Sunday, May 19, 2013

Bookworms, Pagans, Hypathia, and the Loss of Knowledge

"Virtually the entire output of many other writers, famous in antiquity, has disappeared without a trace.  Scientists, historians, mathematicians, philosophers, and statesmen have left behind some of their achievements - the invention of trigonometry for example, or the calculation of position by reference to latitude and longitude, or the rational analysis of political power - but their books are gone.  .  .(p. 80)

"In this general vanishing, all of the works of the brilliant founders of atomism, Leucippus and Democritus, and most of the works of their intellectual heir Epicurus, disappeared.  Epicurus had been extraordinarily prolific.  he and his principal philosophical opponent, the Stoic Chrysippus, wrote between them, it was said, more than a thousand books.  Even if this figure is exaggerated or if it counts as books what we would regard as essays and letters, the written record was clearly massive.  That record no longer exists."  (p. 81)

In "The Teeth of Time" - chapter 4 of The Swerve -  Stephen Greenblatt accounts for the loss of this collected wisdom.  The teeth in the chapter title belonged to bookworms that devoured the papyrus on which much of this knowledge was recorded.  Climate was the other big culprit.

But intentional human destruction was another.
"The fate of the books in all their vast numbers is epitomized in the fate of the greatest library in the ancient world, a library located not in Italy, but in Alexandria, the capital of Egypt and the commercial hub of the eastern Mediterranean.  The city had many tourist attractions, including an impressive theater and red-light district, but visitors always took note of something quite exceptional:  in the center of the city, at a lavish site known as the Museum, most of the intellectual inheritance of Greek, Latin, Babylonian, Egyptian, and Jewish cultures had been assembled at enormous cost and carefully archived for research.  Starting as early as 300 BCE, the Ptolomaic kings who ruled Alexandria had the inspired idea of luring leading scholars, scientists, and poets to their city by offering them life appointments at the Museum, with handsome salaries, tax exemptions, free food and lodging, and the almost limitless resources of the library." (pp. 86-7)
This wasn't just a beneficent whim of the rulers.  They knew what the people of Boston and the Silicon Valley know: that having brilliant minds around is good for the economy.
"The recipients of this largesse established remarkably high intellectual standards.  Euclid developed his geometry in Alexandria;  Archimedes discovered pi and laid the foundation for calculus;  Eratosthenes posited that the earth was round  and calculated its circumference to within 1 percent;  Galen revolutionized medicine.  Alexandrian astronomers postulated a heliocentric universe;  geometers deduced that the length of a year was 365 1/4 days and proposed adding a 'leap year' every fourth years;  geographers speculated that it would be possible to reach India by sailing west from Spain;  engineers developed hydraulics and pneumatics;  anatomists first understood clearly that the brain and the nervous system were a unit, studied the function of the heart and the digestive system, and conducted experiments in nutrition.  The level of achievement was staggering."  (p. 87)
All this was done by people who would eventually be known as 'pagans.'  That sort of changes one's modern sense of that word which, beyond referring to polytheistic peoples also has  a sense of uncivilized, as in 'heathen.'

The Swerve is about the rediscovery in 1417 of a manuscript by Lucretius called On the Nature of Things that had been lost for 1000 years. It's a book outlines the Epicurean philosophy and world view, starting with the idea we now accept as atoms.
"The invisible particles from which the entire universe is made, from the stars to the lowliest insect, are indestructible and immortal, though any particular object in the universe is transitory." (p. 186)
 Yes, the most remarkable thing about this book for me is recognizing my own ignorance that these ideas are over two thousand years old.   They were thought out by pagans.  And I'm inserting this here so that when you see the word pagan in the next quote - on the destruction of the library in Alexandria - you understand it in context.
"The first blow [to the library] came as a consequence of war.  A part of the library's collection - possibly only scrolls kept in warehouses near the harbor - was accidentally burned in 48 BCE when Julius Caesar struggled to maintain control of the city.  .  . "(p.89)
"The Museum was, as its name implies, a shrine dedicated to the Muses, the nine goddesses who embodied human creative achievement.  The Seraperon, where the secondary collection was located, housed a colossal statue of the god Serapis - a masterpiece fashioned in ivory and gold by the famous Greek sculptor Bryaxis - combining the cult of the Roman deity Jupiter with the cult of the Egyptian deities Osiris and Apis.

