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It's Complicated, but Is It Really?

Before the revolutionary development of the printing press in the fifteenth century, scribes and monks in the West copied Greek and Latin manuscripts, often years after a text’s initial composition. Sometimes monks transcribed works already familiar to them from their education; sometimes scribes with an elementary or negligible understanding of classical languages copied the texts. In either case, as in the game of “Telephone,” human error inevitably results in differences. When an original manuscript is no longer extant to compare the differing texts in surviving copies, scholars use the principle of lectio difficilior potior to hypothesize which version might have been the author’s. A Latin phrase that translates to “the more difficult reading is preferable,” lectio difficilior potior encourages critics to favor the text in a manuscript copy that seems more difficult.

Tanya (right) and her friend Katrin Kreuzer (Tanya’s volleyball teammate from Germany) in Jerusalem.

Tanya (right) and her friend Katrin Kreuzer (Tanya’s volleyball teammate from Germany) in Jerusalem.

The reasoning is that a scribe would have been less likely to change the original into something more difficult. It’s more likely that a scribe would have encountered a difficult or confusing passage and modified it, whether intentionally or inadvertently, to something easier. What “more difficult” means varies depending on the text, and the measure is still subjective. Scholar Martin West reminds us that a more difficult reading is not the same as a more unlikely reading and cautions against conflating the two. A longer article might explore the worthwhile questions of whether or not the “original” is actually preferable, and whether or not an “urtext” should carry more authority than later emendations. For now, I note that since the 18th century textual critics have widely practiced the principle of lectio difficilor potior.

This textual analysis principle also applies to reading current affairs. When I was Couch Surfing in Jerusalem, my German travel companion and I asked locals about politics. More often than not, we were told: “It’s complicated.” At first we understood this reply as a both self-protecting and dismissive dodge of our questions. But with time, and much hummus, pita bread, and strong coffee, we were able to interview a diverse group, including a leather sandals vendor in the Old City, an expat who invited us to a rooftop Shabbat dinner, a Palestinian activist who showed us her film, a man who served for years as a military officer, and the mother of our Couch Surfing host who shared her family’s World War II story. We wanted to figure out the heart of the matter, and we kept encountering what did not feel like an answer – it’s complicated.

Tanya in front of the Jaffa Gate, one of the entrances into Jerusalem’s Old City.

Tanya in front of the Jaffa Gate, one of the entrances into Jerusalem’s Old City.

Hearing these two words precede almost every response, even though the subsequent content drastically differed, gave me another perspective on the relevance of literary study to contemporary life. My friend and I traveled to Jerusalem hoping to delineate issues into a more black-and-white understanding, but by the time we left, the more difficult reading of the history, politics, and economics—that there are nuances, layers, so much grey, and it is complicated—not only was more preferable but also felt more ethical.

The modern landscape of politics through digital media often compresses and flattens complex issues into slogans that fit in hashtags on Twitter. However, just as texts of surviving manuscripts differ, multiple narratives exist about hotbed issues. For centuries, textual critics have analyzed manuscripts knowing that we are all more likely to change a narrative into something easier rather than to dwell on the difficulties. As we approach 2016 elections in the United States and politicians fling bytes about their panacean visions, I hope that we will read their rhetoric while keeping lectio difficilior potior in mind. 

Education, Global

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