The word SIBYL is thought to have come from an expression in Doric Greek meaning "the will of God." They were usually regarded in antiquity as maidens or sometimes older women -- "of Necessity" emblematically female -- living in isolated places near springs or in caves, possessed with the spirit of divination and "giving forth prophetic utterances while under the influence of enthusiastic frenzy." Both their number and their origins are obscure, as they most probably represented for Classical times the remnants of very much older local traditions, most of them eventually becoming associated with Apollo by fabrication of rationalizing legend or iconotropism: modifying symbols and attributes in adaptation to changed political and religious circumstances. Many places claimed sibyls in antiquity, such as Dodona with its prophetic oak trees and Sardis with gold in its river sand. The most famous sibyls are probably those mentioned by Varro: the Persian (or, as other authors would have it, the Babylonian),Egyptian, Libyan (perhaps at Lake Tritonis), Samian (on the island of Samos), Phrygian (at Ancyra), Hellespontine (at Marpessus, near Troy), Cimmerian (in Italy), and the Tiburtine, whose name was called after the River Tiber which ran through Rome, but who first was known as the prophetic nymph Albunea. With the mythic Pythia and the Oracle (later "of Apollo") at Delphi, the Erythraean Sibyl was the most renowned in antiquity. She was believed to have wandered widely from her origins on the Ionian coast of Asia Minor; and so--while most of the other Sibyls were likened to nymphs or young women--the Erythraean is often equated with the Cumaean Sibyl and thought to have been an old woman.

The Erythraean Sibyl, whose name was Herophile, corresponds to the Boeotian Bakis as the person usually meant when a Sibyl is mentioned; but in an Italian or Roman context it is the Cumaean Sibyl that is commonly meant. The Sibyl of Cumae was also called Herophile (as well as: Amaltheia, Demo, Demophile, Deiphobe [by which she is called in Virgil's Aeneid], Taraxandra, Melan-kraira), as were the Sibyls of Marpessos, Delphi, and others... for the several Sibyls merge with one another....The Sibyl of Delphi, also called Daphne, Artemis, and perhaps Manto...cannot be clearly distinguished from the Erythraean Sibyl....The Delphian Sibyl should not be confused with Pythia: she is a wholly legendary figure, who was said to have come to Delphi, apparently at the time of the Trojan War or soon thereafter....

[Fontenrose, Delphic Oracle, p. 160.]

The Sybilline Books also betray their own history of a wandering, labyrinthine past. They began as a collection of oracular utterances composed in Greek hexameters and associated with the Hellespontine Sibyl. In the time of Solon, in the seventh century BCE, she was said to dwell at Gergis on Mount Ida, near ancient Troy. They were not used for fortune telling but, from the beginning, were reserved for consultation by the state on the occasion of natural disasters such as earthquakes, pestilence, droughts and floods. As one aspect of secrecy surrounding their use in Rome, the oracles themselves were never revealed to the public, but only the prescribed rites of expiation.

The Greeks invented legends, or switched the roles around in archaic stories in order to justify the expropriation of various oracles and associated shrines by their upstart solar deity Apollo, who may have begun his rise to fame as an underworld Mouse-king. One of his earliest titles was Apollo Smintheus--Sminthos being the Cretan word for "mouse"--who was consulted in a shrine of the Great Goddess (Magna Mater). The white mice kept in his temples were sacred prophylaxis against the plague at Phocis and Philistia, as well as at Knossos on Crete. He granted the gift of prophesy to Cassandra, the daughter of the Trojan King Priam, but when she refused his amorous advances,though he could not retract the gift, Apollo added the condition that none would believe her oracles.

