From Athens to Alexandria, Card. Newman

Newman compares influence and system, qualities recognized in Athens and Rome, with two types of institutions in the Catholic Church, namely the Oratory of St. Philip Neri and religious orders. He makes an analogy between the Oratory of St. Philip Neri and Athens. Of the latter he writes: “it was the absence of rule, it was action of personality, the intercourse of soul with soul, the play of mind upon mind, it was admirable spontaneous force, which kept the schools of Athens going, and made the pulses of foreign intellects keep with hers.”

St. Philip Neri, the 16th century founder of the Oratory, gave his spiritual children the freedom to follow their own initiatives; he did not ask them to take vows and wished the house to be independent of one another. The houses of the Oratory, like Greek colonies, were to be independent and free to develop their respective gifts and mission. The “one rule is Love” and its weapon “influence.” Newman thought that such an institution in the Catholic Church was well suited to begin the Catholic University of Ireland which religious order, like Imperial Rome, would later organize and consolidate.

Returning to the history of the development of universities, Newman now turns to the Macedonian, Alexander the Great and the city of Alexandria. Alexander, educated by Aristotle and Calisthenes, had a rare talent for organization and administration. He was a cultivated youth who spread Greek learning to his vast conquests. “Eumenes and Ptolemy, after his death, engaged in the honourable rivalry, the one in Asia Minor, the other in Egypt, of investing the dynasties which they respectively founded, with the patronage of learning and of its professors.” Newman notes that these generals may be considered the first founders of public libraries. He continues with a description of the library at Alexandria and the Alexandrian College.

“In the reign of the second Ptolemy the number of volumes rescued from destruction, and housed in the Alexandrian Library, amounted to 100,000, as volumes were then formed; in course of time it grew to 400,000; and a second collection was commenced, which at length rose to 300,000, making, with the former, a sum total of 700,000 volumes. During Cæsar’s military defence of Alexandria, the former of these collections was unfortunately burned; but, in compensation, the library received the 200,000 volumes of the rival collection of the kings of Pergamus, the gift of Antony to Cleopatra. After lasting nearly a thousand years, this noblest of dynastic monuments was deliberately burned, as all the world knows, by the Saracens, on their becoming masters of Alexandria”

Ptolemy carried out a plan for the formal endowment of literature and science. The immense library was by itself an attraction for students, but Ptolemy wished the teachers to be “as stationary and as permanent as his books.” He chose to found a college or Studium Generale, endowed with ample revenues.

Newman will continue to describe the genius of the city of Alexandria and its contribution to the history of universities.