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This subject of this website is a vary specific topic: the social value of knowledge and the professions, consisting on reflections taken from the works of key Western thinkers through the centuries, and presented in a historical sequence. This is not to denigrate other cultures, but to recognize and celebrate that Western civilization has a specific heritage to offer on this subject.

The Social Value of Knowledge

One of the universal characteristics of the human mind is curiosity. There is always a desire to know more about the world that we live in, to find explanations to things that happen. In particular, we try to find ways to avoid bad things from happening to us and to our loved ones: "Men had always realized, of course, that they lived in a world of hazards. Crops fail if there is too much or too little rain. Tigers prowl about the compound at nightfall. The raft capsizes in midstream… [But] there is a real possibility of selecting the most promising alternative, promoting its actualization, and learning from an observation of the consequences."[1]

This quest has a strong social context. As members of a human community improve on their knowledge and their crafts, they share these experiences with other members of the community so that the combined learning can benefit all members. In the most primitive communities crafts are learned by imitation and apprenticeship, while in more advanced communities information is stored in more reliable and durable forms such as written documents and now computer-related storage.

Modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Egypt
In Partnership with the
 International Internet Archive
Photo Source: Wikipedia, Author: © Carsten Whimster

The stored learning of the community can be transmitted to new generations who in turn continue to add to this knowledge. Occasionally some of this knowledge is lost, but in general, human knowledge has been additive and we benefit today from discoveries made thousands of years ago.

Science and Technology

The additive characteristic of knowledge is particularly effective in science and technology. The objective value of technical inventions insures their preservation until better techniques are found to replace them. Through accumulated technology humanity has been able to control or alleviate many diseases and natural disasters. Quoting Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson:

The lights of science are communicated, from the parts in which they sprang up, to the remotest corners of the inhabitable world. The works of singular genius are a common benefit to mankind; and the whole species, on every quarter, in every nation, and in every age, cooperates together for one common end of information, invention, science, and art.[2]

The Humanities and the Arts

But the social value of knowledge is not limited to the solution of practical problems. We also value and endeavor to preserve and share the studies that serve to enrich the human spirit. Quoting medieval author  John of Salisbury:

Although pleasurable in many ways, the pursuit of letters is especially fruitful because it excludes all annoyances stemming from differences of time and place, it draws friends into each other's presence, and it abolishes the situation in which things worth knowing are not experienced. Arts would have perished, laws would have disappeared, faith and all religious duties whatsoever would have shattered, and even the correct use of eloquence would have declined, save that divine compassion granted to mortals the use of letters as a remedy for human infirmity.[3]

The Classical Heritage

The ancient world provides rich traditions of professionalism. The first professional known by name may have been Imhotep, the minister of pharaoh Djoser in Egypt, from around 2600 BCE. Imhotep designed the first building of crafted stone, the stepped pyramid of pharaoh Djoser in Memphis. He may also have been a physician. He was greatly honored by the Egyptians.

A major contribution to the knowledge heritage of Western civilization came from the Greeks. Hippocrates (460 – 377 BCE) made foundational contributions to medicine. Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) compiled and elaborated much of the earlier thought, and with a more methodical approach, he is considered to have established the foundations of what we consider science. Romans assimilated Greek culture and spread it further through their conquests. They also made some original contributions in medicine, law and engineering.

The Greek and Roman thinkers were aware of the value of the arts in developing the human spirit. In Pro Archia, which was a defense of the social utility of poetry, The Roman senator Cicero wrote of 'the humanities and letters', which he saw as the subjects that should be studied in order to achieve man’s full potential.[4]

Roman Pantheon
Photo Source Wikipedia Author: © Macrons

The Macedonian Greek rulers of the Ptolomeic dynasty built a large library at Alexandria during the third century (BCE) that attempted to accumulate the known knowledge of its time. The library dwindled during the third century CE due to lack of funding and support and eventually disappeared. The top photo  above is from a modern library named in honor of this ancient project.

Christianity and Community

Classical thought assumed that the basic principles of social ethics were available to all human beings through the use of reason. But putting these principles into practice is another matter. In spite of the lofty thoughts discussed above, Greece and Rome ended up as military tyrannies. In the actual context of Western civilization, Christian moral teachings have provided a more effective motivator for social responsibility. The love of neighbor is a stronger force than reasoned philosophy. The Greek term used to denote the relationship among the members of a Christian community is koinonia (communion, fellowship). In the practice of the Christian communities this term means the total concern for all the needs of all the members of the community.

The Preservation of Knowledge as Rome Fell

As the Roman Empire became Christianized, some conflicts between Greco-Roman culture and Christian values became apparent, but in general, Christianity embraced and attempted to assimilate and harmonize the classical heritage with its fundamental principles. This harmonization effort, however, was disrupted by the chaos resulting from the barbarian invasions, as Rome fell to the Visigoths (476 CE) and the Western empire was gradually dismembered among the waves of invaders. Some threads of culture survived through exile and refuge. A number of monks from the European continent escaping from the barbarians emigrated to the isolated havens of Northern Britain and Ireland. These monasteries became important study centers, and the copying of classical manuscripts was a well established practice at these centers.[5]

A large number of Greek scientific and philosophic works were also preserved in the Arab world. Much of this knowledge was translated into Arabic. The Islamic Arabs and Persians also made their own original contributions, particularly in Mathematics. Later, as some Islamic cultural centers in Spain and Southern Italy passed into Christian control, the increased contact with the rest of  Europe provided a fertile ground for the translation of documents and other cultural exchanges.

[1] John Donohue, S.J., Work and Education, (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1959), 73.

[2] Adam Ferguson, Principles of Moral and Political Science (Edinburgh: W. Creech, 1792),Vol. 1, , 36.

[3] John of Salisbury, Policraticus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 3.

[4] Charles G. Nauert, Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 12.

[5] Pierre Riche, Education and Culture in the Barbarian West (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1976), 373-374.