1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Alexandrian School

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5053531911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 1 — Alexandrian School

ALEXANDRIAN SCHOOL. Under this title are generally included certain strongly marked tendencies in literature, science and art, which took their rise in the ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria. That city, founded by Alexander the Great about the time when Greece, in losing her national independence, lost also her intellectual supremacy, was in every way admirably adapted for becoming the new centre of the world’s activity and thought. Its situation brought it into commercial relations with all the nations lying around the Mediterranean, and at the same time rendered it the one communicating link with the wealth and civilization of the East. The great natural advantages it thus enjoyed were artificially increased to an enormous extent by the care of the sovereigns of Egypt. Ptolemy Soter (reigned 323–285 B.C.), to whom, in the general distribution of Alexander’s conquests, this kingdom had fallen, began to draw around him from various parts of Greece a circle of men eminent in literature and philosophy. To these he gave every facility for the prosecution of their learned researches. Under the inspiration of his friend Demetrius of Phalerum, the Athenian orator, statesman and philosopher, this Ptolemy laid the foundations of the great Alexandrian library and originated the keen search for all written works, which resulted in the formation of a collection such as the world has seldom seen. He also built, for the convenience of his men of letters, the Museum, in which, maintained by the royal bounty, they resided, studied and taught. This Museum, or academy of science, was in many respects not unlike a modern university. The work thus begun by Ptolemy Soter was carried on vigorously by his descendants, in particular by his two immediate successors, Ptolemy Philadelphus and Ptolemy Euergetes. Philadelphus (285–247), whose librarian was the celebrated Callimachus, bought up all Aristotle’s collection of books, and also introduced a number of Jewish and Egyptian works. Among these appears to have been a portion of the Septuagint. Euergetes (247–222) largely increased the library by seizing on the original editions of the dramatists laid up in the Athenian archives, and by compelling all travellers who arrived in Alexandria to leave a copy of any work they possessed.

The intellectual movement so originated extended over a long period of years. If we date its rise from the 4th century B.C., at the time of the fall of Greece and the foundation of the Graeco-Macedonian empire, we must look for its final dissolution in the 7th century of the Christian era, at the time of the fall of Alexandria and the rise of the Mahommedan power. But this very long period falls into two divisions. The first, extending from about 306 to 30, includes the time from the foundation of the Ptolemaic dynasty to its final subjugation by the Romans; the second extends from 30 to A.D. 642, when Alexandria was destroyed by the Arabs. The characteristic features of these divisions are very clearly marked, and their difference affords an explanation of the variety and vagueness of meaning attaching to the term “Alexandrian School.” In the first of the two periods the intellectual activity was of a purely literary and scientific nature. It was an attempt to continue and develop, under new conditions, the old Hellenic culture. This direction of effort was particularly noticeable under the early Ptolemies, Alexandria being then almost the only home in the world for pure literature. During the last century and a half before the Christian era, the school, as it might be called, began to break up and to lose its individuality. This was due partly to the state of government under some of the later Ptolemies, partly to the formation of new literary circles in Rhodes, Syria and elsewhere, whose supporters, though retaining the Alexandrian peculiarities, could scarcely be included in the Alexandrian school. The loss of active life, consequent on this gradual dissolution, was much increased when Alexandria fell under Roman sway. Then the influence of the school was extended over the whole known world, but men of letters began to concentrate at Rome rather than at Alexandria. In that city, however, there were new forces in operation which produced a second grand outburst of intellectual life. The new movement was not in the old direction—had, indeed, nothing in common with it. With its character largely determined by Jewish elements, and even more by contact with the dogmas of Christianity, this second Alexandrian school resulted in the speculative philosophy of the Neo-Platonists and the religious philosophy of the Gnostics and early church fathers.

There appear, therefore, to be at least two definite significations of the title Alexandrian School; or rather, there are two Alexandrian schools, distinct both chronologically and in substance. The one is the Alexandrian school of poetry and science, the other the Alexandrian school of philosophy. The term “school,” however, has not the same meaning as when applied to the Academics or Peripatetics, the Stoics or Epicureans. These consisted of a company united by holding in common certain speculative principles, by having the same theory of things. There was nothing at all corresponding to this among the Alexandrians. In literature their activities were directed to the most diverse objects; they have only in common a certain spirit or form. There was among them no definite system of philosophy. Even in the later schools of philosophy proper there is found a community rather of tendency than of definite result or of fixed principles.