[Graves, Greek Myths, Volume I, Section 14.2; and Volume II, Section 158.2. See also, Oxford Classical Dictionary, s.v. "Apollo (6)." ]

Ovid's story about the Cumaean Sibyl in the Metamorphoses, also mentioned by Petronius in the Satyricon, was perhaps modeled on such references from the Iliad. Given the chance by Apollo to choose what she would from the god, the Sibyl asked to live for as many years as grains of sand (dust, or "cinder") in her handful. Unfortunately, she forgot to ask for perpetual youth as well, and so--when the Sibyl disappointed him and thus received no more favors--she grew so old, that only a wisp of her former self remained, and she had to be kept in a vessel. In legend, she was to wither away and fade much like Alice's evanescent conversationalist, the Cheshire Cat. In Golding's beautiful translation, Ovid has the Cumaean Sibyl say to Aeneas:

As an index of today's "alteration" of the English language: its corruption, subversion, and perversion by the mass media, pushed and pressured by contemporary political expedience and secret corporate interests, we scarcely hear a clear voice like that of Arthur Golding (1536-1605). Nor is it an easy matter for the average mannes or woman's eye to discern mention of him, since this is not expedient in our schools' curricula, although, in the opinion of Ezra Pound, one of the most trenchant modern students of language, poetry, music and art in their dynamic interaction with the agencies of power in history:

I do not honestly think that anyone can know anything about the art of lucid narrative in English, or let us say about the history of the development of English narrative-writing (verse or prose) without seeing the whole of the volume ("The XV Bookes of P. Ouidius Naso, entytuled Metamorphosis, translated oute of Latin into English meeter, by Arthur Golding Gentleman." First edition, so far as I know, Imprinted at London by Willyam Seres, 1567, with the mark of a bear standing at post inside the garter. Honi soit.). Shakespeare, b. 1564, d. 1616. [1567 W.S. = 3 yrs.]

[Ezra Pound, ABCE of Reading, Faber and Faber, London (1961), p. 126 f. See, John Frederick Nims, Ovid's Metamorphoses, Macmillan, New York (1965), p. 355, "The XIIII Booke," lines 174-175, 179-181.]

When asked what she wanted most, the Sibyl's answer was that she wished to die. If the Cumaean Sibyl had asked for life ETERNAL ("outside of" or "not of time"), then there would have been no time in which for her to grow old. But a long time, a very long time, even a very very long time--no matter how long--eventually, will come to pass. Despite this account of the merest sere and withered wisps of the Cumaean Sibyl's physical, enurned remains, Michelangelo Buonarroti nevertheless portrayed her in the architectural framework of the Sistine Ceiling with huge, hulking shoulders that would, today, be worthy of a first-round draft pick for the National Football League.

Something seems to be awry in these negotiations between Apollo and the respective sibyls. Even though family-oriented, heterosexual coupling was not the obligatory and exclusive mode of social inter-action for citizens (i.e. propertied males) in Classical Greece, both Apollo and Artemis, his sister (and female counterpart), had notoriously difficult problems with their personal relationships. As with the hero Theseus, a semi-legendary incarnation of Apollo, the god betrays dysfunctional emotions; and besides, those shady deals for sex cut by the god with nymphs and sibyls, on which they reneged, imply that he had something to learn from Hermes about contracts.

The truth of the matter seems to be that the oracular sites--and with them the oracles, in Classical times almost always female--were conquered or subdued by patriarchal Greeks whose god, Apollo, then had to justify his usurpation in a bid to retain some semblance of legitimate spiritual authority. He cut some S.ARP BAR AINs in the pretense of "payment" for oracles, which could not quite be held by the same force as profane loot or booty. This would explain the romantic invitations rejected or gone sour, for if they had culminated in true liasons, the likely consequence might have been a Bakis (the title by which a male "sibyl" was called in archaic times, before Apollo took over as the god of oracles), or a Chresmologos (whether functioning as a speaker or gatherer of oracles), either of whom, following the ancient pattern of conduct required of male "consorts," would be obliged to defer (unlike lordly, conquering Apollo) to the female source of oracles and prophesies, the generative Earth, or to the emblematically female and most profound source of all, the Void.


Michelangelo decided to include the Cumaean Sibyl, together with four of her sisters and five Old Testament Prophets, in his grand scheme for the Sistine Ceiling (on which he worked from 1508 to 1512) in place of the Twelve Apostles--which would have been appropriate had he painted histories of the Life of Christ. Instead, he chose to paint several histories representing the Creation of the World, the Fall, and the Deluge, turning away, however, from the medieval interest in the Sibyls as supposed witnesses to the Christian revelation, and representing them rather in states of spiritual contemplation: of precisely those three main scenes from the first chapters of Genesis occupying the central overhead panels of the Sistine Ceiling.

