Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Not Guns, Nor Lead, But Men's Vices

The first illustrated "how-to" book for mining and metallurgy was written by the German Georg Bauer in the mid-16th century, and used from then to now; only minor changes were needed to accommodate fairly modern methods. ("Bauer" [Farmer] was Latinized to "Agricola", probably by his teachers at the University of Leipzig.) 
But Agricola was a teacher, philosopher and doctor as well as the world's first industrial publicist, and the opening of De Re Metallica ("Concerning Metals") reflects his philosophical bent. 
While re-reading it recently, I was struck by this passage in Chapter One. In the midst of a dissertation on the economics and politics of mining and the monetization of metals, Agricola diverts to make several points about the "evil" of metal weapons. It does not take much editing to apply his thoughts directly to today's debate on the "evil" of gun ownership. 
The curses which are uttered against iron, copper and lead have no weight with prudent and sensible men, because if these metals were done away with, men, as their anger swelled and their fury became unbridled, would assuredly fight like wild beasts, with fists, heels, nails and teeth. They would strike each other with sticks, hit one another with stones, or dash their foes to the ground. Moreover, a man does not kill another with iron alone, but slays by means of poison, starvation or thirst. He may seize him by the throat and strangle him; he may bury him alive in the ground; he may immerse him in the water and suffocate him; he may burn or hang him; so that he can make every element a participant in the death of men... From these examples we see that it is not metals which are to be condemned, but our vices, such as anger, cruelty, discord, passion for power, avarice and lust. —Georgius Agricola, De Re Metallica

So it is not explosives that carry evil, it is the suicide bomber who carries the explosives. It is not the knife in the hand of the chef that stabs a man, but the one in the hand of the murderer. And it is not guns that kill. In all these examples, it is the murderer's desire to kill which is at fault, not the instruments used to act on those desires. 

Notes for eBook Edition

The Kindle version of the book is available for free by the Internet Archive, with the quotation cited above at location 1268. 
This free version of De Re Metallica, however, is poorly formatted for an eBook, with no Index or Table of Contents. It has many OCR typos and footnotes inset in the text. 
The captions for the woodcut illustrations are essential to understanding their worth, but they are very difficult to read on the device, even with Zoom.
The best source for the serious reader is the paper edition.