our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness Phaedr. 244a

2012/12/04

Carl Sagan on Hypatia

The last scientist who worked in the Library was a mathematician,
astronomer, physicist and the head of the Neoplatonic school of
philosophy--an extraordinary range of accomplishments for any individual in
any age. Her name was Hypatia. She was born in Alexandria in 370. At a time
when women had few options, and were treated as property, Hypatia moved
freely and unselfconsciously through traditional male domains. By all
accounts she was a great beauty. She had many suitors but rejected all
offers of marriage. The Alexandria of Hypatia's time--by then long under
Roman rule--was a city under grave strain. Slavery had sapped classical
civilization of its vitality. The growing Christian Church was consolidating
its power and attempting to eradicate pagan influence and culture. Hypatia
stood at the epicenter of these mighty social forces. Cyril, the Archbishop
of Alexandria, despised her because of her close friendship with the Roman
govenor, and because she was a symbol of learning and science, which were
largely identified by the early Church with paganism. In great personal
danger, she continued to teach and publish, until, in the year 415, on her
way to work she was set upon by a fanatical mob of Cyril's parishoners. They
dragged her from her chariot, tore off her clothes, and, armed with abalone
shells, flayed her flesh from her bones. Her remains were burned, her works
obliterated, her name forgotten. Cyril was made a saint.

The glory of the Alexandrian Library is a dim memory. Its last remnants were
destroyed soon after Hypatia's death. It was as if the entire civilization
had undergone some self-inflicted brain surgery, and most of its memories,
discoveries, ideas and passions were extinguished irrevocably. The loss was
incalculable. In some cases, we know only the tantalizing titles of the
works that were destroyed. In most cases, we know that of the 123 plays of
Sophocles in the Library, only seven survived. One of those seven is Oedipus
Rex. Similar numbers apply to the works of Aeschylys and Euripedes. It is a
little as if the only surviving works of a man named William Shakespeare
were Cariolanus and a A Winter's Tale, but we had heard that he had written
certain other plays, unknown to us but apparently prized in his time, works
entitled Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet.

Of the physical contents of that glorious Library not a single scroll
remains. In modern Alexandria few people have a keen appreciation, much less
detailed knowledge, of the Alexandrian Library or of the great Egyptian
civilization that preceded it for thousands of years. More recent events,
other cultural imperatives have taken precedence. The same is true all over
the world. We have only the most tenuous contact with our past. And yet just
a stone's throw from the remains of the Serapaeum are reminders of many
civilizations: enigmatic sphinxes from pharaonic Egypt; a great column
erected to the Roman Emperor Diocletian by a provincial flunky for not
altogether permitting the citizens of Alexandria to starve to death; a
Christian church; many minarets; and the hallmarks of modern industrial
civilization--apartment houses, automobiles, streetcars, urban slums, a
microwave relay tower. There are a million threads from the past intertwined
to make the ropes and cables of the modern world.

Our achievements rest on the accomplishments of 40,000 generations of our
human predecessors, all but a tiny fraction of whom are nameless and
forgotten. Every now and then we stumble on a major civilization, such as
the ancient culture of Ebla, which flourished only a few millennia ago and
about which we knew nothing. How ignorant we are of our own past!
Inscriptions, papyruses, books time-bind the human species and permit us to
hear those few voices and faint cries of our brothers and sisters, our
ancestors. And what a joy of recognition when we realize how like us they
were!

~Sagan in Cosmos
+++++++++
extra credit: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Martyrdom_of_Hypatia