Lessons from The Map of Knowledge

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 11-05-20

This will certainly read a little different from my typical blog posts, and even my typical book reviews. It’s not even a business or leadership book (or is it?). I recently read The Map of Knowledge, and there are some important perspectives to take away from a book such as this, as they’re often are books on history. History is an important and useful tool for not just learning from and avoiding past mistakes (although we seemed destined to repeat most of them), but to see the dynamics of systemic change with a wider aperture in terms of both size and time than one person can experience personally.

The Map of Knowledge: A Thousand Year History of How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found explores the general time period of 500-1500 AD and how ideas, and in particular science, math, and medicine advanced and spread throughout the world. It explores this development and spread of knowledge through cities who were, at a time, the epicenter of knowledge in their time: Alexandria, Baghdad, Cordoba, Toledo, Salerno, Palermo, Venice, and beyond. Here are a few takeaways that are relevant in any walk of life. 


There are fundamentals to building knowledge

Whatever your field of study, ranging from music to medicine, the fundamentals of building, acquiring, and advancing knowledge have remained the same. This is well captured in this passage: 

Euclid, Galen, and Ptolemy pioneered the practice of science based on observation, experimentation, accuracy, intellectual rigour and clear communication – the cornerstones of what is now known as “scientific method.” 

This should replace myth, legend, and even instinct in driving decisions, actions, and progress. As also stated: 

Rigorous observation of the natural world had triumphed over ancient wisdom. 

And so while “man” may be the master of knowledge, it is not actually man that generates the knowledge but discovers it and unlocks it. This has driven the progress of humanity through many eras, and do worry about times where we elevate the fallacy of man as the originator of knowledge. Then we no longer challenge, test, and seek to understand knowledge, but simply accept it. 

In the pursuit of knowledge, another critical fundamental is the idea of collaboration. Unlocking knowledge requires building on what is already known, asking tough questions in new ways, and fundamentally learning from each other. The best minds of each generation were all surrounded, encouraged, and engaged with others. Knowledge does not grow on an island of one person. Therefore it is no surprise that significant advancement of knowledge is quite coupled with the concentration of minds. Cities throughout the world have proven to be quite the epicenter, although not by accident but often by design. Here are three examples from very different generations: 

But the Ptolemaic kings did not just collect books, they collected minds as well. They established a community of scholars in the shrine they had built to glorify the Muses – the nine Greek goddesses who inspired the arts and sciences. It became known as the Museum and was closely linked with the Library. 

The elite took the patronage of scholarship very seriously, looking after scholars and giving them everything they needed….But, as far as the Arab elite were concerned, there was no better way of spending money. Baghdad was full of private libraries, which became popular meeting places for scholars and patrons, and unofficial centres of academic debate. A library became the ultimate status symbol. 

Frederick’s court attracted the most talented and ambitious men of the age. Of the many scholars who orbited around him, two stand out: Michael Scot and Leonard of Pisa, known as Fibonacci. 

And so whether it is conferences, universities, founding partnerships, or Zoom-enabled connections, collaboration to build and advance knowledge is a critical element. 


Classical history teaching has many holes 

Most history books center on, as it applies to civilizations that generated knowledge, ancient Greek, and the Renaissance. Both were truly important. But knowledge didn’t die in between. In fact, it continued to flourish, just not in the heart of Europe. 

Baghdad was the first true centre of learning since antiquity, and over time it inspired cities across the Arab world to build libraries and fund science. 

Besides the fact that science, medicine, and math were often coupled to religious posts in the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities, it flourished for hundreds of years, and dare say was kept alive, in the Arab world. This is what brought knowledge into the Renaissance, and the Renaissance would not have been possible without the work of many Muslim cities. 

In it, they explained that “seeing the abundance of books in Arabic on every subject, and regretting the poverty of the Latins in these things, he [Gerard] learned the Arabic language in order to be able to translate. 

The scale of Arab accomplishment in literature, history, geography, philosophy and, of course, science left Latin scholars dazzled, giddy with awe. 

