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Formative Books

Formative Books

Robert Pirsig
Fyodor Dostoevsky
Nikos Kazantzakis
Herman Hesse
Ken Kesey
Kurt Vonnegut
Friedrich Nietzsche
Ray Kurzweil
Fritjof Capra
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Thomas Kuhn
John Fowles
Paul Theroux
Richard Feynman
James D. Watson
Neville Shute
William Golding
John Gribbin
Jared Diamond
John Steinbeck
Douglas Hofstadter
Ray Bradbury
Joseph Heller
Aldous Huxley
Anthony Burgess
George Orwell
William Faulkner
Rebecca West
Victor Hugo

Julian Jaynes



Herculaneum's Library

Villa dei PapiriIn 1750 explorers tunneling through the remains of a buried seaside villa in Herculaneum came across something baffling: the ruins of a room graced with a mosaic floor and filled with innumerable objects "about half a palm long, and round," as one of them wrote, "which appeared like roots of wood, all black, and seeming to be only of one piece." At first they thought they had come on a cache of charcoal briquettes, some of which they burned to dissipate the early morning chill. Others thought that the peculiar fragments might have been rolls of burned cloth or fishing nets. Then one of these objects, chancing to fall upon the ground, broke open. The unexpected sight of letters inside what had looked like a charcoal root made the explorers realize what they were looking at: books. They had stumbled on the ruins of a private library.

The volumes that Romans pile up in their libraries were smaller than most modern books: they were for the most part written on scrolls of papyrus. (The word "volume" comes from volumen, the Latin word for a thing that is rolled or wound up.) Rolls of papyrus -- the plant from which we get our word "paper" -- were produced from tall reeds that grew in the marshy delta region of the Nile in Lower Egypt. The reeds were harvested; their stalks cut open and sliced into very thin strips. The strips were laid side by side, slightly overlapping one another; another layer was placed on top, at right angles to the one below; and then the sheet was gently pounded with a mallet. The natural sap that was released allowed the fibers to adhere smoothly to each other, and the individual sheets were then glued into rows. (The first sheet, on which the contents of the row could be noted, was called in Greek the protokollon, literally, "first glued" -- the origin of our word "protocol.") Wooden sticks, attached to one or both of the ends of the roll and slightly projecting from the top and both edges, made it easier to scroll through as one read along: to read a book in the ancient world was to unwind it. The Romans called such a stick the umbilicus, and to read such a book cover-to-cover was "to unroll to the umbilicus."

Priests could use this method to record the precise language for supplicating the gods, poets could lay claim to the symbolic immortality they dreamed of in their art; philosophers could convey their thoughts to disciples yet unborn, Romans, like the Greeks before them, easily grasped that this was the best writing material available, and they imported it in bulk from Egypt to meet their growing desire for record keeping, official documents, personal letters, and books. A row of papyrus might last three hundred years.

The room unearthed in Herculaneum had once been lined with inlaid wooden shelves; at its center were the traces of what had been a large, freestanding, rectangular bookcase. Scattered about were the carbonized remains -- so fragile that they fell apart at the touch -- of the erasable waxed tablets on which readers took notes. The shelves had been piled high with papyrus rolls. Some of the rolls, perhaps the more valuable ones, were wrapped about with tree bark and covered with pieces of wood at each end. In another part of the villa, other rolls, now fused into a single mass by the volcanic ash, seemed to have been hastily bundled together in a wooden box, as if someone on the terrible August day of 79 BCE had for a brief, wild moment thought to carry some particularly valued books away from the holocaust. Altogether -- even with the irrevocable loss of the many that were trashed before it was understood what they were -- some eleven hundred books were eventually recovered including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things.

