The essays in this volume represent a very significant part of Hugh Nibley's scholarly corpus. Most of the papers were previously published in academic journals, including Classical Journal, Western Political Quarterly, and Western Speech, from the early forties until the midsixties. The only essays in this volume not previously published are "The Sophic and Mantic," originally a series of lectures delivered in 1963 at Yale University, and "Paths That Stray," drafted at about the same time.
The topics of these essays range widely: the role of various objects—the arrow and the tent, for example—in archaic state formation; the political ideology and religious and educational values of ancient states; notes on Joseph Justus Scaliger, one of the outstanding scholars of the seventeenth—or any other—century. The theme—at root deeply religious in nature—that pervades most of these essays is the power and pretensions of the ancient state. If the phrase "The Greatest Show on Earth" had not already been preempted and registered as a trademark by Barnum and Bailey, it would have served as an appropriate subtitle to this volume, since it focuses on a central insight of these essays: however compelling and attractive the educational values, the royal ideology, and the symbols and artifacts of the state in antiquity (or in more recent times, for that matter), they represent, at root, a vast fraud—an endless and shameless effort at personal and national self-aggrandizement. Statecraft, as it has generally been practiced, is merely priestcraft in another guise.
There is a legitimate "kingdom," Professor Nibley would remind us, but it is not one that seeks power in this world. As he notes in "The Hierocentric State," apostolic Christianity "was keenly conscious of all the imagery of hierocentric rule and ritual and, above all, of the contrast of the two kingdoms. The Apostles . . . tell us, it is true, that there is a universal throne—but it is not on this earth. The devil is the 'Prince of this World,' which is no place for the children of the kingdom—they sojourn here as pilgrims and as strangers. . . . Our heritage and kingdom lie beyond: 'here we have no abiding kingdom.' "At the center of this divinely sanctioned kingdom, reflecting in its features a heavenly model, is the temple. Like the hierocentric state, the temple (the subject of several of Nibley's essays elsewhere in the Collected Works) is "oriented about a point believed to be the exact center and pivot" of the cosmos. Further, in many ancient states the tent is inextricably connected with the temple. In a dozen other ways, features of the ancient state are like those of the temple. In one crucial respect, however, they differ: the former focuses on the kingdom of this world, while the latter, though constructed on earth, demands loyalty to a kingdom "not of this world."
Nibley's breathtaking erudition—reminiscent of the polymathic tradition of scholarship represented by "the great Joseph Justus Scaliger," as he is fond of calling him—can be seen throughout this volume. By turns, he treats the sparsio, a subtle though important feature of Roman religion (reminding us that Dr. Nibley's early university training was in the Classics and Ancient History); the arrow, a cultural artifact found in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, as well as among ancient Indo-European peoples and the Indians of North America; and the impact of the rise of rhetoric in the Greco-Roman world and in the ancient Near East.
The essays in this volume reflect Nibley's deep and abiding interest in—may we even say passion for?—the origins of ideas and institutions. In his "Intellectual Autobiography" in Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless (1978), Nibley writes that, finding English to be derivative, he "took to Old English to find what was behind it; what was behind it was Latin, and what was behind that was Greek. In those days we thought that you had reached the beginning of everything with the Greeks" (p. xx). Soon, however, he came to understand that "if you really want to get back of reality, science is the thing; and, as Popper assures us, all science is cosmology: I became a passionate amateur astronomer." Then he discovered that, while "everybody wanted to be a scientist," few paid attention to "the records of the race." And so he abandoned the laboratory for the stacks. We can be glad for that decision, since this book—and the others in the Collected Works—are its fruit. Several of these essays reflect Nibley's quest for origins: he studies the arrow and the tent as two primary artifacts in ancient state formation; he examines the oldest ideologies of the state (which reflect conflicts that, as he states, "already exist[ed] in the premortal sphere"); and he investigates ancient values in learning and education and their subsequent corruption by the Sophists, who emphasized form over substance and denied the prophetic, providing a prologue to and explanation for the educational—and spiritual—crisis of our own age.
Despite the book's title, these essays are in fact often highly pertinent to our own time. Astute readers will recognize in these essays many now-familiar themes of Nibley's trenchant social commentaries. The foibles of our age are nothing new, repeating what has been done in other eras. For example, "The Unsolved Loyalty Problem," which deals with loyalty and loyalty oaths in antiquity, was originally written at the time of the McCarthy hearings in the early 1950s but raises soul-wrenching questions just as relevant today as they ever were. "How to Have a Quiet Campus, Antique Style," was composed on the occasion of a visit of a former vice-president to the campus of Brigham Young University, whom Nibley calls "an authentic Rhetor—Greek, political, ostentatious, and not overly scrupulous." This essay, as well as "Victoriosa Loquacitas," "The Sophic and Mantic," and "Paths That Stray," speak to our own educational and spiritual malaise as much as to that in the ancient world. As I read "Sparsiones," where Nibley calls the sparsio "the authentic heritage of the Golden Age, the sublime economy of which remains throughout antiquity, and indeed in religious ideology down to the very present," I am reminded of themes developed in some of his essays on current social and religious issues in Approaching Zion (volume 9 of the Collected Works), such as "Work We Must, But the Lunch Is Free." The sparsio may be a manifestation, in a Greco-Roman context, of the "lunch" offered by God that is out of all proportion to man's own effort and contribution. All of this brings us back to the profound, implicit message of these essays: wealth, learning (and its imitations), technology, and assertions of divinely bestowed authority give a false sense of security that are no substitute for the Gospel.
Some scholars write with the grace of an elephant. It is one of Nibley's virtues to have a prose style that is both strong and vigorous, while at the same time direct and without affectation—something we would expect, given his strong antipathy to the many seductions of rhetoric. Reading him is a constant pleasure, even where the argument is subtle or a page studded with details. To benefit most fully from reading Nibley, one must be like a cup, ready to be filled to the brim, and then some. Reading some of these essays may require some effort, but that effort is invariably well rewarded.
We wish to express our thanks to those who have contributed to the production of this volume. Contributors include Glen Cooper, James Fleugel, John Gee, Fran Hafen, Andrew Hedges, Adam Lamoreaux, Brent McNeely, Tyler Moulton, Phyllis Nibley, Art Pollard, Shirley Ricks, Mark Simons, Morgan Tanner, James Tredway, John Welch, and the staff at Deseret Book, particularly Suzanne Brady, Shauna Gibby, and Patricia J. Parkinson. Special thanks are due to Michael Lyon, who provided the illustrations for this volume.
Stephen D. Ricks