Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The dilemma of Andronicus

Whenever you move to a new job, chances are that you will have to spend the initial months clearing up the mess left behind by your predecessor. Resources are always limited, in particular time, and your new position might require you to make some tough decisions. Will you maintain the old routines or will you take the risk of antagonizing your colleagues and subordinates?

Entrepreneurs face the same dilemma everyday. Actually, the choice between proven systems and risky innovation has to be made by every person in business, often on the basis of incomplete information. When college students pick up their major subject of study, how many of them have a clear picture of the long-term consequences?

Around the year 70 B.C., Andronicus of Rhodes was elected head of the Lyceum, the school that had been founded by Aristotle in Athens two centuries before. After taking over his new responsibilities, Andronicus must have made an inventory of the assets and liabilities of the Lyceum and concluded that the school was in a sorry state.

Diodorus had been the head of the Lyceum during the preceding decades. Despite his efforts, the school had progressively lost ground to its main competitor, the Academy founded by Plato. Shortly after Andronicus became head of the Lyceum, the Roman legions invaded Greece and the economic situation in Athens turned from bad to worse.

A few years later, the state of affairs had barely improved and Andronicus was faced with the most difficult decision of his life. The implications were so far-ranging that no one could have foreseen all consequences. The Lyceum was going through difficult times, which called for swift action and strong leadership.

For Andronicus, there were two choices. On the one side, he could concentrate all resources on expanding the school curriculum in order to attract new students from Greece, Rome, Libya, and Egypt. On the other side, he could devote the available manpower to compile and edit the works of Aristotle, whose manuscripts were rapidly deteriorating and risked being lost forever.

Although the Lyceum was not a modern corporation listed in the stock market, we should not underestimate the pressures on Andronicus to decide in favour of short-term advantages. Suffice to say than in the preceding two hundred years, under much better economic conditions, no one had undertaken the task of editing and compiling Aristotle's works.

Luckily, Andronicus of Rhodes took the long-term view and decided to concentrate the Lyceum resources on producing a compilation of Aristotle's writings. You might not know that, by the time they began their task, already half of Aristotle's manuscripts had been rendered illegible by decay or eaten up by worms.

The compilation of Aristotle's writings made in the Lyceum under Andronicus' supervision consisted of 47 books. In addition, about thirty books by Aristotle available at that time were left out of the compilation, possibly considering that, since they were so many copies in circulation of those other thirty books, there was little risk of them disappearing.

That assumption proved catastrophically wrong, since with the passage of time, all other works of Aristotle have been irrecoverably lost. The last copies of those other Aristotle's manuscripts may have burned down in the fire of the Alexandrian Library, together with many other writings of Antiquity.

In our days, few students realize that, when they study Aristotle's ideas, they are mostly relying on Andronicus of Rhodes as historical source. In fact, a good part of what we consider Aristotle's works might have been written by Andronicus himself or by one of his colleagues in the Lyceum.

Had Andronicus not undertaken the arduous task of editing and compiling dozens of disparate manuscripts written by Aristotle, later centuries would have taken a different path, no doubt, for the worse. As it frequently happens, one man's long-term vision changed the course of History.


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