Michelangelo's Prophets and Sibyls are supernatural beings in the strength of their corporal existence and in the superiority of their intellectual life. It is the spiritualis ignis which illuminates the total existence, physical and spiritual, of these seers who, enlightened, are now reborn. It is a renovatio brought about by the contemplation of truth....because only he who is newly born can see God and the truth. (John 3:3 "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born anew again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.") A wind accompanies the rebirth (John 3:8 "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is everyone that is born of the spirit.")

[Charles de Tolnay, The Sistine Ceiling, Princeton University Press (1949 reprint of the 1945 first edition), p. 46.]

Charles de Tolnay refers also to a passage from Virgil about the furor divinus in a tradition that actually may have begun with the Aeneid, purporting to express the gaze associated with Delphi (whether as Delphica or confounded with Pythia--the Delphian Sibyl and the Delphic Oracle conflated.) Acknowledging that "Virgil speaks in truth about Cumaea," Professor de Tolnay characterizes the subject Sibyls:

The conception of the furor divinus or mania, as a gift of the Gods, as it appears in Plato's Phaedrus, Chap. XXII, was revived by Leonardo Bruni, celebrated humanist of the early fifteenth century, and applied to the Sibyls. The Sibyl, in his opinion, could grasp truth only in a state of mania....Michelangelo created a variegated scale in his series of Sibyls which was previously unknown. In the Delphica is found the type of mania divinely inspired, in the spirit of Plato. In the Erythraea is seen the ancient author type, probably influenced by Ghiberti's Evangelist Luke, on the northern portal of the Baptistry in Florence....The Cumaea follows the same type....In the Libyca, there is, finally, a figura serpentina, which cannot be connected with any earlier tradition....

[De Tolnay, The Sistine Ceiling, pp. 155, 154.]

Joseph Fontenrose, in discussing the Delphic Oracle, distinguishes Plato's concept of prophetic mania (in its original Greek meaning of "transport, rapture, inspiration, or ecstasy") from mis-translation into Latin as insania ("madness, insanity") or vereor ("awe, fear").

The Pythia experienced enthusiasm, but not an uncontrolled and irrational frenzy. Confusion arises from translating mania as "madness" or "insanity," since these words immediately connote a pathological condition--derangement, raving, erratic behavior--usually the word calls up symptoms of manic-depressive insanity. There has been talk of the Pythia's hypnotic trance; but in the [erroneous] prevailing conception of her frenzy she is manic in the psychotic sense of the word. Yet mania, especially as Platoband Plutarch use the word, means a high state of emotion and comprehends all kinds of transport, enthusiasm and inspiration.

[Fontenrose, Delphic Oracle, p. 211 f. For Plato, see Phaedrus 244a-245c, 265ab.]

Michelangelo emphasized certain differences between the Sibyls and the Prophets: the indecision, passivity and ambiguity of the former, in contrast with the latter's intellectual concentration. The Prophets are all shown just prior to receiving their inspiration, the sudden spiritual renovatio of the man, the male; and, relfecting the gender biases of his age and of tradition, he represents "the slow transformation of the woman, nearer to nature and to the earth," who "remains basically herself," even though "through this connection with the earth, she sees approaching disaster more clearly." Yet, both are

wise men and women who through their spiritual rebirth are able to grasp the essence of existence as it reveals itself in the nine histories. This essence is at once present, past and future --it is eternal.

[De Tolnay, The Sistine Ceiling, pp. 57, 47.]

