Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Hypatia and the Great Library

David Bentley Hart is doing his best to replace some long-told lies with some approximation of the truth. Well, we all know how that kind of thing works out.
Mark Twain, from his great address "Advice to Youth":
Think what tedious years of study, thought, practice, experience, went to the equipment of that peerless old master who was able to impose upon the whole world the lofty and sounding maxim that “Truth is mighty and will prevail”—the most majestic compound fracture of fact which any of woman born has yet achieved. For the history of our race, and each individual’s experience, are sewn thick with evidences that a truth is not hard to kill, and that a lie well told is immortal. There is in Boston a monument of the man who discovered anesthesia; many people are aware, in these latter days, that that man didn’t discover it at all, but stole the discovery from another man. Is this truth mighty, and will it prevail? Ah no, my hearers, the monument is made of hardy material, but the lie it tells will outlast it a million years. An awkward, feeble, leaky lie is a thing which you ought to make it your unceasing study to avoid; such a lie as that has no more real permanence than an average truth. Why, you might as well tell the truth at once and be done with it. A feeble, stupid, preposterous lie will not live two years—except it be a slander upon somebody. It is indestructible, then of course, but that is no merit of yours. A final word: begin your practice of this gracious and beautiful art early—begin now. If I had begun earlier, I could have learned how.


  • I don't know anything about how the library of Alexandria was destroyed but if Hart can overcome his distaste just enough to watch the movie, he will see that it is very successful at showing why some people find knowledge fascinating. I have seen quite a few films that have mad scientists plugging away but this one manages to capture very well why they keep plugging away, why they react with such joy when the world fits their painstakingly worked-out models. My only quibble with the film was that the thought-process it attributed to Hypatia is actually Johannes Kepler's and this seems a bit unfair to him.

  • I'm not entirely convinced that Hart is right about the Serapeum being empty of books in 391. (Or that he's wrong, either - there just isn't credible evidence one way or the other, as far as I can tell.)

    But what always bothers me about fascination with the Library of Alexandria is that people never seem interested in asking what role urban libraries ultimately play in the transmission of classical literature. Handwave the Library still in existence up to 500 and I don't think it would make any material difference to the texts of Greek literature that we would possess in 2010.

    But if the wrong monastery had been destroyed in the early Middle Ages...

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