The Impermanence of Knowledge and Culture: The Great Library and Notre Dame

On Sunday, blogger and antiquarian Quintus Curtius posted a piece about the famed Great Library at Alexandria.  The Library is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient War, and its destruction is an event that stands as one of the great cautionary tales of history.

Except, as Curtius points out, it wasn’t a single event.  Historians point to the accidental burning in 48 B.C., when Julius Caesar’s men’s burned Pompey’s fleet, and the flames spread, consuming a substantial portion of the Library’s connections.  Curtius mentions other events that may have damaged the Library, including Emperor Theodosius II’s decree to destroy pagan temples and buildings.

But, significantly, Curtius argues that it was centuries of neglect that destroyed the Great Library, rather than one single, spectacular event.  The burning of the Library in 48 B.C. makes for a dramatic story, but lack of maintenance, poor funding, and corrupt officials, Curtius contends, ultimately destroyed the Library.

To quote Curtius (emphasis is his):

The point is that libraries, like all institutions of culture, must be maintained and refurbished by every generation.  As I see it, the evidence points to a stark truth that tells us much about human nature.  The primary destroyer of the library, and perhaps of most cultural artifacts, was apathy.  How does this happen, in practice?  It is very simple.  It happens the same way official neglect happens today.  A new king or government minister would have said to himself, “I don’t think we need to allocate funds to the Alexandrian Library right now.  I have other priorities.  I would rather spend the money on ships, the army, or my new summer retreat.”  And this is how it starts.

Apathy—a general lack of care and concern for our cultural artifacts—destroys them far more effectively than book burnings.  Death by a thousand insouciant cuts, rather than the dramatic thrust of the sword, causes all things to wither away.

Having read Curtius’s piece (and a podcast related to it, which I cannot now locate), I very much had this topic on my mind when I heard about the tragic fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral on Monday.  I did not realize that the great cathedral is 850-years old.

Let that sink in:  it’s stood for nearly a millennium, surviving the Wars of Religion in France; the Thirty Years’ War; and the First and Second World Wars.  It also survived the French Revolution, which saw many churches destroyed or converted into blasphemous “Temples of Reason” throughout Paris and France.

Notre Dame is a powerful symbol of Western Civilization:  a bold testament of the faith and piety of a once-proud, Christian people.  A civilization that believes in itself and its God builds and maintains an edifice like Notre Dame.

We don’t yet know the source of the Notre Dame fire (at least, I don’t), and I’ve heard and read several explanations, from the careless (a dropped cigarette) to the, if true, quite wicked (Islamic terrorism; to reiterate, I am not claiming this was the cause of the fire, just that I’ve heard it insinuated).

What we do know is that France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, has promised to rebuild the destroyed roof and upper level of the cathedral “in a way consistent with our modern diverse nation.”  I let out a moan of despair upon reading that phrase.

Notre Dame is a not a symbol of a “modern diverse nation,” nor should it be.  The only universalism it embodies is Christ’s universal Love for all of humanity.  Beyond that, it is a symbol of the French people, and of Christendom.  I am not convinced that the “diverse” Maghreb and Bedouin tribesman of the banlieues are deserving of that patrimony.

The West is constantly bending over backwards to accommodate foreign cultures in a show of cosmopolitan hospitality, but the favor is never returned.  Unassimilated migrants and “refugees” don’t deserve architectural “representation” in a building that never would have been built were it not for Charles “The Hammer” Martel.

Knowledge and culture are both one generation away from darkness.  Westerners should understand the deep roots of our civilization, and protect it at all costs.  That means teaching it to our children, and instilling them a love of and reverence for our institutions, culture, and faith.

11 thoughts on “The Impermanence of Knowledge and Culture: The Great Library and Notre Dame

  1. […] “The Impermanence of Knowledge and Culture:  The Great Library and Notre Dame” – this post was a synthesis of two events—the destruction of the Great Library at Alexandria, and the burning of a substantial portion of the Notre Dame Cathedral.  The fire at the latter riled up conservatives and traditionalists because the structure had endured for so long as a symbol of Christianity and of France’s faithfulness.  France is not a very faithful country now, but Notre Dame remains a powerful symbol of man’s capacity for focusing on the greatness of God.  The major point of this piece was to drive home how even great edifices eventually crumble, and that knowledge and culture must be preserved actively if they are to endure. […]

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