Both the Prophets and the Sibyls, with their respective accompanying genii figures painted to resemble sculpture, are placed by Michelangelo in the "second zone" of the ceiling, the architectural skeleton, above the lower level of beings undergoing the "daily vicissitudes of human condition." For, although the Prophets and Sibyls are human,

they share in the divine by their intellectual and emotional faculties: they can ascend from earthly life, by virtue of knowledge, will and desire (desio), to the divine....The third and highest zone which appears behind the architectural framework contains the prototypes of man in his direct relation to the Divine and the history of God Himself. These three zones, in spite of their differing natures, are all bound together: man in the lowest sphere reflects unconsciously the attitudes of the Prophets and Sibyls, which in turn are the reflections of the divine.

[De Tolnay, The Sistine Ceiling, p. 22 f.]

From the moment of their completion the frescoes of the Sistine Ceiling have been considered the sublime masterwork of the artist, and the crowning glory of the "Golden Age" of Renaissance art. In keeping with the essential spirit of the Renaissance, and amid all the spectacular and imposing grandeur of the Chapel, at the heart of this creation by Michelangelo is the brilliance of a vision, however mystically Neoplatonic, still genuinely individual and human. In the Sistine Chapel we are able to experience the full power and dramatic totality of Michelangelo's sublime achievement because of the integration of the cosmic: divine, heroic and human--by his incomparable technical virtuosity, poetic intelligence, and creative sensibility--into an architectural, "four-dimensional," space-time experience at the imaginary center of which he--like both the mystic architect or the painter of icons at Hosios Lucas, and Marcel Duchamp many years later (and, we must acknowledge, in different terms)--provided that the central place of honor be awarded to the spectator, in posterity.

[T]his series of frescoes reveals...the return to God of the human soul imprisoned in the body....The liberation of the human soul from this slavery of the flesh is achieved only by a return to God....However, the return to God is nothing but a return to the source and first essence of the soul itself; for, according to Neo-Platonism, God is but the idea of man, and is no longer the transcendent being He was considered to be in the Middle Ages....In Early Christian art cyclical compositions began at the altar proceeding toward the entrance without regard to the inner requirement of the spectators and conforming only to liturgical prescriptions....Michelangelo was bound to this tradition in his cycle...but as an artist of the Renaissance, he might not have been satisfied with this kind of representation, and he must have tried to present at the same time the whole cycle as a unity likely to be experienced by the spectator.

The spectator advancing from the main entrance toward the altar experiences from history to history a gradual ascension: freed from his bodily prison he leaves his earthly existence and attains a state of absolute freedom in infinity. The divine origin of the human soul becomes manifest.

This conception of the ascensio from the bodily prison to the innate freedom of the soul is one of the favorite themes of the Platonic literature of the Renaissance....The idea is also expressed in several of Michelangelo's most beautiful poems, written, it is true, after the execution of the Sistine Chapel:

L'anima, della carne anchor vestita,
Con esso gi pi volte asciesa a Dio
(The spirit, wearing yet its fleshly dress
By this upborn has looked upon diety.)

[De Tolnay, The Sistine Ceiling, pp. 42, 40 f. gives other examples; these lines are from a famous sonnet dedicated to Tomasso Cavalieri, G83 in the corpus of original Rime prepared by Enzo No Girardi, Laterza, Bari (1960); translated by Nesca Robb, in Robert J. Clements, The Poetry of Michelangelo, New York University Press (1965), p. 231]

My soul can find no stair
To mount to heaven; save earth's loveliness.
For from the stars above
Descends a glorious light
That lifts our longing to their highest height
And bears the name of love.

[Clements, Poetry, p. 231 f., G107, translated by George Santayana.]


The Neo-Platonic sources--from which Michelangelo, with most of his Renaissance predecessors and contemporaries derived the lofty philsophical aspects of their poetic visions--represented ideas coming only indirectly from Plato himself. For what is meant by "Neo-Platonism" is not limited to a Medieval or Renaissance would-be revival of Plato's ideas--although that, too, came in time. The general term also refers to the influence of the philosophical school located primarily in Alexandria of the third and fourth century AD--and the interest in that tradition from the Renaissance on. These ideas were based on elaboration of themes from Plato, mixed with elements of both Judaism and Christianity, and thoroughly permeated with material from the syncretic mystical traditions of the Levant and further east.