Roman Public LibrariesRoman Public Library

Romans had traditionally been wary of poets and philosophers. They prided themselves on being citizenry of virtue and action, not of flowery words, intellectual speculation, and books. But even as Rome's legions steadily established military dominance over Greece, Greek culture just as steadily began to colonize the minds of the conquerors. Skeptical as ever of effete intellectuals and priding themselves on their practical intelligence, Romans nonetheless acknowledged with growing enthusiasm the achievements of Greek philosophers, scientists, writers, and artists. They made fun of what they took to be the defects of Greek characters, mocking what they saw as its loquaciousness, its taste for philosophizing, and its foppishness. But ambitious Roman families sent their sons to study at the philosophical academies for which Athens was famous, and Greek intellectuals were brought to Rome and paid handsome salaries to teach.

The survival of stone and fired clay makes it easy for us to register the persuasive presence in Rome of Greek artifacts, but it was books that carried the full weight of cultural influence. In keeping with the city's martial character, the first great collections were brought there as spoils of war. In 167 BCE the Roman general Aemilius Paulus routed King Perseus of Macedon and put an end to the dynasty that had descended from Alexander the Great and his father Philip. Perseus and his three sons were sent in chains to be paraded through the streets of Rome behind the triumphal chariot. In the tradition of national kleptocracy, Aemilius Paulus shipped back enormous plunder to deposit in the Roman treasury. But for himself and his children the conqueror reserved only a single prize: the captive monarch's library. The gesture was evidence, of course, of the aristocratic general's personal fortune, but it was also a spectacular signal of the value of Greek books and the culture these books embodied.

By the fourth century CE, there were twenty-eight public libraries in Rome. The structures, all of which have been destroyed , evidently followed the same general pattern, one that would be familiar to us. There was a large reading room adjoining smaller rooms in which the collections were stored in numbered bookcases. The reading room, either rectangular or semicircular in shape, and sometimes lit through a circular opening in the roof, was adorned with busts or life sized statues of celebrated writers: Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, among others. The statues functioned, as they do for us, as an honorific, a gesture toward the canon of writers whom every civilized person should know. But in Rome they may have had an additional significance, akin to the masks of ancestors that Romans traditionally kept in their houses and that they donned on commemorative occasions. That is, they were signs of access to the spirits of the dead, symbols of the spirits that the books enabled people to conjure up.


LucretiusThe charred fragments in the Herculaneum library give us a glimpse of how the villa's owner and his guests looked at their world during the interim between the slow erasure of the Olympian gods and their Roman equivalents and the dawn of Christianity. They reflect something about the mental or spiritual world they inhabited and who they might have summoned to enter into the conversations here at the verdant slopes of Vesuvious. Indeed, the wealthy owner might even have wished to meet the author of On the Nature of Things in person. It would have been a small matter to send a few slaves and a litter to carry Lucretius to Herculaneum to join the other guests for a weekend of reading from his book.

If Lucretius had participated in the conversations at the villa, it is clear enough what he would have said. His own conclusions would have not been inconclusive or tinged with skepticism like those of his contemporary, Cicero. The answers to all of their questions, he would have argued, were to be found in the work of a man whose portrait bust and writings graced the villa's library, the philosopher Epicurus. It was only Epicurus, wrote Lucretius, who could cure the miserable condition of the man who, bored to death at home, rushes off frantically to his country villa only to find that he is just as oppressed in spirit. Indeed, in Lucretius' view, Epicurus, who had died almost two centuries earlier, was nothing less than the savior. "When human life lay groveling ignominiously in the dust, crushed beneath the grinding weight of superstition," Lucretius wrote,one supremely brave man arose and became "the first who ventured to confront it boldly." This hero -- one strikingly at odds with a Roman culture that traditionally prided itself on toughness, pragmatism, and military virtue -- was a Greek who triumphed not through the force of arms but through the power of intellect.


Epicurus, Lucretious' philosophical messiah, was born toward the end of 342 BCE on the Aegean island of Samos where his father, a poor Athenian schoolmaster, had gone as a colonist. Many Greek philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle, came from wealthy families and prided themselves on their distinguished ancestry. Epicurus decidedly had no comparable claims. His philosophical enemies, basking in their social superiority, made much of the modesty of his background. He assisted his father in the school for a pittance, they sneered, and used to go round with his mother to cottages to read charms. One of his brothers, they added, was a pander and lived with a prostitute. This was not a philosopher with whom respectable people should associate themselves.