I. Literature.—The general character of the literature of the school appears as the necessary consequence of the state of affairs brought about by the fall of Greek nationality and independence. The great works of the Greek mind had formerly been the products of a fresh life of nature and perfect freedom of thought. All their hymns, epics and histories were bound up with their individuality as a free people. But the Macedonian conquest at Chaeroneia brought about a complete dissolution of this Greek life in all its relations, private and political. The full, genial spirit of Greek thought vanished when freedom, with which it was inseparably united, was lost. A substitute for this originality was found at Alexandria in learned research, extended and multifarious knowledge. Amply provided with means for acquiring information, and under the watchful care of a great monarch, the Alexandrians readily took this new direction in literature. With all the great objects removed which could excite a true spirit of poetry, they devoted themselves to minute researches in all sciences subordinate to literature proper. They studied criticism, grammar, prosody and metre, antiquities and mythology. The results of this study constantly appear in their productions. Their works are never national, never addressed to a people, but to a circle of learned men. Moreover, the very fact of being under the protection and, as it were, in the pay of an absolute monarch was damaging to the character of their literature. There was introduced into it a courtly element, clear traces of which, with all its accompaniments, are found in the extant works of the school. One other fact, not to be forgotten in forming a general estimate of the literary value of their productions, is, that the same writer was frequently or almost always distinguished in several special sciences. The most renowned poets were at the same time men of culture and science, critics, archaeologists, astronomers or physicians. To such writers the poetical form was merely a convenient vehicle for the exposition of science.

The forms of poetical composition chiefly cultivated by the Alexandrians were epic and lyric, or elegiac. Great epics are wanting; but in their place, as might almost have been expected, are found the historical and the didactic or expository epics. The subjects of the historical epics were generally some of the well-known myths, in the exposition of which the writer could exhibit the full extent of his learning and his perfect command of verse. These poems are in a sense valuable as repertoires of antiquities; but their style is on the whole bad, and infinite patience is required to clear up their numerous and obscure allusions. The best extant specimen is the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius; the most characteristic is the Alexandra or Cassandra of Lycophron, the obscurity of which is almost proverbial.

The subjects of didactic epics were very numerous; they seem to have depended on the special knowledge possessed by the writers, who used verse as a form for unfolding their information. Some, e.g. the lost poem of Callimachus, called Αἴτια, were on the origin of myths and religious observances; others were on special sciences. Thus we have two poems of Aratus, who, though not resident at Alexandria, was so thoroughly imbued with the Alexandrian spirit as to be with reason included in the school; the one is an essay on astronomy, the other an account of the signs of the weather. Nicander of Colophon has also left us two epics, one on remedies for poisons, the other on the bites of venomous beasts. Euphorion and Rhianus wrote mythological epics. The spirit of all their productions is the same, that of learned research. They are distinguished by artistic form, purity of expression and strict attention to the laws of metre and prosody, qualities which, however good in themselves, do not compensate for want of originality, freshness and power.

In their lyric and elegiac poetry there is much worthy of admiration. The specimens we possess are not devoid of talent or of a certain happy art of expression. Yet, for the most part, they either relate to objects thoroughly incapable of poetic treatment, where the writer’s endeavour is rather to expound the matter fully than to render it poetically beautiful, or else expend themselves on short isolated subjects, generally myths, and are erotic in character. The earliest of the elegiac poets was Philetas, the sweet singer of Cos. But the most distinguished was Callimachus, undoubtedly the greatest of the Alexandrian poets. Of his numerous works there remain to us only a few hymns, epigrams and fragments of elegies.[1] Other lyric poets were Phanocles, Hermesianax, Alexander of Aetolia and Lycophron.

Some of the best productions of the school were their epigrams. Of these we have several specimens, and the art of composing them seems to have been assiduously cultivated, as might naturally be expected from the court life of the poets, and their constant endeavours after terseness and neatness of expression. Of kindred character were the parodies and satirical poems, of which the best examples were the Silli of Timon and the Cinaedi of Sotades.

Dramatic poetry appears to have flourished to some extent. There are still extant three or four varying lists of the seven great dramatists who composed the Pleiad of Alexandria. Their works, perhaps not unfortunately, have perished. A ruder kind of drama, the amoebaean verse, or bucolic mime, developed into the only pure stream of genial poetry found in the Alexandrian School, the Idylls of Theocritus. The name of these poems preserves their original idea; they were pictures of fresh country life.

