Best when viewed with Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome.

The Alexandrian Schools...Preface

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 GraecoMacedonian 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 signification 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.
Alexandrian School
Alexandrian School...I...Literature
Back to Previous Level