1902 Encyclopedia > Alexandrian School

Alexandrian School




ALEXANDRIAN SCHOOL. Under this title are generally included certain strongly-marked tendencies in literature and science which took their rise in the city of Alexandria. That city, founded by Alexander the Great about the time when Greece, in losing her national inde-pendence, 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 civilisation 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 306-285 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 Phalereus, the Athenian orator, this Ptolemy laid the foundations of the great library, and originated the keen search for all written works, which resulted in the forma-tion 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 univer-sity. 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 B.C.), 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 B.C.) 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 Mahometan power. But this very long period falls into two divisions. The first, extending from about 306 B.C. to about 30 B.C., includes the time from the foundation of the Btolemaic dynasty to its final subjugation by the Romans; the second extends from 30 B.C. to 640 A.D. 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 attenrpt to continue and develop, under new conditions, the old Hellenic culture. This direction of effort was particularly noticeable under the early Ptole-mies, 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 lite-rary circles in Bhodes, Syria, &c, 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 in-creased 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. As regards the use of the word " school" to denote these movements, it must be observed that the term is misleading. It 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 cor-responding 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.

Alexandrian School of 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 con-quest at Chaeronea 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 was lost, with which it was inseparably united. 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 Alexan-drians 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 for-gotten 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 I 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 repertories 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 Cas-sandra 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 A ma, 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 Alexan-drian 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. Of many other epic poets only the names are known, as Dicsearchus, Euphorion, Khianus, Dionysius, Oppianus. 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 com-pensate 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 cha-racter. The earliest of the elegiac poets was Philetas, the sweet singer of Cos. But the most distinguished was Calli-machus, undoubtedly the greatest of the Alexandrian poets. Of his numerous works there remain to us only a few hymns, epigrams, and fragments of elegies. Other lyric poets were Bhanocles, Hermesianax, Alexander of iEtolia, 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 terse-ness and neatness of expression. Of kindred character were the parodies and satirical poems, of which the best examples were the SiAAoi of Timon.

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 Boman literature. That literature, especially in the Augustan age, is not to be thoroughly understood without due appreciation of the character of the Alexandrian School.

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 philo-logical examination of any work consisted, according to them, of the following processes :—8iop6Wis, arrangement of the text; avovyi/wo-is, settlement of accents ; Teyvi), theory of forms, syntax; l£r)yri<ri<s, explanation either of words or things; and finally, Kpt'cus, judgment on the author and his work, including all questions as to authenticity and integ-rity. To iserform 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; and Aristarchus of Samothrace, confessedly the Coryphaeus of criticism. Others were Alexander of iEtolia, Lycophron, Callimachus, Eratosthenes, and many of a later age, for the critical school long survived the literary. These philological labours were of great indirect import-ance, 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 2d 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. His Egyptian chronology, along with that of Manetho, is still of great interest to scholars; and Bunsen speaks with the highest admiration of his researches in Greek history. 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: among its scholars were Archimedes; Apollonius of Berga, 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, after-wards called the Ptolemaic system, from its most famous expositor, Claudius Ptolemaeus. Alexandria continued long after the Christian era to be celebrated as a school of mathematics and science.





Alexandrian School of 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 Boman 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 Bome rather than of Alexan-dria. But in that city, for some time past, there had been various forces secretly working, and these coming in con-tact with great spiritual changes occurring in the world around, produced a second outburst of intellectual activity.