The teachings of Arab scholars, and the book translations that they carried forth, and the knowledge that they added to it, set up the ability of future generations to build on it. There are many reasons why this part of history is not as well understood. One reason is that many Christian scholars who translated books didn’t carry the Muslim names in their new additions. Today this is called plagiarism, but at the time, as they often were adding to the knowledge or combining multiple texts into new combinations, at the time it was not as obviously wrong and mostly represented an exaggerated sense of their own contribution. Another factor, certainly, is that during the Renaissance, it was fashionable and appealing to return to the “masters” and therefore much was made of studying original Greek texts rather than the translations and additions that followed. Hence, the “revival” of Greek knowledge in the Renaissance was real but in some ways wiped out the progress that had genuinely been made since. No doubt, poor relations between Christians and Muslims played a part, although it appears a secondary one, as the best advances came when these cultures came together. 

[The Abbot of Cluny, Peter the Venerable] was the first Christian scholar to engage with and learn about Muslim culture. This was a landmark moment in the dialogue between the two religions. Pete’s interest in an respect for Islam was evident. He described Muslin scholars as “clever and learned men whose libraries are full of books dealing with the liberal arts and the study of nature, and that Christians have gone in quest of these.” This interested, open attitude was characteristic of European scholars in the twelfth century, but it did not last. By the time of the Renaissance, the Muslim scholars who had made such an enormous contribution were being obscured by an obsessive reverence for ancient Greek sources. 

But too little is understood and appreciated of the time of cities such as Baghdad and Cordoba and what they meant for the advancement of knowledge through centuries. Surely, a study of the holes in our history can illuminate a greater understanding and appreciation of the many cultures that have brought us to today. 

Given these circumstances [related to the printing press], coupled with increasing religious conservatism, it is perhaps unsurprising that the pursuit of knowledge in the Muslim world begame to wane. But it is less easy to understand why the legacy of Islamic science has been largely forgotten in Europe. Given the remarkable contribution they made, scholars like al-Khwarizmi and al-Razi should be household names, like Leonardo da Vinci and Newton, but, even today, few people in the Western world have heard of them. 


Stable and tolerant civilizations accompany advancing knowledge 

Whether a stable and tolerant civilization cultivates advancing knowledge, or the other way around, may be impossible to say. But it is indisputable that the two are coupled together, particularly as it relates to religious tolerance. Where destruction, burning, and war reign, knowledge is not only slowed but is actually destroyed, as this example illustrates:   

By the end of the fifth century, the map of knowledge had changed dramatically. Most of the ancient centres of learning had declined, schools had closed, libraries had been ransacked and burned, or left to decay quietly. Alexandria was still a centre of trade and of ideas, but the Library was a shadow of its former self. 

This contrast further demonstrates the difference: 

At a time when many Europeans were living on turnips and trying to fend off the Vikings, scientists in Baghdad had measured the circumference of the earth, revolutionized the study of the stars, developed rigorous standards for translation and methods for scientific practice, produced a map of the world, advanced the basis of our modern number system and defined algebra, founded new disciplines in medicine and identified the symptoms of several diseases. 

But where stability reigned, even if for reasons bordering on vanity, knowledge was respected and supported. 

Or in Cordoba: According to one source, “To such an extend did this rage for collection increase, that any man in power, or holding a situation under government, consider himself obliged to have a library of his own, and would spare no trouble or expense in collecting books, merely in order that people might say, – such a one has a very fine library, or he possesses a unique copy of such a book, or he has a copy of such a work in the hand writing of such a one.”

And again, destruction would end the ages of knowledge. 

Cordoba’s star burned bright, but it burned out very quickly. When al-Hakam died in 976, stability and intellectual freedom died with him. He left his eleven-year-old son, al-Hisham, on the throne, and the vizier al-Mansur saw his chance to seize power. 

And so, if we have any respect of knowledge and the good that it can provide, we must seek stability, tolerance, and end division, intolerance, destruction. 

Whether you consider yourself a scientist or simply respect what knowledge can provide for humanity, this history is worth reading.