• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Alexandria To Amazon: A Tale Of Two Libraries

Updated: Apr 20, 2021

One needn’t be an out-and-out bibliophile—a kind of bespectacled, unfashionable, monkish lover of books, a strangely quiet and devout patron of pages by whom, alternatively, the school-yard jock is made to appear all the stronger, and the pretty girl at his side is to be little entranced—if, on occasion, he feels a deep sadness and an urge to lament the dissolution of the ancient library of Alexandria. It’s not only the professed lover of books who, once caught in the grip of a pensive moment, is permitted to free himself by gazing back upon that great African edifice of learning, that ample Egyptian granary of texts, and wishing it might be restored and made accessible to his wistful eyes.

That’s to say, one needn’t style himself in the proud, if sometimes pedantic garb of the fervid lover of books, the joyful, if often busy scholar to whom all of life’s other petty concerns are, in the midst of so many fine works and within the constraints of so small an allotment of time, secondary. One needn’t adopt the unadorned dress of so nakedly promiscuous a reader, a man for whom style is a thing rather spoken than worn. One needn’t share the voracious appetite of this hungry consumer of words, of this unabashed glutton of works, to whom, in the pursuit of his literary diet, or with an aim toward the fulfillment of his intellectual feasts, no volume is illicit, and no page excluded from the menu.

Doubtless, upon our bibliophile’s reflection of the sad fate of the Library of Alexandria, a death of which, in the current day, that same city’s bustling Islamic ardor and turbulent entrepôt no longer seems to take much notice, he’ll be especially moved. Returning the book by which he’s occupied to the shelf on which it’s stowed, he’ll bewail the loss of the complete published works of such writers as Aeschylus, Sophocles, Tacitus, Polybius, and the already quite verbose Livy. His curiosity to know what more these inspired tongues had to say will and forevermore must remain unslaked.

All he can do, and all he will do, is content himself with small but delectable portions of what must’ve been an originally large spread. He’ll be treated to eloquent excerpts, merely, masterful morsels by which his palate will be stimulated, but never fully pleased. He’ll delight in the remains of an oeuvre from which so many grand and delightful pieces have been unfortunately removed. He’ll trouble himself with the knowledge that he’ll never feel the satisfaction of having enjoyed each writer to his uttermost, and to the extent of his intended purpose.

The very idea of holding in his hands the complete texts of the Pre-Socratic philosophers will at once thrill and overwhelm him.

He’ll imagine thumbing through the liquid musings of the great Thales, the Ionian master by whom the infant seed of Greek Philosophy was, so long ago, first planted (and, thereafter, as Thales might’ve urged, watered). Still, to this day, we’re enthralled by its flowering and the ripeness of its yield. It is, to our lasting enjoyment, a plant for every season, an herb of perennial life. It is, truly, a pagan tree of knowledge from which the sinless fruit of philosophy might be continually plucked. Like shrewd animals habituated to the invisible aromas of lost time, we return to its nourishing flesh forever.

As if on a stream, he’ll then drift away from the fluid insight of Western philosophy’s eastern father, only to land on the aerial shore of Anaximenes and Anaximander. The lightness of their philosophy might force him to seek the firm familiarity of solid ground, but he’ll enjoy, if only for a moment, the delicate genius of their invigorating spirit.

Such a hard and compact landscape will indeed be found, if it be sought. With an airy detachment exchanged for an earthy enthusiasm, and a sobriety of caution yielding to a burst of energy, our lover of books might proceed into the dense forest of two irreconcilable thinkers: Parmenides and Heraclitus. He’d better equip himself with both compass and machete, with reason and passion. Undaunted, he’ll enter into the tangled contest between these two vigorous men—a battle in which, over two millennia hence, every philosophic warrior still finds himself engaged.

The former believed in permanence, calm, and the perfect abstraction of the unified “one”; the latter, in opposition, strife, and the beautiful terror of flux. Heraclitus, the unsmiling Pre-Socratic, endures longer than Parmenides, and might thus be claimed the champion of their antique fight. He is, after all, responsible for the thinking of so many impenetrable giants of the modern age, men like G.W.F. Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Karl Marx—all figures beneath whose long shadows we still, for better or worse, continue to live.

