The Surest Prop of Their Power: Ancient Egyptians and the Power of Sabermetrics

In doing some research on goodness knows what, I came across a few paragraphs by the scholar of ancient literature Edith Hamilton, in her book The Greek Way. Hamilton loves the Greeks, and has not much fondness for the Egyptian approach to intellectual freedom, or the lack thereof.

She describes the class of priests, for whom knowledge and discovery were only a means to strengthen their hold on their power over the common person. “Great men must have built up that mighty organization,” she wrote, “but what they learned of old truth and what they discovered of new truth was valued as it increased the prestige of the organization.”

She goes on to describe how, in maintaining their power, the priesthood had to closely guard its knowledge and keep it from getting to the outside. “To teach the people so that they would begin to think for themselves, would be to destroy the surest prop of their power.” Ignorance breeds fear, she says, and, according to Edith, “in the dark mystery of the unknown a man cannot find his way alone.” Who is available to guide him, but, oh hey look, a priest!

“The power of the priest depended upon the darkness of the mystery.”

Now granted, these are issues that humankind has struggled with for millennia: freedom of speech, the spread of knowledge, etc. But it’s always nice to stumble across a reminder that the days we live in now are monumental. Information is everywhere, and the means and tools to achieve and disseminate insight feel infinite.

Hamilton’s words caused me to take pause for a moment or two and acknowledge the remarkable work of the sabermetricians around the world who labor towards deeper insight for no other reason than to advance the level of discourse for everybody. They don’t do it for profit or for private power, but for the power of the community, as specific as it may be.

The sense of expectation that comes off as arrogance is not, I don’t think, arrogance, but a demand for a higher level of discourse, and a battle against ignorance. That’s a far cry from the Egyptian priests and their covetous protection of knowledge and insight.

And you’ve got to hand it to the courts, too, for opening up sports statistics to the wide world and the world of profit, enabling outfits like Stats Inc. to flourish, and for powerhouse analysis machines like Fangraphs to spread crazy quantities of knowledge to baseball fans and other analysts.

So let’s take a day and declare amnesty for the feisty sabermatrician. On this day, we’ll forgive the acerbic commentary on unenlightened fans, we’ll assume that every sabermatrician has the good of the sport in mind, and that he or she doesn’t live in anybody’s basement.

Sabermatricians, you are keeping us all free from baseball ignorance, lighting the dark and mysterious hallways of the mind and granting power to the people.*

*This refers, of course, to the period before they sign on with a front office and put their once-democratic insights on lockdown.

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