By the time of the third century of the present era as reckoned by the calendrical conventions of the modern Western world, the living chain of teachers transmitting the esoteric teachings had long been severed. The chief perpetrator of this pernicious destruction, half a millennium earlier, had been the very person after whom the city of Alexandria was named: Alexander of Macedon, who, by the perversities of political propaganda and the cancerous ignorance his own deeds helped to spread, is blithely known as "the Great." Why should we bristle at bestowing upon him such an appellation? Not just because of his own eventually self-defeating indulgences, nor because of his subverting what remained of the Athenian democratic tradition, nor alone for his failure to respect the ancient spiritual traditions of Asia Minor as demonstrated by his disdainful, arrogant, strong-armed cutting of the Gordian Knot. Beyond that, the karma of Alexander--which is to say, the historical consequences of his actions--provides a terrible answer to the mystery of "how all the advanced science of the ancient Egyptians could have been lost for so many centuries."

As an explanation for this regression of geographic science, especially during the Hellenistic period, and thereafter almost to modern times, [Professor Livio Catullo] Stecchini suggests that when Alexander the Great destroyed Persepolis in the fourth century BCE he may have exterminated the Egyptian geographers imported by the Persians to do their figuring, and that when he dismantled the center of Egyptian science at Heliopolis in order to build his own capital at Alexandria, he may have compounded the damage.

(Heliopolis, the On of the Bible, was considered the greatest university in the world. It had existed since much earlier times under the domination of the priests, of whom there were said to be 13,000 in the time of Ramses III, 1225 BCE. More that 200 years earlier, Moses was instructed at Heliopolis "in all the wisdom of the Egyptians," which included physics, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, medicine, chemistry, geology, meteorology and music.)

The destructions of Persepolis and Heliopolis were considered by Alexander essential in order to destroy the geographic, and therefore the political, basis of the older empires. Stecchini's evidence shows that far from being the great innovators of geographical knowledge, the Alexandrine geographers of the next half millennium, such as Eratosthenes, Hipparchus and Ptolemy, were mainly handling and mishandling traditional data of an advanced science that preceded them, and which they only understood in part.

[Tompkins, Secrets of the Great Pyramid, p. 214 f.]

The catastrophes for art and science wrought by the imperial aspirations of Alexander: the butchering of scholars, poets, artists, craftsmen, technicians, engineers and scientists, might have been rationalized by the construction of the famous Library at Alexandria. The idea of a Universal Library, unfortunately, was as uncritical as it was megalomaniacal. This staggeringly ambitious plan was to house under one roof all of the books ever written. His methods of collection ranged from pillage and plunder to requisitioning for the Library all manuscripts from ships docking at Alexandria so that they could be copied---then returning (by deception if possible, otherwise by forceful expropriation) the copies instead of the originals to their rightful owners. The Macedonians under Alexander did not learn the languages of the peoples they conquered, but had their books translated into Greek in order to be able to understand them for the practical purpose of maintaining social and political control. The rapacity and destructiveness of Alexander's campaigns were cruelly and stupidly recapitulated when the Library, a repository of surviving ancient learning, was itself burned during a seige involving Julius Caesar, and again further ravaged under the Emperor Aurelian. Not many years thereafter, the city was completely sacked by Diocletian.

[See, Luciano Canfora, The Vanished Library: A Wonder of the Ancient World, translated by Martin Ryle, University of California Press, Berkeley (1989).]

Alexander had entered Egypt "gratuitously undertaking a long and dangerous march to the desert oracle of Ammon (the oasis of Siwa)" so that his own propaganda could later announce he had been recognized as a son of Ammon (Zeus), thus deserving of his request to be treated as a god. Two years earlier, in 335 BCE, his former tutor, Aristotle (then ten years after Plato's death) had founded the School of Athens in reaction to the tendency of surviving Platonists to "turn philosophy into mathematics." Aristotle composed for Alexander two specific works: on Colonists, and on Monarchy. His institutionalization of the peripatetic teaching method attempted to shift the mystical light of Plato to "practical" studies such as zoology. Communication and communion among companions was to be governed by rules laid down by Aristotle, and new energy was directed toward collecting manuscripts--the prototypical example for Hellenistic libraries--specifically books of law. He organized research on the several constitutions of the 158 Greek States, and directed the collation of field reports that might provide "intelligence" potentially exploitable by the state or useful in Alexander's tactical and strategic military considerations although this was done, as today we still might say, "in the name of science."