Considering the weighty influence and, at times, incomprehensibility of these three towering Teutons, much clarity might be derived from having in our possession the entirety of Heraclitus’ work. If only it were ours to read, saved from the limitless shelves of hot Alexandria and her crumbling walls, how much better would we understand those men, and how much better might they understand themselves?

Still, our lover of books will mourn his inability to dive into that esoteric ocean, those dark but tempting waters of the ancient Mediterranean mind. He’ll bristle at his inability to probe those bottomless depths, that turbid sea of wisdom into which everyone from the Egyptian mathematician, to the Hebraic holy man, to the Greek philosopher, to the Christian anchorite, to the Islamic imam, and to the Roman statesman unhesitatingly tossed his contribution. It was into this pool that he added his herb and sprinkled his peculiar wit and from which, had we a taste, we might copiously drink.

It was, at its best, a veritable cauldron of genius—one whose ingredients were internationally-sourced and variously-combined. It was a welcoming pot around which the aroma of every serious thinker (from every conceivable land) could, more or less, freely waft. Neither the jaunty comic nor the solemn playwright was excluded from so inviting a stew. Neither the garrulous rhetorician nor the dreamy astrologer was barred from this sapid dish. As such, it became, in time, a food by which our civilization was nourished and raised, a victual by which our world was vitalized and moved.

The loss of the aforementioned works, you see, is a deprivation from which we’re all made to suffer; it affects not only the bibliophile—with his unsocial nose buried in a book—but the casual reader as well. Everyone, regardless of his propensity to read, is left somewhat empty in the absence of Alexandria’s forgotten works. We’re all left with a collective stomach, as wide as deep, clamoring for what can’t be provided—a helping of wisdom as aged as the history of which it’s a piece. It rejects the food prone to perishing in this world; it’ll accept only the ambrosia of learning.

But how, or by whom, did it come to be that so many important, antique, and grand pieces of literature were lost? Whom shall we accuse of having lessened the contents of that vast treasury of eloquence and insight? By whom was that golden bank of knowledge robbed, that glittering temple from which, had it stood through these many years, we all surely would’ve continued to profit?

Reflexively, and therefore incautiously, many people leap to blame Julius Caesar for the loss of the library of Alexandria. ‘Tis true, his brief and characteristically amatory sojourn in that sun-bathed, pyramid-dotted land proved unhelpful to the library’s prospects. He certainly was no patron of what was, even at so distant a date, the Mediterranean world’s longest-standing vault of letters and most-distinguished house of learning.

It should be noted, by the time of Caesar’s arrival in Egypt after the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC—when, in pursuit of the pusillanimous Pompey, he first anchored on that ensanguined African beach—the library was already quite old. Indeed, its founding predated the life of Caesar by nearly three centuries. Its first stones were laid, and its first beams erected, under the direction of Ptolemy I—the highly-favored Macedonian general to whom, upon his premature death (hastened by a feverish intoxication with the East), the great son of Philip entrusted a quarter of his empire.

Caesar, as convincing an imitator of Alexander the Great as any since (at least until the arrival of the Corsican artilleryman, Napoleon Bonaparte), managed to rouse the hostility of his Egyptian hosts. They judged him untrustworthy, devious, power-hungry, and scheming, and they probably judged right. Caesar, no sooner king than cuckold, was widely known to have indulged a royal affair with the most important daughter of Egypt, Cleopatra VII. It was, like every other for which, by countless cheated husbands, his name was cursed, a steamy liaison atop which many fine legends have since been built.

Caesar, like Marc Antony after him, and, frankly, like all posterity after him, failed to resist the enticement of the serpent Queen. Can he be blamed? Her sensuality was riveting, her aristocratic blood was intoxicating, and her intellect was hypnotizing as no other woman’s was. Still, to this day, we lack a worthy antivenin by which her pulchritudinous poison might be quelled. It still courses freely through our indefensible veins. Smitten by her looks, impressed by her perspicacity, and assured of her political use, Caesar designed a scheme to assassinate her detractors and elevate her (along with her nameless brother) to the height of the Egyptian throne.