The most interesting fact connected with this Alexandrian poetry is the powerful influence it exercised on Roman literature. That literature, especially in the Augustan age, is not to be thoroughly understood without due appreciation of the character of the Alexandrian school. The historians of this period were numerous and prolific. Many of them, e.g. Cleitarchus, devoted themselves to the life and achievements of Alexander the Great. The best-known names are those of Timaeus and Polybius.

Before the Alexandrians had begun to produce original works, their researches were directed towards the masterpieces of ancient Greek literature. If that literature was to be a power in the world, it must be handed down to posterity in a form capable of being understood. This was the task begun and carried out by the Alexandrian critics. These men did not merely collect works, but sought to arrange them, to subject the texts to criticism, and to explain any allusion or reference in them which at a later date might become obscure. The complete philological examination of any work consisted, according to them, of the following processes:—διόρθωσις, arrangement of the text; ἀνάγνωσις, settlement of accents; τέχνε, theory of forms, syntax; ἐξήγησις, explanation either of words or things; and finally, κρίσις, judgment on the author and his work, including all questions as to authenticity and integrity. To perform their task adequately required from the critics a wide circle of knowledge; and from this requirement sprang the sciences of grammar, prosody, lexicography, mythology and archaeology. The service rendered by these critics is invaluable. To them we owe not merely the possession of the greatest works of Greek intellect, but the possession of them in a readable state. The most celebrated critics were Zenodotus; Aristophanes of Byzantium, to whom we owe the theory of Greek accents; Crates of Mallus; and Aristarchus of Samothrace, confessedly the coryphaeus of criticism. Others were Lycophron, Callimachus, Eratosthenes and many of a later age, for the critical school long survived the literary. Dionysius Thrax, the author of the first scientific Greek grammar, may also be mentioned. These philological labours were of great indirect importance, for they led immediately to the study of the natural sciences, and in particular to a more accurate knowledge of geography and history. Considerable attention began to be paid to the ancient history of Greece, and to all the myths relating to the foundation of states and cities. A large collection of such curious information is contained in the Bibliotheca of Apollodorus, a pupil of Aristarchus who flourished in the 2nd century B.C. Eratosthenes was the first to write on mathematical and physical geography; he also first attempted to draw up a chronological table of the Egyptian kings and of the historical events of Greece. The sciences of mathematics, astronomy and medicine were also cultivated with assiduity and success at Alexandria, but they can scarcely be said to have their origin there, or in any strict sense to form a part of the peculiarly Alexandrian literature. The founder of the mathematical school was the celebrated Euclid (Eucleides); among its scholars were Archimedes; Apollonius of Perga, author of a treatise on Conic Sections; Eratosthenes, to whom we owe the first measurement of the earth; and Hipparchus, the founder of the epicyclical theory of the heavens, afterwards called the Ptolemaic system, from its most famous expositor, Claudius Ptolemaeus. Alexandria continued to be celebrated as a school of mathematics and science long after the Christian era. The science of medicine had distinguished representatives in Herophilus and Erasistratus, the two first great anatomists.

Authorities.—Müller and Donaldson, History of the Literature of Ancient Greece; W. Christ, Geschichte der griechischen Litteratur; Mahaffy, Greek Life and Thought from the Age of Alexander to the Roman Empire; Couat, La Poésie alexandrine; and especially Susemihl, Geschichte der griechischen Litteratur in der Alexandrinerzeit. Nicolai’s Griechische Literaturgeschichte, though somewhat out of date, is useful for bibliography.