[Oxford Classical Dictionary, s.v. "Alexander," "Aristotle."]

The Alexandrian Library later suffered burning again when other so-called pagan temples were razed in 391 AD under the Roman Emperor Theodosius I, a firm Catholic, and persecuter of all heretics (and especially of the Antiochene Arians who had stressed the humanity of Jesus as a wise and compassionate teacher). This emperor had enjoyed his own triumph in Rome only two years earlier; and but one year before (because there had been a riot in Thessalonica--a center for those who would eventually be known as Orthodox Christians) he invited the whole population of the city to the local Circus, and when the place was full, turned loose on them an entire army of barbarians who took some three hours to wreak the insistent vengeance of imperial law and order. But Theodosius (who is also called by some "the Great") humbled himself before St. Ambrose, the Archbishop of Milan, and after eight months of penance--recorded by the Church as one of its greatest victories--the emperor was restored to communion with the Church. Then he turned his attention to the purification of "pagans" in Alexandria, with the enthusiastic help of one Theophilus, as the city's patriarch, spiritual leader of the Christian community.

The Museum [Library], which had enjoyed periods of renewed splendour during early Imperial times and which had recently been restored once more to its old glory thanks to the notable efforts of the mathematician Diophantus, must have suffered terrible damage. The Serapeum had been destroyed in the attack on the pagan temples in 391....It was here that the followers of Christ, led by the patriarch Theophilus, had stormed the temple of Serapis, second in splendour (Ammianus had written) only to the Campidoglio at Rome. The marble, alabaster and priceless ivory of its furnishings had been smashed in fragments, and the parchmentof its books had burned splendidly. Now the site lay lost in thesilence of many years: the surrounding district had never recovered from the outburst of destruction.

[Canfora, The Vanished Library, pp. 87, 91.]

The Library was again attacked in the following century by a fanatical Christian mob incited by St. Cyril to persecute the distinguished and scholarly mathematician, Hypatia.

Following the example [of her father Theon, himself a renowned mathematician, author of commentaries on Euclid and on the astronomical tables of Ptolemy], she resolved to add to her information by traveling; and having reached Athens, attended there the lectures of the ablest instructors. On her return to her native city, she was invited by the magistrates to give lectures in philosophy, and Alexandria beheld a woman succeed to that long line of illustrious teachers which had rendered its school one of the most celebrated in the world....

[T]he exact sciences formed the basis of all her instruction, and she applied their demonstrations to the principles of the speculative sciences....Her dress was remarkable for its simplicity; her conduct was always above suspicion....The partisans of the bishop...the most fanatical of their number, in March, AD 415, seized upon Hypatia as she was proceeding to her school, forced her to descend from her chariot, and dragged her into a neighboring church, where, stripped of her vestments, she was put to death by her brutal foes. Her body was hacked to pieces by oyster-shells, and the bloody remains were dragged through the streets and finally burned.

[Harper's Dictionary, s.v. "Hypatia."]

The local bishop and raving demagogue who incited this atrocity, "Saint" Cyril, apparently saw in Hypatia one of the principal supports of "paganism," possibly because of her astronomical canon, and commentaries both on conics and on Diophantus (number theory involving whole integers is still called "Diophantine Analysis"), but more likely because she refused to convert to Christianity, and without question--at least in part--because she was a woman. Her special area of interest and expertise was on the works of Plato, but her writings were all lost in the four thousand fires that, according to a terrible tale, finally consumed the great Library.

On Friday of the new moon of Moharram (corresponding to December 22, 640 AD), just twenty years after Muhammad's Hegira, by which date the Muslim calendar was set, Alexandria's conqueror, Amrou Ibn al-Ass, wrote to the Caliph 'Umar with the news that he found

it difficult to list its riches and its beauties. Let me say only that it contains four thousand palaces, four thousand public baths, four hundred theaters or places of amusement and twelve thousand fruit shops; and that forty thousand Jews pay tribute there. The city was conquered by force of arms and without parleying. The Moslems look forward impatiently to enjoying the fruits of their victory.