Enraged by the boldness and conceit of the Roman interloper, before whom they weren’t yet ready to kneel, much less offer their kingdom, the Egyptian soldiers organized an insurrection. It was their aim first to dethrone the femme fatale, Cleopatra, and then, with any luck, to kill her seemingly invincible Roman lover. On both fronts, they failed. Caesar, as was his wont, swiftly adapted to the dangerous situation in which he was suddenly caught up. He changed his habitation into a military fortress, directed his units to defend their possessions, and called for reinforcements from Asia Minor.

Then, fatefully, in order to prevent his own naval fleet from falling into the desperate hands of his Egyptian assailants, he ordered it burned. He could make no use of his stranded navy; it could only be used against him by the unruly Africans by whom he was suddenly menaced.

Thus, his serried fleet was set ablaze. Unfortunately, though, the fire exceeded its intended limit. It spread from the tranquil harbor upon which it bobbed to the adjoining land, along whose sweltering coast, the mostly-wooden library had, up until that point, stood with a particular grandeur and defiance. The conflagration, meant only to sink Caesar’s native fleet, jumped across the water and consumed a portion of that flammable storehouse of wisdom. It’s unknown precisely how many books suffocated from the thick and acrid smoke, and how many were rendered to ashes by the inescapable heat.

From that time on, the library of Alexandria never completely healed. Like the Empire itself, it forever bore the wounds of Caesarian boldness and mistreatment, but it wasn’t until the arrival of the Muslims that it breathed its last.

Islam was, if not a pugnacious, then an extraordinarily precocious and energetic faith. Upon the death of its vaunted founder, Islam began, with few interruptions, an avid movement to enlarge its vision, to glorify its deity, and—if only slightly less numinously—to conquer a tribalized and fractured Middle East. Acquisitive for more land, taxes, and congregants, and buoyed by its remarkably swift success, it turned its eyes farther afield. It was unsatisfied with the thought of being a provincial religion, merely; it yearned to stretch its limbs to the point at which the Atlantic laves the Western beach. It looked from Arabia, to Africa to Numidia, to Spain, and—to the astonishment of all Christendom—to the daring northern latitude of Poitiers, France.

Compared with the resistance offered by Charles Martel at Tours, however, the Byzantines in Egypt were less resolute. They put forward a defense through which, with far less effort, the Mohammedan scimitar was adroitly able to cut. Amr ibn al-As, the Arab commander and recent Muslim convert, thus led his army into that land of Pharaohs, felines, and—when in san-packed combination—the inscrutable Sphinx. He brought his swarthy cohorts from modern-day Saudi Arabia and Iran to that southerly, Nile-bathed desert over which, in the name of Allah, he proceeded to name himself governor.

After a brutal siege of some twenty-three months, Amr claimed, once and for all, sole possession of Alexandria. As such, all the city’s contents, not excluding its famed library, was now his to do as he pleased. A local grammarian, dismayed by the danger in which not only his livelihood, but his cherished books were suddenly placed, begged that the library and its books be preserved. He supplicated the conquering Arab to commit them further harm, to show mercy for a literary canon from which every descendant of Abraham—be he a Jew, Christian, or Muslim—might benefit. The threat of their burning was close at hand, and he was, in truth, their last defense. The history of Western literature would, in many ways, stand or fall with him.

Amr, evidently moved by the eloquence of this local’s plea and touched by the sincerity of his spirit, hesitated to light the first match. He decided, before taking another step and kindling the heap, to consult the noble Caliph, the pious elder from whom he received the following famous reply: “If these writings of the Greeks agree with the book of God, they are useless, and need not be preserved; if they disagree, they are pernicious and should be destroyed”.

In other words, if we’re further to economize this already terse response, Amr should, “Burn the libraries, for they are contained in one book”. That all-encompassing book, of course, in which all knowledge is still declared by some to reside, was none other than the Koran. Having read that inspired and holy text—from which, to the joy of the Western moralist, a salutary precept or two might occasionally be pulled—I must, with all the friendliness owing to one of a foreign creed, warmly disagree with the stern Caliph’s enjoinder.

