Intricate Systems Stop

February 5, 2011

Alexandria, fire, books:

The Library of Alexandria has burned twice before, once, partially, when Julius Caesar made his landing in Egypt in 48 BCE, and again, with devastating effect, in late antiquity. The first burning was probably a mistake, the second the result of religious fanaticism, most probably the same fanaticism that killed the Alexandrian mathematician Hypatia in 415 CE for daring, as a woman, to profess philosophy. Hypatia’s murderers called themselves Christians, but their real creed was an ancient cult of destruction that precedes every known religion, every state, every political system. We pin that cult now on the Germanic tribe of Vandals who sacked Rome in the year 455, but we can read its violent traces just as clearly in prehistoric times. Blind rage cannot understand anything as complex or beautiful as Rome, or a library, or even a person, an animal, a book, a tree, a work of art—but blind rage can make these intricate systems stop, and the ability to make things stop has served many of our kind since time immemorial as a fine substitute for learning, experience, scientific method, artistic creation, philosophy. Destruction, too, can count as hard work.

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