The core of Epicurus' vision may be traced back to a single incandescent idea: that everything that has ever existed and everything that ever will exist is put together out of indestructible building blocks, irreducibly small in size, unimaginably vast in number. The Greeks had a word for these invisible building blocks, things that, as they conceived them, could not be further divided: atoms. The notion of these items, which originated in the fifth century BCE with Leucippus of Abdera and his prize student Democritus, was only a dazzling speculation; there was no way to get any empirical proof and wouldn't be for more than two thousand years. Other philosophers had competing theories including a proposal that the intricate order of the universe was evidence of an invisible mind or spirit that carefully put the pieces together according to a preconceived plan. Democritus' conception of an infinite number of atoms that have no qualities except size, figure, and weight -- particles that are not minature versions of what we see but rather form what we see by combining with each other in an inexhaustible variety of shapes -- was a fantastically daring solution to a problem that engaged the great intellects of his world.

In constant motion, atoms collide with each other, Epicurus reasoned, and in certain circumstances, they form larger and larger bodies. The largest observable bodies -- the sun and the moon-- are made of atoms, just as are human beings and flies and grains of sand. There are no super categories of matter; no hierarchy of elements. Heavenly bodies are not divine beings who shape our destiny for good or evil, nor do they move through the void under the guidance of gods: they are simply part of the natural order, enormous structures of atoms subject to the same principles of creation and destruction that govern everything that exists. And if the natural order is unimaginably vast and complex, it is nevertheless possible to understand something of its basic constitutive elements and its universal laws. Indeed, such understanding is one of human life's deepest pleasures. You did not need a detailed grasp of the actual laws of the physical universe; you needed only to comprehend that there is a hidden natural explanation for everything that alarms or eludes you. That explanation will inevitably lead you back to atoms. If you hold on to and repeat to yourself the simplest fact of existence -- atoms and void and nothing else, atoms and void and nothing else, atoms and void and nothing else -- your life will change. You will no longer fear God's wrath when you hear a peal of thunder, or suspect that someone has offended a god, whenever there is an outbreak of influenza. And you will be freed from the terrible affliction -- what Hamlet, many centuries later, described as "the dread of something after death,/The undiscovered country from whose born /No traveler returns."

The affliction -- the fear of some horrendous punishment waiting for one in a realm beyond the grave -- no longer weighs heavily on most modern men and women, but it evidently did in the ancient Athens of Epicurus and the ancient Rome of Lucretius, and it did as well in the Christian world of the monasteries where we can still see images of the horrors lovingly carved on the tympanum above the doors to churches or painted on their inner walls. And these horrors were in turn modeled on accounts of the afterlife fashioned in the Christian imagination. To be sure, not everyone in any of these periods, pagan or Christian, believed in such accounts. It is just that the dread of suffering and the dread of perishing could lay heavily on the unlearned soul. What Epicurus offered was not help in dying but help in living. Liberated from superstition, you would be free to pursue pleasure.

Epicurus seems to have lived a conspicuously simple and frugal life. "Send me a pot of cheese" he wrote once to a friend, "that, when I like, I may fare sumptuously." So much for the alleged abundance of his table. And he urged a comparable frugality on his students. The motto carved over his door to his garden urged the stranger to linger, for "here our highest good is pleasure." The passerby who entered would be served a simple meal of barley gruel and water. "When we say, then, that pleasure is the goal," Epicurus wrote in one of his few surviving letters, "we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality." The feverish attempt to satisfy certain appetites -- an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry ... sexual love ... the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table" -- cannot lead to the peace of mind that is the key to enduring pleasure.

"Men suffer the worst evils for the sake of the most alien desires," wrote his disciple Philodemus, in one of the books found in the library of Herculaneum, and "they neglect the most necessary appetites as if they were the most alien to nature." What are these necessary appetites that lead to pleasure? It is impossible to live pleasurably, Philodemus continued, without living prudently and honorably and justly, and also without living courageously and temperately and magnanimously, and without making friends, and without being philanthropic."

