Myths of the Great Library

In History, the details are always hard to catch, yet always worth knowing. This long post at History for Atheists, worth absorbing in full, makes a number of discordant points about the Myth that the Great Library of Alexandria was destroyed by a Christian mob in 390 AD, thus setting science and technology back a thousand years. I will state them below in brief, and you may read the post in full.

  1. The Great Library of Alexandria was not the only Great Library of the Ancient World. It did not “contain all the wisdom of the ancient world”.
  2. The Great Library of Alexandria was a research institution, a Mouseion, devoted to the Nine Muses, which is to say, they were a product of Pagan religious inspiration, the worship of the gods.
  3. Consequently, most of the scholarship done at the Mouseion was focused on textual criticism and poetry, and not very much on what we moderns would call science.
  4. The Ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t really do science as we understand it today. Which is to say, their natural philosophy was largely inductive, not empirical, and they did not apply this philosophy to improving the technology of their culture.
  5. The Mouseion had almost certainly ceased to exist by 390 AD. A series of sackings of the city by Romans, beginning with Julius Caesar, greatly diminished the value of the place.
  6. What was destroyed in 390 AD was a daughter library, the Serapaeum. As with the Mouseion, the Serapaeum was first and foremost a pagan temple, devoted to the worship of the hybrid Greek-Egyptian God Serapis. It’s destruction in 390 was the result of a long series of hostilites between the pagan and Christian populations of the city. Which is to say, it was the result of a war between rival religious traditions, and not a war between religion and science. And according to primary sources, there may not even have been a library in the Serapaeum at the time.

Again, Read the Whole Thing (Hat Tip: Vox Populi)

Politics and the Eloquence Fallacy

Neo-Neocon penned a refutation on Friday (h/t: Ace) of the notion, oft fulsomely asserted in the 2008 campaign, that eloquence is a substitute for competence:

Wordsmiths fancy they could govern quite well, if only they cared to. Neither the skills nor the knowledge base of oration or of writing—especially fiction, although it’s also true of writing in general—are readily transferable to forming and implementing policy, although they’re not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Did Anderson ever watch a tape of Truman giving a speech? He makes McCain look like Churchill. Truman was not good at oration—but he is now thought of as having been a good president although his popularity, like Bush’s, was very low when he left office. Perhaps the latter fact is an indication that good speechmaking is helpful for selling one’s policies and bad speechmaking handicaps a president who is involved in a complex and difficult war, such as the Korean or the Iraq wars.

Reality is reality; words are words. No logical path connects the two. Being able to discuss with reverent rapture the virtues of the ’68 Mustang Shelby does not begin to equip you to repair one. Knowing how to explain what McClellan his opportunity for a glorious victory at Antietam does not enable you to command an army. And being able to excite the voters does not equate to being able to govern them.

I do not broach a new idea (there are very few such things). The ancient Greeks hashed this business out centuries before Christ. The Sophists were well aware of the gulf between words and truth. Some of them, like Gorgias, stated so bluntly, and drew the ire of Socrates for their trouble. And some goodly fellow just published a tome of Gorgias’ extent works, so that people can read about the vast difference between what can be spoken and what is true.

See what I did there?