II. Philosophy.—Although it is not possible to divide literatures with absolute rigidity by centuries, and although the intellectual life of Alexandria, particularly as applied to science, long survived the Roman conquest, yet at that period the school, which for some time had been gradually breaking up, seems finally to have succumbed. The later productions in the field of pure literature bear the stamp of Rome rather than of Alexandria. But in that city for some time past there had been various forces secretly working, and these, coming in contact with great spiritual changes in the world around, produced a second outburst of intellectual activity, which is generally known as the Alexandrian school of philosophy. The doctrines of this school were a fusion of Eastern and Western thought, and combined in varying proportions the elements of Hellenistic and Jewish philosophy. Traces of this eclectic tendency are discoverable as far back as 280 B.C., but for practical purposes the dates of the school may be given as from about 30 B.C. to A.D. 529. The city of Alexandria had gradually become the neutral ground of Europe, Asia and Africa. Its population, then as at the present day, was a heterogeneous collection of all races. Alexander had planted a colony of Jews who had increased in number until at the beginning of the Christian era they occupied two-fifths of the city and held some of the highest offices. The contact of Jewish theology with Greek speculation became the great problem of thought. The Jewish ideas of divine authority and their transcendental theories of conduct were peculiarly attractive to the Greek thinkers who found no inspiration in the dry intellectualism into which they had fallen (see Neo-Pythagoreanism). At the same time the Jews of the Dispersion had to some extent shaken off the exclusiveness of their old political relations and were prepared to compare and contrast their old territorial theology with cosmopolitan culture. Further, when the two sides came to consider the results of their intellectual inheritance they found that they had sufficient common ground for the initial compromise. Thus the Hellenistic doctrine of personal revelation could be combined with the Jewish tradition of a complete theology revealed to a special people. The result was the application of a purely philosophical system to the somewhat vague and unorganized corpus of Jewish theology. The matter was Jewish, the arrangement Greek. According to the relative predominance of these two elements arose Gnosticism, the Patristic theology, and the philosophical schools of Neo-Pythagoreanism, Neo-Platonism and eclectic Platonism.

The members of the school may be enumerated under three heads, (i) The beginnings of the eclectic spirit are, according to some authorities, discernible in the Septuagint (280 B.C.) (see Frankel, Historisch-kritische Studien zur Septuaginta, 1841), but the first concrete exemplification is found in Aristobulus (c. 160 B.C.). So far as the Jewish succession is concerned, the great name is that of Philo in the first century of our era. He took Greek metaphysical theories, and, by the allegorical method, interpreted them in accordance with the Jewish Revelation. He dealt with (a) human life as explained by the relative nature of Man and God, (b) the Divine nature and the existence of God, and, (c) the great Logos doctrine as the explanation of the relation between God and the material universe. From these three arguments he developed an elaborate theosophy which was a syncretism of oriental mysticism and pure Greek metaphysic, and may be regarded as representing the climax of Jewish philosophy. (2) The first purely philosophical phenomenon of the Alexandrian school was Neo-Pythagoreanism, the second and last Neo-Platonism. Leaving all detailed descriptions of these schools to special articles devoted to them, it is sufficient here to say that their doctrines were a synthesis of Platonism, Stoicism and the later Aristotelianism with a leaven of oriental mysticism which gradually became more and more important. The world to which they spoke had begun to demand a doctrine of salvation to satisfy the human soul. They endeavoured to deal with the problem of good and evil. They therefore devoted themselves to examining the nature of the soul, and taught that its freedom consists in communion with God, to be achieved by absorption in a sort of ecstatic trance. This doctrine reaches its height in Plotinus, after whom it degenerated into magic and theurgy in its unsuccessful combat with the victorious Christianity. Finally this pagan theosophy was driven from Alexandria back to Athens under Plutarch and Proclus, and occupied itself largely in purely historical work based mainly on the attempt to re-organize ancient philosophy in conformity with the system of Plotinus. This school ended under Damascius when Justinian closed the Athenian schools (A.D. 529). (3) The eddies of Neo-Platonism had a considerable effect on certain Christian thinkers about the beginning of the 3rd century. Among these the most important were Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Clement, as a scholar and a theologian, proposed to unite the mysticism of NeoPlatonism with the practical spirit of Christianity. He combined the principle of pure living with that of free thinking, and held that instruction must have regard to the mental capacity of the hearer. The compatibility of Christian and later Neo-Platonic ideas is evidenced by the writings of Synesius, bishop of Ptolemais, and though Neo-Platonism eventually succumbed to Christianity, it had the effect, through the writings of Clement and Origen, of modifying the tyrannical fanaticism and ultra-dogmatism of the early Christian writers.

Authorities.—Matter, Histoire de l’école d’Alexandrie, 2nd ed. (3 vols., 1840–1844) ; Simon, Histoire de l’école d’Alexandrie (2 vols., 1844–1845); Vacherot, Histoire critique de l’école d’Alexandrie (3 vols., 1846–1851); Kingsley, Alexandria and her Schools (1854); Gfrörer, Philo und die Alexandrinische Theosophie (1835); Dähne, Geschicht. Darstellung der Jüdisch-Alexandrinischen Religionsphilosophie (1834); Histories of Philosophy by Zeller, Ueberweg, Windelband, &c., and Bibliography of Church History, &c.

  1. A considerable fragment of his epic Hecalē has been discovered in the Rainer papyrus.