A philosophical claim that life's ultimate goal is pleasure -- even if that pleasure was defined in the most restrained and responsible terms -- was a scandal, both for pagans and for their adversaries, the Jews and later the Christians. Pleasure as the highest good? What about worshipping the gods and ancestors? Serving the family, the city, and the state? Scrupulously observing the laws and commandments? Pursuing virtue or a vision of the divine? These competing claims inevitably entailed forms of ascetic self-denial, self-sacrifice, even self-loathing. None was compatible with the pursuit of pleasure as the highest good. More than two thousand years after Epicurus lived and taught, the sense of his scandal is still pervasive.

Library of Alexandria

LibraryAlexandriaApart from the charred papyrus fragments recovered in Herculaneum, there are no surviving contemporary manuscripts from the ancient Greek and Roman world. Everything that has reached us is a copy, most often very far removed in time, place, and culture from the original. And these copies represent only a small portion of the works even of the most celebrated writers of antiquity. Of Aeschylus' eighty or ninety plays and the roughly one hundred and twenty by Sophocles, only seven each have survived; Euripides and Aristophanes did slightly better: eighteen of ninety-two plays by the former have come down to us; eleven of forty-three by the latter.

The fate of the books in all their vast numbers is epitomized in the fate of the greatest library in the ancient world, a library located not in Italy but in Alexandria, the capital city of Egypt and the commercial hub of the eastern Mediterranean. The city had many tourist attractions, including an impressive theater and red-light district, but the visitors always took note of something quite exceptional: in the center of the city, at a lavish site known as the Museum, most of the intellectual inheritance of Greek, Latin, Babylonian, Egyptian, and Jewish cultures had been assembled at enormous cost and carefully archived for research. Starting as early as 300 BCE, the Ptolomaic kings who ruled Alexandria had the inspired idea of luring leading scholars, scientists, and poets to their city by offering them life appointments at the Museum, with handsome salaries, tax exemptions, free food and lodging, and the almost limitless resources of the library.

The recipients of this largesse established remarkably high intellectual standards. Euclid developed his geometry in Alexandria; Archimedes discovered pi and laid the foundation for calculus; Eratosthenes posited that the earth was round and calculated its circumference to within 1 percent; Galen revolutionized medicine. Alexandrian astronomers postulated a heliocentric universe; geometers deduced that the length of the year was 365 1/4 days and proposed adding a "leap day" every fourth year; geographers speculated that it would be possible to reach India by sailing west from Spain; engineers developed hydraulics and pneumatics; anatomists first understood clearly that the brain and the nervous system were a unit; studied the function of the heart and the digestive system, and conducted experiments in nutrition. The level of achievement was staggering.

The Alexandrian library was not associated with a particular doctrine or philosophical school; its scope was the entire range of intellectual inquiry. It represented a global cosmopolitanism, a determination to assemble the accumulated knowledge of the whole world and to perfect and add to this knowledge. Fantastic efforts were made not only to amass vast numbers of books but also to acquire or establish definitive editions. Alexandrian scholars were famously obsessed with the pursuit of textual accuracy. How was it possible to strip away the corruptions that inevitably seeped into books copied and recopied, for the most part by slaves, for centuries? Generations of dedicated scholar developed elaborate techniques of comparative analysis and painstaking commentary in pursuit of the master texts. They pursued as well access to the knowledge that lay beyond the boundaries of the Greek speaking world. It is for this reason that an Alexandrian ruler, Ptolemy Philadelphus, is said to have undertaken the expensive and ambitious project of commissioning some seventy scholars to translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek. The result -- known as the Septuagent (after the Latin for "seventy") -- was for many Christians their principal access to what they came to call the Old Testament.

At its height the Museum contained at least a half-million papyrus rolls systematically organized, labeled, and shelved according to a clever new system that its first director, a Homer scholar named Zenodotus, seems to have invented: the system was alphabetical order. The institution extended beyond the Museum's enormous holdings to a second collection, housed in one of the architectural marvels of the age, the Serapeon, in the words of Ammianus Marcellinus, the fourth-century historian, was second in magnificence only to the Capital in Rome.