The Jews and Christians who lived in large numbers in Alexandria were intensely uneasy with this polytheism.  They did not doubt that other gods existed, but those gods were without exception demons, fiendishly bent on luring gullible humanity away from the sole and universal truth.  All other revelations and prayers recorded in those mountains of papyrus rolls were lies. . .

Centuries of religious pluralism under paganism - three faiths living side by side in a  spirit of mingled rivalry and absorptive tolerance - were coming to an end.  In the early fourth century the emperor Constantine began the process whereby Rome's official religion became Christianity.  It was only a matter of time before a zealous successor - Theodosius the Great, beginning in 391 CE - issued edicts forbidding public sacrifices and closing major cultic sites.  The state had embarked on the destruction of paganism."  (pp. 89-90)

In Alexandria, the spiritual leader of the Christian community, the patriarch Theophilus, heeded the edicts with a vengeance.  At once contentious and ruthless, Theophilus, unleashed mobs of Christian zealots who roamed through the streets insulting pagans."  The pagans responded with predictable shock and anxiety, and tensions between the two communities rose.  
Christians found pagan sacred items buried beneath a Christian basilica and paraded them mockingly through the streets.  Pagans responded, but ended up baricading themselves in Serapeon [where, as mentioned above, the magnificent statue of Serapis was housed].

The Serapeon was then sacked and the statue destroyed.

A few years later, Jews were the victims.  Then the chapter describes the murder of Hypatia
"the daughter of a mathematician, one of the Museum's famous scholars-in-residence.  Legendarily beautiful as a young woman, she had become famous for her attainments in astronoy, music mathematics, and philosophy.  Students came from great distances to study the works of Plat and Aristotle under her tutelage." (p. 91)
She opposed the expulsion of the Jews from Alexandria and for her efforts had her skin flayed off and her body burned outside the city walls.  Greenblatt reports that the mob's hero was later made a saint.  
"The murder of Hypatia signified more than the end of one remarkable person;  it effectively marked the downfall of Alexandrian intellectual life and was the death knell for the whole intellectual tradition .  .  .  The Museum, with its dream of assembling all texts, all schools, all ideas, was no longer at the protected center of civil society.  In the years that followed the library vitually ceased to be mentioned, as if its great collections virtually the sum of classical culture, had vanished without a trace.  They had almost certainly not disappeared all at once - such a momentous act of destruction would have been recorded.  But if one asks, Where did all the books go? the answer lies not only in the quick work of the soldiers' flames and the long, slow, secret labor of the bookwork.  It lies, symbolically at least, in the fate of Hypatia." (p. 93)

Greenblatt quotes a Roman historian of that period, Ammianus Marcellinus,
"In place of the philospher the singer is called in, and in place of the orator the teacher of stagecraft, and while the libraries are shut up forever like tombs, water-organs are manufactured and lyres as large as carriages."  Moreover, he noted sourly, people were driving their chariots at lunatic speeds through the crowded streets." (p.93)

They say that people who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.  This book covers history I don't know well at all.  So I can't judge how accurate the book is.  As I pointed out in a previous post, part of the book has been strongly criticized as inaccurate.

But I do know that Americans tend to think that all great ideas - particularly in science - happened in the last few centuries and that our wisdom and knowledge exceeds by far what the ancients knew.  That's a conceit I don't accept and this book does document that a level of sophistication and intellectual power that we tend to forget ever existed before us.

And the fragility of intellectual infrastructure is important to note.  Stirring up religious fervor against gay rights, abortion, evolution, and climate change is alive and well in modern America.  Universities and schools are under attack.  The Swerve at the very least, reminds us that great knowledge can be lost easily. With today's rapidly changing digital technology, can we be sure that future civilization will be able to read what's on the chips they find, even if they can decipher English or Chinese?  

Now I have to finish the book for the book club meeting tomorrow night. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.