Among the natives of foreign countries transplanted to Alexandria by its founder had been a few Jews. These gradually increased in number, until, about the time of the Christian era, they formed an influential part of the populace of Egypt, inhabited two of the five quarters of the capital, and held high offices in the state. They had been well treated by the Ptolemies, and for some time experienced similar treatment from the Romans. The new move-ment of thought was in great measure due to the presence of this Jewish element. The contact of free Greek speculation with the peculiar Jewish ideas of the transcendence of God, of a special revelation, and of a singular subjective ecstasy, the prophetic state, could not fail to have a strong effect on the mode of thought of the most highly cultured Jews. From many causes they were more than ordinarily open to receive foreign ideas. Their isolated position had been broken in upon by their long residence as a small minority in the midst of an atmo-sphere of Greek custom and thought, and in the most highly cultivated city in the world. Their separation from their native country had tended to broaden their views by weakening the strong political convictions which united their destiny and their sacred writings with a definite land. It was a necessary consequence that they should endeavour so far as possible to assimilate their principles to Greek ideas. The two systems were not, they found, in total contradiction; they had several points in common. This was specially the case with the Platonic writings. There thus arose among the Jews a constantly increasing tendency to modify or widen their doctrines so as to admit of Greek conceptions, and then, with the aid of these concep-tions, to systematise their own somewhat vague religious views. In this way philosophy and religion would be united or identified. There is truth in all philosophy, for philosophy is but a mangled reproduction of the sacred record in which all truth is contained. The Scriptures contain all philosophy, but not explicitly; they require to be interpreted. The system thus developed has a philosophical aspect, yet never ceases to be essentially Jewish, for the ultimate resort is always to a body of doctrine expressly revealed. Progress in this direction was possible in two ways. First, the pure Greek metaphysical thought rejected a body of truth said to have been revealed to a special people, but retained the idea of revelation to the individual thinker. A doctrine was thus evolved which contained most of the oriental or Jewish theosophical ideas, but in logical sequence and based for the most part on the earlier works of Greek thinkers. Religion was retained, but was explained or had a meaning given by philosophy. To this powerful movement of thought the name Neo-Platonism is given; its chief representatives were Ammonius Saccas, Plotinus, Porphyry, Jamblichus, and Proclus. Second, the introduction of the peculiar Christian dogmas could not fail to produce a lively effect on the Alexandrian thinkers. These dogmas had to be reconciled with philosophy, or the one must yield to and be absorbed by the other. The attempt to solve the pro-blem of their mutual relation gave rise to Gnosticism in all its phases, and was the cause of the speculative element in the works of such fathers as Clement of Alexandria and Origen.

To the whole of this great movement the title Alexandrian philosophy must be given, although that term is sometimes identified with Neo-Platonism. Of the exact historical origin of it we have no certain notice. Some thinkers are of opinion that even in the Septuagint traces of rationalism can be discovered. (See Frankel, Historisch-Ttritische Studien zur Septuaginta, 1841.) In Aristobulus (160 B.C.) is found a thoroughgoing attempt to show that early Greek speculations were in harmony with the divine record, because they had been borrowed from it. Traces of allegorical interpretation are also found in him, but no conception of a theosophical system. In the peculiar tenets of the Thérapeutes, so far as these can be known, may perhaps be traced another stream of influence, the Neo-Pythagorean. The complete representative of the Jewish religious philosophy was Philo, surnamed Judasus, who lived at Alexandria during the Christian era. In him are found a complete and elaborate theosophy fusing together religious and metaphysical ideas, a firm conviction that all truth is to be found in the sacred writings, and a constant application to these writings of the principle of allegorical interpretation. His system is a syncretism of Oriental mysticism and Greek metaphysics, and the effort at such a combination from the Jewish side could go no further. After Philo Judaeus there remained as possible courses either Neo-Platonism or Gnosticism.

Of Alexandrian literature there are notices in histories of Greek literature, as Millier and Donaldson, or Bernhardy ; of Alexandrian philosophy, in general histories of philosophy and of early Christianity. Special works, which, however, devote most attention to the Neo-Platonists, are— , Matter, Histoire de l'Ecole d'Alexandrie, 2d ed. 3 vols. 1840-44; Simon, Histoire de l'Ecole d'Alexandrie, 2 vols. 1844-45; Vacherot, Histoire critique de l'Ecole d'Alexandrie, 3 vols. 1846-51 ; Kingsley, Alexandria and her Schools, 1854 ; Gfrorer, Philo und die Alexandrinische Theosophie, 1835 ; Daehne, Geschicht - Darstellung der Jûdisch-Alexandrinischen Religionsphilosophie, 2 vols. 1834.




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