Unfortunately, Amr’s opinion was more strongly guided by the edict of the Caliph than my own belated, humble two-cents. Pushing the grammarian aside, he burst through the doors of the library and began scanning the shelves. He saw naught but superfluity, as he clutched in his hand a single Koran. Convinced of its omniscience, and enflamed by his faith, he proceeded to distribute the library’s contents to the surrounding public baths, those hubs of hygiene and socializing at which thousands daily gathered. By and large, aside from their conversation, they were visited for their invigorating steam, a dewy vapor by which even the most obstinate of pores were opened, and the dirtiest of bodies cleaned.

Naturally, that steam couldn’t produce itself. Heat was needed, for which furnaces were built. Needing fuel, those furnaces hungered for tinder, a flammable substance of which Alexandria’s expansive library—filled with nothing but paper scrolls and combustible books—was in no short supply.

Alas, the contents of the Alexandrian library were used to feed the furnaces of the public baths. Men, without realizing it, soaked lazily in the scrolls of immemorial time. Women, without caring, gossiped in pools of philosophy. They whispered their tête-à-têtes through the airy bubbles of science and drama. Thus, having turned books into water, the world arrived at a startling conclusion: Thales, after so many years, was right. If belatedly, that first of philosophers must be confirmed of his view. In alignment with his teaching, everything, it appears, is actually water—the element essential from which all others spring.

As I said, it’s not just the cloistered scholar, but the vulgar layman who laments the loss of these irreplaceable books. Both share the sadness of a culture stripped of its finest treasure, a luminous coin around which the greatest of vaults, like the library of Alexandria, was so long ago built. Verily, irrespective of the height of one’s learning, or the breadth to which one’s modest inquiry extends, it’s a universal feeling that lingers with us still. We can’t possibly imagine something similar happening yet again, and being thus deprived of so many fine books. We can’t fathom a similar, modern conflagration by which our books will be destroyed, and our knowledge retarded.

The unfathomable, I fear, is coming to pass.

The burning of the library of Alexandria is now the burning of the library of Amazon. Both, in their respective times, were not only the most visited sources for everyday wisdom, popular pleasure, and recondite texts, but the most recognizable symbols of free inquiry, broad literacy, and a diversity of opinion. The former, much to our sorrow, succumbed to external threats. It contended first with Caesar, and then with Amr—a formidable pair from which, despite every effort, it wasn’t able to rehabilitate itself. Violence, in each case, was visited upon it by the outside and, with little hope of sustaining itself, it ultimately fell.

The latter, much to our terror, is yielding every day to internal threats. These, I think, are of a far more insidious type. Amazon feels no marauding pressure at its gates, by which its billion-dollar infrastructure might be threatened or toppled. Its skin senses no approaching heat, by which its buildings, its “clouds”, or its reputation might be singed and then razed. It suffers no hostile ideological intrusion, no oncoming, unfriendly philosophy against which it can’t combat. Instead, it seems willing to commit, from the inside, an act of self-violence by which it’s walls will be made to come falling, all of us will be hurt.

Amazon, in short, is the Amr of a different era. Like the religious adherent to whom the haughty Caliph once spoke, it believes unquestioningly in the purity of its own narrow creed. Instead of Allah, on this occasion, its peculiar revelation has been received from the God of the Woke. She’s a deity, as we’ve learned, of a most unmerciful bent, a wrathful, unforgiving goddess whom none can propitiate.

Convinced of the sacrosanctity of her progressive commandment, Amazon is now on a path to silence every demon who might happen to dance across its site. It does so with the fervor of a divinely-inspired crusader. It expurgates its site of every foul—that’s to say, conservative—opinion by which its “Black Lives Matter”-emblazoned homepage might be blemished. It silences, with the threat of excommunication and obscurity, the voice of every traditionalist by whom its newfangled opinions might be, with any luck, refuted. Every writer with a heterodox point of view, who states, perhaps, that transgender people suffer from a psychiatric ailment or that white people aren’t innately bad, will be cast out into the abyss, or, as the situation mandates, put to the sword. His work will be burned, and, as if to feed the public baths around which our discourse drifts, the noxious steam will sweeten the public filth.

If only Amazon, like the bibliophile and the average reader, could take a moment and reflect on the fate of Alexandria. How much loss might we be spared? How much wiser might we be? Perhaps there’s still time to avoid a second burning.

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