The forces that destroyed this institution help us understand why the charred papyrus fragments recovered in Herculaneum were almost all that remained of a school of thought that was once eagerly debated in thousands of books. The first blow came as a consequence of war. A part of the library's collection -- possibly only scrolls kept in warehouses near the harbor -- was accidently burned in 48 BCE when Julius Caesar struggled to maintain control of the city. But there were greater threats than military action alone, threats bound up with an institution that was part of a temple complex, replete with statues of gods and goddesses, altars, and other paraphrenalia of pagan worship. The Museum was, as its name implies, a shrine dedicated to the Muses, the nine goddesses who embodied human creative achievement. The Serapeon, where the secondary collection was located, housed a colossal statue of the god Serapis -- a masterpiece fashioned in ivory and gold by the famous Greek sculptor Bryaxis -- combining the cult of the Roman deity Jupitor wih the Egyptian deities Osirus and Apis.

Religious Pluralism

PluralismThe Jews and Christians who lived in large numbers in Alexandria were intensely uneasy with this polytheism. They did not doubt that other gods existed, but those gods were without exception demons, fiendishly bent on luring gullible humanity away from the sole and universal truth. All other revelations and prayers recorded in these mountains of papyrus rolls were lies. Salvation lay in the Scriptures, which Christians opted to read in the new format: not the old-fashioned scroll (used by Jews and pagans alike) but the compact, convenient, easily portable codex.

Centuries of religious pluralism under paganism -- three faiths living side by side in a spirit of mingled rivalry and absorptive tolerance -- were coming to an end. In the early fourth century the emperor Constantine began the process whereby Rome's official religion became Christianity. It was only a matter of time before a zealous successor -- Theodosius the Great, beginning in 391 CE -- issued edicts forbidding public sacrifices and closing cultic sites. The state had embarked on the destruction of paganism.

In Alexandria, the spiritual leader of the Christian community, the patriarch Theophilus, heeded the edicts with a vengence. At once contentious and ruthless, Theophilus unleashed mobs of Christian zealots who roamed through the streets insulting pagans. The pagans responded with predictable shock and anxiety, and tensions between the two communities rose. All that was needed was an appropriately charged incident for matters to be brought to a head, and the incident was not long in coming. Workmen renovating a Christian basilica found an underground sanctuary that still contained pagan cult objects. Seeing a chance to expose the secret symbols of pagan "mysteries" to public mockery, Theophilus ordered that the cult objects be paraded through the streets.

Pious pagans erupted in anger: "as though," a contemporary Christian observer wryly noted, "they had drunk a chalice of serpents." The enraged pagans violently attacked Christians and then withdrew behind the locked doors of the Serapeon. Armed with axes and hammers, a comparably frenzied Christian crowd burst into the shrine, overwhelmed its defenders, and smashed the celebrated marble, ivory, and gold statue of the god. Pieces were taken to various parts of the city to be destroyed, the headless, limbless trunk was dragged to the theater and publically burned. Theophilus ordered monks to move into the precincts of the pagan temple, whose beautiful buildings could be turned into churces. Where the statue of Serapis had stood, the triumphant Christians would erect reliquaries holding the precious remains of Elijah and John the Baptist. The significance of the destruction extended beyond the loss of a single cult image. Whether on this occasion mayhem reached the library is unknown. But libraries, museums, and schools are fragile institutions; they cannot long survive violent assaults. A way of life was dying.

A few years later, Theophilus' successor as Christian patriarch, his nephew Cyril, expanded the scope of the attacks, directing pious wrath this time upon the Jews. Violent skirmishes broke out at the theater, in the streets, and in front of churches and synagogues. Jews taunted and threw stones at Christians; Christians broke into and plundered Jewish shops and homes. Emboldened by the arrival from the desert of five hundred monks who joined the already formidable force of Christian street mobs, Cyril demanded the expulsion of the city's large Jewish population. Alexandria's governor Orestes, a moderate Christian, refused, and this refusal was supported by the city's pagan intellectual elite whose most distinguished representative was the influential and immensely learned Hypatia.

