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Plagiarism, Ghostwriting, False Author Attribution, and Academic Fraud before the Modern Academia
(Postscript to “The Decline of Thinking’s Universality)

 Caption: “The Lyceum” — the School of Aristotle. Were these just Aristotle’s followers, or the ancient think-tank that ghost-wrote his entire corpus?

The issue of plagiarism and ghostwriting in the pre-modern world is something that doesn’t receive much press because it conflicts with:

  1. Our romantic notions of the past as somehow better or more authentic than the modern day, and,
  2. It conflicts with our Creation Myths of the great idols, great men and great civilizations revolutionarily founding the world we live in.

Apparently, it’s fine to call into question the existence of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, but to even question the originality and intellectual honesty of Shakespeare, Newton, or Darwin?[1] — what [secular] heresy is this!? (Seriously, folks![2])

I will offer an alternative theory here for so-called historic ‘polymathy’, why it was more prevalent in the past than now. The theory is pretty simple: that the great thinkers were never held accountable for the originality of their ideas at the time they were proposed — it was sufficient enough that they were just recorded (somehow, be it through primary or secondary sources) as saying it, and that it was picked up by a contemporary scholar (*assuming the text even survived). There were no elaborate academic institutions to keep this sort of thing in check — no Deans office that Descartes could be sent to for repeating Anselm’s Ontological Proof in his Meditations, no PhD committee/auditing agency stopping Al-Kindi from ctrl+c/ctrl+v-ing everything he read in Aristotle. Students were not graded for how original their ideas were — they were usually rewarded for how much they imitated their teacher. And they often went further in the academia-aristocracy based off their charisma and the profundity of whatever they were saying. (Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?)

Case example: In Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah (this is a lengthy book on history, sociology, economics, political science, etc.), when he discusses the role of climate in the success of civilizations — the notion (in sum) that temperate climates produce temperate peoples and thus leads to successful civilizations — the same ideas more or less appear Aristotle’s Politics. What is this?:

  1. Is this a coincidental convergence of two brilliant minds stumbling on the same ideas independently?
  2. Is Ibn Khaldun blatantly plagiarizing Aristotle (– everyone has read Aristotle)?
  3. Or were these ideas perhaps already widely circulated in an oral tradition that dealt with these topics of meta-history — say, oral tradition of the kinds of discussions that took place in cafes, mosque/temple courtyards, the marketplace, around the campfire, caravan at late nights, etc. — and Ibn Khaldun (and Aristotle?) got their ideas from that?

Now, knowing from my own readings on this, the Politics was not known in the medieval Middle-East, so that throws (b) out. A makes sense. What about A as consequence of C?

These kinds of questions are always hotly debated by usually a handful of unfamous scholars obsessed with seemingly petty questions like this, with no real definitive conclusion. I will say this though: oral tradition is never something considered by these scholars, because it’s allegedly not recordable. And we all know from our Grade 7 essay writing classes, that the academia has a bias for things written. If it’s not written, it may as well not exist to the academia.

These scholars also lack the funding/time/patience/motivation/ambition to reconstruct a kind of history of the spontaneous, grass-roots transmission of ideas, or to read the works of historians of ideas on the topic. But why? Oral traditions carry such a wealth of information, formed through peculiar events and in a historio-cultural matrix. I wonder if scholars of the future, when studying the great thinkers of our time, will still ignore the role of chatrooms, social media, and blog comments, even after they’ve been clearly recorded, in the history of the transmission of ideas.

–Again, Blind men and the Elephant paradox (of the Academia).

But plagiarism — even the whole notion that one had to be an original thinker — is a bit of a post-Enlightenment idea (not to say this didn’t exist elsewhere, but our current notion of it goes right back to the Romantics). Many students and thinkers were expected to emulate the great masters, and the great schools and traditions, and felt reward and satisfaction in doing so.

Now, through careful textual analysis of what actually survives of these great thinkers, it is revealed that they often did not even do the writing themselves. They were recorded by scribes, either during a lecture, after one, or long after their death. Plotinus was blind by the time he composed his Enneads, so required the help of scribes to write down his book. Aristotle’s entire corpus — according to tradition — wasn’t compiled until after his death, and his writing doesn’t even read like an essay; they read like scattered lecture notes.[3] Aristotle’s lectures on mysticism were never written down. Aristotle’s famed Dialogues (written like Plato’s dialogues) have not survived antiquity. Avicenna, al-Ghazali, al-Farabi, Meister Eckhardt, Ochkam, Anselm, etc., a whole slew of medieval thinkers, only received their fame in the books written by their students, compile from their lecture notes and discussions with the teacher. It’s a bit like your band becoming world famous for the bootlegs made off of your guitar tabs, where the bootleg isn’t actually of your band, but of someone else performing your music — and all of this taking place after your death.

