Cassiodorus (c.490-c.583) amusingly as “a little more than sinner, a little less than saint,” but “a constant source of inspiration.”

Cassiodorus was one of the great minds at the court of the triumphant barbarian Theodoric. He spent most of his life as one of Theodoric’s top men. But in his old age he went back to his hometown and set up a monastery — a monastery with a very specific purpose.

All over Italy, Cassiodorus saw civilization dying. A century and a half of invasions and wars had made books rare and educated readers rarer. The noblemen who had once kept large private libraries—and supported a profitable publishing industry—had mostly been replaced by illiterate barbarian chiefs.

So Cassiodorus scooped up every book he could find from the ruined and abandoned libraries of Italy. Then he set his monks to work copying them. “Of all the fruits of manual labor,” he said, “nothing pleases me as much as the work of the copyists — as long as they copy right.”

It was Cassiodorus who made copying books one of the monks’ most important duties. “Every time you write one of the Lord’s words, Satan is wounded,” he used to say. After Cassiodorus, monasteries replaced the old private publishers all over western Europe. Monks continued to copy old books right through the darkest parts of the Dark Ages and into the high Middle Ages, right up past the invention of the printing press. Cassiodorus had hit on the one sure way of preserving the learning of the past in an age of illiterate barbarians.

We can thank him and his enterprise for some of the editions of the Fathers that we have today — even those of us who are little more than illiterate barbarians.

And we can thank Dr. James O’Donnell for posting — free, and in the spirit of Cassiodorus — the only “thoroughgoing scholarly study of the life and works of Cassiodorus” to appear in the last three hundred years.