Wrapped in the traditional philosopher's cloak called a tribon, and moving about the city in a chariot, Hypatia was one of Alexandria's most visible public figures. Women in the ancient world often lived sequestered lives, but not she. "Such was her self-possession and ease of manner, arising from the refinement and cultivation of her mind," writes a contemporary, "that she not infrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Her easy access to the ruling elite did not mean that she constantly meddled in politics. At the time of the earlier attacks on the cult images, she and her followers evidently held themselves aloof, telling themselves perhaps that the smashing of inanimate statues left intact what really mattered. But with the agitation against the Jews it must have become clear that the flames of fanaticism were not going to die down.

Hypatia's support for Orestes' refusal to expel the city's Jewish population may help to explain what happened next. Rumors began to circulate that her absorption in astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy -- so strange, after all in a woman -- was sinister: she must be a witch, practicing black magic. In March 415 the crowd, whipped into a frenzy by one of Cyril's henchmen, erupted. Returning to her house, Hypatia was pulled from her chariot and taken to a church that was formerly a temple to the emperor. There, after she was stripped of her clothing, her skin was flayed off with broken bits of pottery. The mob then dragged her corpse outside the city walls and burned it. Their hero Cyril was soon made a saint.

The murder of Hypatia signified more than the end of one remarkable person; it effectively marked the downfall of Alexandrian intellectual life, and was the death knell for the whole intellectual tradition that underlay the texts found in the Herculaneum villa. The Museum, with its dream of assembling all texts, all schools, all ideas, was no longer at the protected center of civil society. In the years that followed the library virtually ceased to be mentioned, as if its great collections, virtually the sum of classical culture, had vanished without a trace. They had certainly not disappeared all at once -- such a momentous act of destruction would have been recorded. But if one asks, Where did all the books go? the answer lies not only in the quick work of the soldier's flames and the long, slow, secret labor of the bookworm. It lies symbolically at least, in the fate of Hypatia.

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Musings Index

Another 9/11 Anniversary


How Did Here Get Here?

Chase's 7th Birthday

The Fabric of Reality

A Clockwork Orange

Epistomology Strand

The Grand Inquisitor

Consumerism Versus Genocide

Art for Art's Sake

Edvard Munch

Vasili Kandinsky

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Piet Mondrian

Kasemir Malevich

Rene Magritte

Salvador Dali

Evolutionary Strand

Information Theory Strand

Traversable Wormholes

Awareness Communicated

The Mother Singularity

Mimetic Theory

The Standard Model

Thought and Symbol

The Schwarzschild Radius

Symbolic Technologies

Dark Things

Fukuyama on Transhumanism

Are We There Yet?

A Transhumanist Manifesto

The Arrows of Time

A Quantum Telescope


The Road to Reason

Persistence of Memes

Now What?

Instantiated Consciousness


Evolution of God


The Rise of Yahweh

Semitic Origins


Galileo's Commandment

The Relevancy of Science

The Bible

The Quran

Marketing God

Adam and Eve

Cain and Abel

Noah and the Ark

Procreation Management

Machining a New Soul

The Human Codon Alphabet

Symbiotic Colony

The Moist Robot

Bottom Up Genealogy

The Genetic Revolution

The Nanotechnology Revolution

The Robotic Revolution

Universal Information Processing

Memetic Matryoshka

Holonomic Brain Theory

Introduction to Wetware

Seeing in a Quantum World

Thinking In the Quantum World

What's the Matter?

Post Primordial Nucleosynthesis

The CNO Cycle

The Genesis Stone


Chemistry to Biochemistry



Biochemistry to Neurobiology

Molecular History

Under the Tree of Life

Matter Conclusion


A Mind in a Cloud


From the Other Side

Marcel Duchamp

Pablo Picasso

Echos of Ray Bradbury



Formative Books

Herculaneum's Library

Roman Public Libraries



Religious Pluralism