As a scribe, like a good guitarist playing tabs, you must have a certain understanding of what your teacher/lecturer is saying in order to coherently record it, even if you don’t fully understand the whole thing. Many scribes might also input their own thoughts, beliefs and culturally-determined preconceptions when recording the lectures of their masters, much as how modern university students do nowadays when taking notes.

In other words, what was going on wasn’t this:

It was this:

Now I don’t want to give the impression that all pre-modern/pre-Renaissance thinkers never wrote any essays themselves — they certainly did, but what survives of their corpus is this hodgepodge of lecture notes, essays, hearsay, rumors, and misinterpretation.

Manuscripts also had to be re-copied by hand (after the 15th century: by printing press) in order to preserve the book’s transmission. This was the task of libraries, monasteries, universities, and churches / mosques / synagogues. Not all scribes are equal, sometimes only a part of the manuscript was copied, because the full length volume existed in a library (only to have the library be destroyed by the Seljuks, the Franks, or the Mongols, and the small part would be what is preserved.) There are also cases where manuscripts have just lost the title page or other ancient meta-data, and have been falsely attributed to this or that thinker.

Other writers would write something and attribute it to a great thinker, usually in order to legitimize an idea, or make money off the manuscript (Aristotle and Plato were hot best-sellers back in the day) — but I also suspect that same sentiment that gives birth to modern fanfiction to be involved in these kinds of writings. Something recently in the news of this kind of authorship issue is with the Gospel of Barnabas.

In sum, our ancient texts, in their current incarnation, is the result of a grand, multi-thousand-year-old historic game of broken telephone, and the survival of best sellers.

Another case in point: there was a book in wide circulation in the Middle-Ages — mostly in the Middle-East and Byzantium — called The Theology of Aristotle, which was basically a copy-paste of Plotinus’ Enneads. Whoever made it, attributed it to Aristotle (hence the name), probably for economic reasons. The impact of this book is tremendous and often overlooked by scholars writing on this — if written by Aristotle, it would mean he was a Neoplatonist, which makes it seem as though Plato and Aristotle were generally in agreement with one another. Anyone who knows anything about philosophy today has been taught that two philosophers are opposites — that was not the case in the Middle-Ages. If this text’s authenticity was not doubted, and we still thought it belonged to Aristotle, we would have a radically different view of the Ancients, and the history of early modern science would’ve looked quite different.

That said, Aristotle has allegedly written actual mystical works, which have not survived (probably not even recorded?). But it’s not the Theology of Aristotle.

Given all of this, it is certainly, without a doubt, very possible that the corpus of Aristotle was mostly or entirely a production of his school — the Lyceum — in order to legitimate the school’s curriculum, status and prestige at the time. I can make the same claim about Plato’s corpus and the Academy of Athens, and probably many other pre-modern thinkers that were so-called “polymaths”. What I mean to say is: Aristotle and Plato, thinkers of this type, were brand names for ancient think-tanks that assembled themselves around a semi-mythical idol. Aristotle and Plato as their works have survived were products of an entire school writing an encyclopedia of knowledge attributed, and attributing it to their founding Master. What I mean to say is: they themselves were not actually polymaths, but idols who were ghostwritten for.

Again, this goes back to the human desire for Creation myths, Idols, and figures.

And again, this is just speculation. That said, if anyone reading this knowledgeable on this subject wishes to discuss this, please feel free.

Ismael Sarepta


[1] And I didn’t choose Shakespeare, Newton, and Darwin randomly out of a hat. These are all great men whose products of genius are shrouded in myth, and all have very serious authenticity, originality, and authorship issues. Isaac Newton invented Calculus “independently” (or so it is claimed) at the same time as Gottfried Leibniz did. Charles Darwin didn’t feel the need to public his theory of Evolution until another younger man came along (Alfred Russell Wallace) with the exact same theory, threatening to steal Charles’ thunder. And Shakespeare? Bitch, please, you think the Bible was bad with its authenticity?: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shakespeare_authorship_question

[2] If you’re going to smash Creation Myths of human origins with Evolution, please be consistent, and do so with the rest of human history!

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