[Canfora, The Vanished Library, p. 83.]

Following fierce counterattacks and much damage to the city, having originally obeyed the Caliph's wish to refrain from sacking and destroying it, the victorious Muslim general Amrou once again wrote to the Caliph, this time at the intercession of a resident Christian scholar and commentator on Aristotle, John Philoponus, who pleaded that the substantial remains of the Library's collection be spared. The response, which took about a month to arrive from the Caliph (a "pious bigot," a "barbarian ready to sanction the destruction of [this Library's] treasure on the strength of a crude syllogism"), declared:

As for the books you mention, here is my reply. If their content is in accordance with the book of Allah, we may do without them, for in that case the book of Allah more than suffices. If, on the other hand, they contain matter not in accordance with the book of Allah, there can be no need to preserve them. Proceed, then, and destroy them.

Obediently, the general Amrou executed the Caliph's orders and distributed the books to the baths of Alexandria, also reckoned to have been four thousand in the later account in the Annals of Eutychius. According to Ibn al-Kifti's Chronicle of Wise Men, "it took six months to burn all that mass of material" in the furnaces of the baths, during which time they were kept so comfortably warm.

Aristotle's books were the only ones spared.

[Canfora, The Vanished Library, pp. 83 ff., 98 f., note p. 105 f.]


In Plato's Republic, Book III, Socrates discourses on how human beings might become "expert craftsmen" of life itself. Above all, Socrates urges education in music. This art, he tells us, is "most sovereign, because more than anything else rhythm and harmony find their way to the inmost soul and take strongest hold upon it, bringing with them, and imparting grace." Note that music is not supreme because it beguiles or soothes, but because it is form itself, the earthly echo of the divine Form (that is to say, the lineaments of the imago Dei), and thus instills rhythm and harmony in ourselves, and in our relationship with others....With the dissolution of Plato's Academy, Socrates' teachings on inner harmony soon passed out of active currency, and today survive only in books [or, in those books that have survived all the incidental and deliberate burning of libraries].

[Philip Zaleski, "Imago Dei," Parabola: The Magazine of Myth and Tradition (The Golden Mean, Winter 1991), p. 7 f. The quotation of Socrates is from Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, eds., The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Bollingen Foundation, New York (1961).]

The ancient efforts to achieve a rhythm and harmony within one's own soul were continued by others in the Early Church, less bent on serving directly as agents of some imagined Divine Retribution than was the megalomania of Alexander (demanding that he be addressed as a god), or the latter day zealous rabble in the city that bore his name. Deprived of sustenance from the severed great arteries of esoteric transmission, nevertheless, there was persevered within the the monastic schools of the Christian West, a lineage of practice continuing the efforts--worthy of both Socrates and the bodhisattva path--to integrate within everyday life, through the application of musical principles, a sense of universal harmony and rhythms divine.

The effort is everywhere the same, and unites practitioners of East and West; indeed, in these schools the doctrinal differences between the great traditions tend to evaporate, and the same basic techniques, with appropriate local twists, may be found in Italy and India. (Thus it is possible for a Cistercian monk like Thomas Merton to stand barefoot in body and spirit before the Theravada Buddhist icons of Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka in 1958: "I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand. The silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything...All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear.") The Christian experience, distilled by St. Benedict of Nursia in his sixth-century Rule, can therefore be taken as paradigmatic of the whole.

In his Rule, Benedict eschews extremes of asceticism or indulgence, as did the Buddha when he proclaimed the Middle Way [the Mahayana]. Instead, the Rule is guided by a firm grasp of the inner constitution of man, apparently seen by Benedict as tripartite.

[Zaleski, "Imago Dei," Parabola, p. 8 f. The quotation is from The Asian Journals of Thomas Merton, Naomi Burton, Patrick Hart and James Laughlin, eds., New Directions, New York (1973).]

