The Postmodern Republic of Letters

Of the innumerable books and pamphlets that have overflowed the nation, scarce one has made any addition to real knowledge, or contained more than a transposition of common sentiments and a repetition of common phrases.—Samuel Johnson

That’s a devastating, but probably accurate, judgment on the superabundance of publications since the 18th century. It is even more apropos in the age of post-modern journalism, and serves as an antidote to the absurd hyperbole and mania for information in a society that has lost sight of the fact that information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom.

Yet there are two sides to everything. Elsewhere Johnson admits that the “author is not wholly useless, who provides innocent amusements.” One could argue that with authorship now open to virtually everyone, we’re experiencing a revival of the old-fashioned republic of letters. Prior to the industrial age of centralized journalism, people circulated epistles that ranged from local gossip to highly polished essays. Some, like the letters of Seneca or the notebooks of Aulus Gellius were eventually published as books in their own right. The blog commentators of today, like the erudite minor writers of the past, can cater to an intimate and discriminating audience of like-minded individuals.

We have more choices. Many are bad ones. But to some extent in a free market (of both goods and ideas) quantity is quality. There are vastly greater options than existed under the media monopoly of a generation ago… assuming, of course, that one approaches them with discernment.

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