The glory of the Alexandrian Library is a dim memory. Its last remnants were destroyed soon after Hypatia’s death. [...] The loss was incalculable. In some cases, we know only the tantalizing titles of the works that were destroyed. In most cases, we know neither the titles nor the authors. [...] It is a little as if the only surviving works of a man named William Shakespeare were Coriolanus and 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.
– Carl Sagan, Cosmos
There’s a small moment in Alejandro Amenabar’s excellent film Agora — a fleeting bit of dialogue nearly lost in the swirl of action around it, that for me perfectly captures the tragedy of the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. The mob of fundamentalist Christians is battering down the city gates. Inside the Library, under the direction of the philosopher Hypatia, people are frantically pulling scrolls from the shelves and tossing them into baskets, to be carted away to safety before the mob arrives to tear and hack and burn. The camera pans across the walls lined with shelves, the shelves bursting with scrolls: there is simply too much to rescue. A group of slaves stands baffled before a shelf; a librarian hurries past with an armful of scrolls, and shouts at them: “Leave the lesser works!” A slave looks at the scrolls, and looks back, confused: “Which are the lesser works?”
And watching that exchange I felt a pang of grief for all that was lost when the Library fell.
“Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”
“But the Solar System!” I protested.
“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “you say we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”
– Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet
Hypatia would have vehemently disagreed with Sherlock Holmes. She follows a different philosophy: the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. “If I could unravel this just a little bit more, and get just a little closer to the answer,” she says, reaching up to the sky, “then I would go to my grave a happy woman.”
Gratifyingly, the film captures the thrill of pure knowledge and the drama of intellectual discovery — giving plenty of screen time to Hypatia’s scientific lectures (and the debates on science and religion that erupt among her students); the tentative scientific inquiries of her slave Davus; arguments about the shape of the Earth and the validity of the heliocentric model; the excitement of a shipboard experiment on relative motion, and its implications for the orbits of the planets; and the dawning of realization on the lovely Rachel Weisz’s face, as she disassembles an Apollonian cone to reveal the ellipse, or as she draws the true orbit of the Earth in the sand.
These aren’t dry, expository moments, hurriedly passed over to get to the meat of the plot; they are the meat of the plot, underscored by soaring music and Weisz’s flawless acting. They’re a joy to watch.
At one point Orestes, former student of Hypatia and now prefect of Alexandria, asks her Holmes’s question: What use is this knowledge? Why bother with the motion of the stars when there are troubles right here on Earth, starvation and violence and the storms of religion and politics? I forget what answer she gives, but the film is clearly on the side of discovery for its own sake; Hypatia is connected to larger truths that will prevail when the trials of her own time have passed. Often the camera zooms out — way out, scale-of-the-universe style — to a view of the Earth and the moon, suspended in a sea of stars: as if to distance us from the human scale of the troubles in Alexandria and at the same time to bring us closer to the astronomical truths that Hypatia is trying to grasp. It’s a startling shift in perspective that removes us from ourselves, but connects us to the universe. It achieves, I think, the same effect as Carl Sagan’s reflections on the photograph of Earth as a “pale blue dot” — and the same effect as a passage in The Return of the King, in which Sam reflects on a star shining through the clouds over Mordor:
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.
“This too shall pass” is a cold but comforting thought; it doesn’t absolve us of our immediate responsibilities in this world, but it prevents us from falling into despair. Weisz’s Hypatia reaches past the small and passing things, to touch the light and high beauty beyond.
Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.
– 1 Timothy 2:11-12
I was impressed by Agora‘s unflinching defense of reason, science and the importance of questioning. Hypatia is approached by her former student Synesius, now bishop of Cyrene, who asks her to convert — “you are just as much a Christian as we are” — but she demurs: “You don’t question what you believe, or cannot. I must.” (“That’s a pity,” is Synesius’s reply.) And the film offers a response to those who say narrow religious prejudices are merely the distortions of malicious men: When the fundamentalist bishop Cyril reads the Biblical passage above, condemning Hypatia by implication, Orestes protests that he’s twisting the words of Scripture; but Synesius says — correctly — “He read what is written.” Abhorrent religious beliefs cannot simply be defended by the “no true Scotsman” fallacy if those beliefs are explicitly stated in a text that all believers hold to be true. In such cases, I think, religion should absolutely be held accountable for the acts committed in its name.
I felt flat and quiet as the sand when the tide goes out. I knelt beside Myrddin and held his hand until it was quite cold, wishing my hard words of earlier could be unsaid. “I didn’t mean it,” I told him. “About the stories. They’ll last, even if nothing else does. They’ll be like a light in the dark, and they’ll burn as long as the dark lasts and go on out the far side of it into the morning.”
– Philip Reeve, Here Lies Arthur
Same story, different versions, and all are true.
– Tia Dalma
I’m thinking about the importance and reliability of stories. In Philip Reeve’s retelling of Arthurian legend, the old advisor Myrddin serves as Arthur’s spin-doctor, weaving heroic tales that transform an ordinary, land-hungry local warlord into the savior of Britain. The character Gwyna at first denies the importance of Myrddin’s stories but then acknowledges that they’ll outlive the reality of events; they’ll be what people believe in, like beacons in the dark.
Does it matter if the stories that inspire us are based on falsehoods?
I’ve written about Tim O’Neill’s objections to the historical liberties that the film takes with the Hypatia story, “turning it into a morality tale about science vs fundamentalism.” But as A.O. Scott counters in his NY Times review, “what’s wrong with that? The skeptical and the secular also need stories of martyrdom and rousing acts of cinematic preaching.”
Even so, this is still a problematic thought: stories also fuel religion, stories that aren’t necessarily connected to fact. The film itself shows this process in action: one Christian character — shown to be an unforgiving, bloodthirsty zealot — is executed for attempting to stone the prefect of Alexandria, and is proclaimed by Bishop Cyril to be a martyr to the faith; Cyril himself is later made a saint, a veil drawn over his machinations, his bloody hands washed clean.
What is the proper relationship between stories and the truth? Perhaps this: that truth (in science, in history) must be empirically verifiable (as far as is possible), and faithfully reported; while stories must not be taken literally, but as reflections or reminders of our values and ideals.
(Tim O’Neill has a more recent post revisiting Agora, and his rigorous critique — and his readers’ comments — are well worth a read.)
Facing a hostile council of city leaders, Hypatia is asked: “Why should this assembly accept the counsel of someone who admittedly believes in absolutely nothing?”
And Hypatia answers: “I believe in philosophy.”
A quote to make a humanist stand and cheer.
(Image via Ropes of Silicon)