Man's Quest for Knowledge


The Discoverers, by Daniel J. Boorstin, New York: Random House, 745 pp., $25.00

History is usually written in terms of the rise and fall of governments, the outcomes of battles, the ascendancy and decline of cultures. But Daniel Boorstin, the Librarian of Congress, has thrown all the conventional approaches away in his magnificent The Discoverers, which deals with the decisions of statesmen, warriors, and clerics only as they have served to twist the directions of Man, the Discoverer.

Boorstin is concerned with man's need to know what is "out there." He begins with the concept of time and its relationship to discovery. Time, Boorstin says, is "the most elusive and mysterious of the primitive dimensions of experience." When man made a living by hunting and gathering, he went to bed and got up with the sun. But agriculture created a need for calendars. When was the first frost to be expected? What about the coming of heavy rains? The Egyptians, who lived by the rhythms of the Nile River, had an early solar calendar. The Babylonians, by contrast, lived with the erratic moon.

It is here that the paradoxical nature of Boorstin's story becomes manifest. He is writing about man's effort to learn everything about the earth, its continents and seas, its buried past, and its position in the solar system and the cosmos. The telescope and the microscope are integral parts of the tale. So, too, is psychic man's effort to understand himself. But the "universal" quality of The Discoverers always gives way to the planet's division between East and West. It is symbolic that the Moslems stuck to the more erratic lunar calendar. The clock and the seven-day week were part of the Western "resort to calculation," which had less appeal to Eastern cultures. The clock itself was first used by monks to call them to prayers, but later the swing of the pendulum, which impressed Galileo, suggested a number of worldly uses for measurement. The clock made Western man a mechanic.

The little peninsula of Asia that we know as Europe became the seedbed of the "discoverers" by the indifference of the East. Boorstin asks himself some unfamiliar questions. Why didn't the Chinese discover Europe and America? Why didn't the Arabs circumnavigate Africa and the world? It is a curious fact that when Portugal's Prince Henry the Navigator was sending his ships inching down Africa's west coast, a Chinese eunuch admiral, Cheng Ho, had a navy that was unparalleled.

The Chinese navy had developed the idea of bulkheads to increase seaworthy qualities, and it used the compass. It had brought giraffes home to China from Africa, and it had ranged across the Indian Ocean as far south as Zanzibar on Africa's eastern coast. But it was all for show—the Ming dynasty emperors wanted nothing from the world other than homage. Hence the Chinese decision to call home their navy and to scrap their ships.

The world of Islam, on the other hand, never became consciously isolationist. But it had no need to go around Africa to reach the Strait of Gibraltar because, like the old lady who wouldn't leave Boston, it was "already there." It had closed out North Africa for its own uses in the eighth century.

Europe, however, was not "already there." Europe did have some contact with the Far East for a period when the Mongols controlled the overland route, the "old silk road," from the eastern Mediterranean to China. The Mongols didn't care for Christianity, but they were tolerant and permitted Western caravans to move. It wasn't until the Mongols were defeated that Marco Polo's Venetians were no longer welcome in the Far East. The Turkish capture of Constantinople in 1453 completed Europe's isolation.

But if the Chinese needed nothing, Europe needed pepper, and sought ways to end its isolation from the East. What followed was a "doubling of the world" as the great Western navigators, armed with the compass and the ability to plot longitude and latitude, hit the Indies by going west and rounded the Cape of Good Hope to cross an Indian Ocean that had been an Arab and Chinese sea.

Ptolemy's name is generally associated with a faulty view of the universe, but it was his map of the world that lured Columbus westward. Ptolemy had known the world was round. But he grossly underestimated its circumference. It was this error that made Columbus think he could reach Asia by a short voyage past the Azores and the Canary Islands.

The Portuguese, in their bid to reach India by going around the southern tip of Africa, had to contend with the myth of a vast obstructive southern continent usually displayed on maps as "unknown land according to Ptolemy." Bartholomeu Dias actually rounded the Cape of Good Hope by mistake—he had been blown far south and to the west in the Atlantic and was trying to correct his course by hitting Africa in the neighborhood of Angola. When he found himself at the entrance to the Indian Ocean he wanted to proceed. But his crew wouldn't hear of it, thus leaving that accomplishment for Vasco da Gama, who made it to India in the next expedition.

It was the West's ability to make instruments that opened the world to the discoveries of Galileo and Copernicus and led on to the world of Sir Isaac Newton. Nobody knows who invented eye glasses, but they were in use 300 years before the telescope. Galileo guessed that the "first inventor of the telescope was a simple spectacle maker who, handling by chance different forms of glasses, looked, also by chance, through two of them, one convex and the other concave, held at different distances from the eye, saw and noted the unexpected result." The telescope became one way of seeing the invisible; the microscope was another. Once the use of adjuncts to look outward and inward had become common, people were ready for the exploration of the body and, eventually, for the psychology of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

I don't think Daniel Boorstin intended his book as a paean to the Western mind. He does his best to give China the credit for block printing, which made possible the flowering of Chinese culture, but the Western alphabets were more amenable to the use of movable type, which made the diffusion of knowledge so easy. The West became a literate society before the East. After Napoleon's departure from Egypt it was decades before the ruler Muhammad Ali and his successors could overcome the Islamic fear of the printing press. It wasn't until 1925 that a printed version of the Koran was officially published by the Egyptian government. The paradoxical element of Boorstin's world history—the division between East and West—persists even into the present. Boorstin now has hopes for a world literature. But for better or worse, television may get there first. And television is, of course, yet another example of Western discovery.

John Chamberlain is a syndicated columnist and the author of several books, including Farewell to Reform.