Sunday, May 12, 2013

Agora: The Destruction of a Library

I watched a movie tonight that was so packed with ideas, I had to take a walk afterwards.  I knew I wanted to write about it, but when I finished the movie, the ideas were jumbling around in my head.  So I took a walk, got a coffee, and now I'm writing about it.

The movie is called Agora and it's about the ancient city of Alexandria, which once housed the greatest library in the world, a repository for all the knowledge, ideas, and literature of the ancient world.  The city was commissioned by Alexander the Great, who was  student of Aristotle.  Alexander was a great military leader, but he was also a lover of learning, and he built Alexandria to be a shining example of knowledge.  For centuries, it was a home to philosophers, writers, and artists who taught and shared their ideas.  But such a thing of beauty was not to last.

The movie is set in the fourth century A.D. in the twilight years of the Roman Empire.  At the beginning of the film, Alexandria is still a city of learning, but profound religious divisions have begun to tear at its fabric of tolerance and wisdom.  The three main groups in the city are pagans, who worship the Greco-Roman gods; Jews, who follow Yahweh; and Christians, who are finally enjoying a period of peace after many years of persecution under Roman rule.

And then there is Hypatia, a female philosopher, a real historical figure, an agnostic who believes in science and philosophy.  Hypatia represents the spirit of inquiry and wisdom that characterized Alexandria of old.

After an ill-advised attack on the Christians by the pagans, the Christians gather in large numbers and storm the great library, burning countless scrolls and destroying works of ancient art, which they ridicule as "pagan trash."  This really happened.  Followers of Christ destroyed the greatest library of the ancient world.

I'll pause a moment to let that sink in.

In the midst of all the senseless violence are beautiful scenes of Hypatia using science and logic to try to understand the cosmos.  As a character, she is more than a scientist, she is a good teacher, an advocate for curiosity and the free exchange of ideas.  Eventually, Hypatia herself is stoned to death by the Christians for refusing to declare allegiance to their particular beliefs.  When she dies, one gets the sense that the Dark Ages are about to begin.

The film is, of course, a tragedy.  But like all good tragedies, it offers insight and lessons.  And the lessons are these: 1.) Be tolerant of people with different beliefs and 2.) For Christ's sake, don't destroy libraries!

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