Rationalist Pseudoknowledge, Myths, and Legends

One of the favorite tropes among those who worship, rather than use, the intellect is the Tragickal Historie of the Burnyng of the Librarie at Alexaundria by Ye Christian Mobbes.

It is taken as a matter of settled fact that Christians are boobs who credit completely fictional legends fadged up centuries after the fact (such as the legend that Jesus existed) and that the TRVTH of things is to be found in the science-hating misogynist mobs who murdered Hypatia for being a smart pagan and then burned down the Library at Alexandria, thus destroying the Pagan Wisdom of the Ancients.

The problem with this narrative is basically twofold.

First, there is abundant evidence that the gospels are quite obviously records of eyewitness testimony and not legends.

Second, aside from the fact that there was a Hypatia and she was murdered by a mob, almost everything else in this atheist urban legend is documentable crap that is completely ignorant of the facts. Mike Flynn does a thorough autopsy on the remarkable credulity of so-called “rationalists”.

  • The Deuce

    No Kindle version, dang it.

  • j. blum

    In short, the virtuous neopagans couldn’t even dance their Hypatia-limbo if it weren’t for Christian sources. Late Pagan Antiquity breathes not a word of her.

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      Damascius was a pagan and wrote about a century after her murder. The two near-contemporary accounts were Socrates Scholasticus (Novatian or sympathetic to them) and Philostorgius (Arian), but the latter survives only in a 9th cent. epitome written by Patriarch Photius and we do not know the details of his account. All three – Socrates, Philostorgius, and Damascius – would have been hostile to Cyril to one degree or another; one because Cyril shut down the Novatian churches, one because Cyril was a Nicene, and one because Cyril was a Christian.
      Keep in mind that there are very few sources of much of anything. Ammianus Marcelinus, another pagan source, died before the events of Hypatia’s death. A few events, like the decommissioning of the Serapeum, are well-attested by multiple sources, pagan and Christian; but they are the exceptions.

  • Bob_the_other

    My supervisor (a secular Jew, incidentally) used to point out the flaws with the Library of Alexandria story. Firstly, there are several different dates when it is supposed to have happened, during Caesar’s conquest in 48 BC, during one or more of the riots that were quite frequent in Alexandria at the time, during a Muslim invasion some time in the 7th century. Having presented these, he would then point out that none of these were historically likely, and the library of Alexandria – whatever it might have been – had already been eviscerated well before any of these events. When we read any of the various late antique descriptions of the library of Alexandria, it is fairly evident that we’re dealing with a historical memory elaborated upon by the imagination of the writer. Behind it is one of the great psychological facts of late antiquity: the Roman nostalgia for the glories of Greek thought.

  • Richard Bell

    The Hypatia story even mentions that it was not the Great Library, but the annex.

    What happened to the Great Library?

    Given that it was situated in Alexandria and not built by a culture that used vaults, it was a large building with tiny windows, in a bone-dry climate. So, even during the day, most of light in the building filled with kindling (scroll racks) and tinder (scrolls) came from oil lamps. If anything caused a lamp to fall into the stacks (say that earthquake known to have destroyed the Pharos), the building would have been gutted before the gawkers could show up.

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      The actual Hypatia story mentions no library of any sort. Even the Serapeum story pauses only to mention that books were once kept there (fuerunt).
      There was no “Great Library.” There was a Royal Library founded by the Ptolemies that was part of the Museum (not a separate building). The ancients, like Plutarch and Strabo, believed that it had been destroyed by fire during Caesar’s Alexandrian war. And surely if the Royal Library (the Bruchion) were still extant as such someone might have noticed. Strabo was in Alexandria in 20 BC and in all his detailed description of the palace and Museum does not mention the library at all. Even if the library was inside the Museum, omitting all mention of this famous institution is odd. To house the half million scrolls bandied about by moderns would have required a building thirty meters square and five meters high — not beyond building techniques of the time, but hard to miss if it were there.
      Eratosthenes was the fifth Librarian of the Royal Library. In Book I of his Geographica, Strabo comments on Eratosthenes’ old Geographica, saying:
      “Why, Erastosthenes takes all these matters actually established by the testimony of the men who had been in the regions, for he has read many historical works, with which he was well supplied if he had a library as large as Hippachus says it was.” So Strabo in 20 BC was already skeptical of the size of the library Eratosthenes ran.
      In fact, there are no unambiguous present-tense references to the Royal Library after the reign of Ptolemy Physkon. “The Sausage” came to power in the usual Ptolemaic manner, by winning a civil war against his own relatives. Because the scholars of Alexandria had supported his rival, Polybius says he slaughtered or expelled the entire Greek-speaking population of the city, and Menecles of Barca says that because of this the people of Athens were “taught by the exiles of Alexandria.” The list of Librarians breaks off at this point with Aristarchus of Samothrace.
      Of course, civil life resumed, but the Royal Library seems not to have been worth mentioning any more.
      The other thing to keep in mind is that emperors, governors, and later bishops were always endowing such establishments, often by looting older establishments named after someone else. Plutarch tells us that Antony plundered the famed Library of Pergammon to resupply the books lost in Caesar’s war; but he goes on to dismiss this as a tale told by Antony’s enemies to discredit him. In Alexandria itself was also the Claudian Library and others. It is likely that the books of the Serapeum had been taken by George the Arian, a bibliophile, in the course of a civic disturbance a generation before the famed deconsturction by Theophilus. Then when Julian the Apostate came to power and bishop George was murdered by a mob of pagans (dragged through the streets, dismembered, and body burned), Julian expropriated his extensive library and ordered it taken to Constantinople. Then Julian went on to Persia to get himself killed. So it’s plausible that the last books from the old Serapeum wound up in the vast Library of Constantinople.
      Then, too, the entire Palace District was reduced to ashes by Aurelian during the Wars of Secession, when he drove the troops of Zenobia out of the city. If there had still been a Royal Library by then, it was surely finishef by the flames.


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