As in the tripartite distribution of energy between work, study and prayer within a Buddhist monastery, the Rule of St. Benedict provided for rhythmical manual labor, which helped to guarantee the economic viability and self-support of the monastic family. The Lectio divina was dedicated to the study of sacred texts. Nevermind that this "reading" during some years in the middle of the twentieth century--for example, in the refectory of the exquisitely carved Romanesque Benedictine monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos, located near Burgos in northern Spain, along the great pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela--had degenerated (here used in a non-mathematical sense) into scratchy recordings of political speeches by el Caudillo, Francisco Franco. Nevertheless, what qualified as prayer, working directly on the heart--and the Benedictines understood the necessity for integration of these three--was the "Work of God," or Opus Dei:

the singing of psalms, antiphons, and other sacred texts in Gregorian plainchant, [cultivating] feeling as a vehicle for an act of communal devotion....Above all, chanting calls simultaneously upon body, mind, and feeling: body, for one chants in different positions, at one time standing, at another sitting, at another bowing, and because the chant, properly done, must be generated in the chest and must resonnate through the torso; mind, for one must remain alert to follow the difficult notation and at the same time understand and correctly pronounce the words one chants; and feeling, for of what value is all this unless it generates, not erzatz sentimentality, but genuine, objective impulses of faith, hope, and love?

[Zalecki, "Imago Dei," Parabola, p. 9.]

The structure of Plato's cosmos is also three-part, like the tripartite life-style of St. Benedict, the Trinitarian program of Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling, the "Buddhas of the Three Times," and so forth, including--if we be bold enough to include it in such grand company--With Hidden Noise, "mass-produced" by Marcel Duchamp in an edition of three, or giving it the alternate reading (in elevation): with the ball of twine as Present, pressed between Future and Past as plaques of brass. In the Republic, Plato discusses the structure of the universe itself--ultimately represented as cosmic music, approachable through astronomy and mathematics--but also possible to see through the agency of myth. To this end, Plato invokes the mythological figures of the Three Fates: Clotho who spins the yarn, Lachesis who casts the lots while holding the skein upon her knees, and the inexorable Atropos, from whom there is no turning away. All three of these charmers are daughters of Ananke, "Necessity," and upon her lap turns the spindle whorl of the world.

When it is said in the Timaeus that it is man's task to know the harmonies and circular motions of the universe, and to assimilate himself to this knowledge "according to original nature," the symmetry between individual soul and cosmos is perfectly clear. The Structure of the Republic rests entirely upon the homology between soul and state. And it must be a reading in Plato's sense when we see the final myth as a fulfillment of the entire construction: human soul, state, and cosmos conceived as three forms symmetrically placed around the same center....

The construction of the world concludes the Republic, the educational state, in which astronomy has been put forth as an important instrument of education. [The subject of] this astronomy, not the colorful variety of heavenly phenomena, but the true velocities, numbers, forms, to be grasped by pure thought, to which the phenomena visible in the sky are related as copies to their prototypes. Such a construction of the universe and its motions according to strictly mathematical proportions--that is the meaning, disguised as a fairy tale, of the spindle with its whorls. When it is said that upon each whorl is a siren always hymning a single tone so that all eight of them together [the musical octave] "form a single harmony," we must again remember how, in Book VII, astronomy is followed by the true science of music, which is concerned only with the consonnance of pure numerical proportions. This combination of astronomy with music is a special exemplary case--already recognized by the Pythagoreans and most important for Plato--of the unity and kinship among the individual sciences, the methodos of which leads to the final goal. The souls see and hear this cosmos of sidereal revolutions and pure sounds in the world beyond. And thus they are near the highest kind of knowledge. The vision of the highest images themselves is reached in the Phaedrus. In the Republic it is only suggested in a reference to what the soul of the good man beholds in its journey to heaven: "views of incomparable beauty."

[Paul Friedlnder, Plato: An Introduction, Volume I, translated from the German by Hans Meyerhoff, Bollingen Series LIX, Pantheon Books, New York (1958), pp. 189, 188.]