When we think of the great cities of the classical world we often think of Athens or Rome but one that shone just as bright was Alexandria. This Egyptian city which hugs the coast of the Mediterranean was founded by Alexander the Great and was famous for its reputation of discovering knowledge in all its different aspects. At the heart of this project was the greatest known library and museum of antiquity. Due to its geographical location, it was a meeting point of trade, not only of physical goods but of metaphysical goods also, of different ideas, different values, different cultures which contributed to an openness in seeing points of view that were different from their own.
This openness and sharing of ideas led in part to an era of new discoveries; Eratosthenes being the first person to calculate the circumference of the Earth; the mechanical inventions of Archimedes such as the compound pulley and the irrigation screw which bore his name; Heron publishing a well-recognised description of a steam-powered device called an aeolipile, to name a few. In philosophy the school of Neoplatonism in Alexandria combined the teachings of Plato and other philosophical traditions in an eclectic way, integrating the best of all these different elements to create a unique whole.
Neoplatonism encouraged a dialogue between different traditions, where everyone could learn from each other, where no ideas were excluded simply because they were different. The possibility was always open that someone else’s understanding of Man and the universe may be perfectly valid, contributing to the whole. What later emerged in Alexandria, which would result in its bright flame being extinguished, were fanatical groups opposed to this eclectic approach of the Neoplatonists. A fanatic sees only one point of view and is unable, or unwilling, to see other points of view, and thinks their view is right and the others are wrong. Fanaticism can be religious, political, scientific or artistic, it is not specific to a discipline, but rather a way of seeing the world.
What can we learn from this ancient city? Today in our world, when we open newspapers or look at the different news feeds, they reveal partisanship in politics, science and our society. Everywhere we turn, there is an unwillingness to understand the other person’s or group’s point of view, little desire to work together to get closer to the truth, or to find the best long term solution that satisfies the common good. One lesson we can learn from Alexandria is tolerance, to see that there are other points of view, different from our own. Tolerance can be accepting others’ right to be different, to have different views, but it does not necessarily mean we make the effort to understand them. We can be satisfied with putting up with each other, enduring or tolerating each other as long as we don’t disturb each other. The hope to tolerate each other without making the effort to understand each other will inevitably lead to frictions, as we don’t understand the other person’s view.
In Alexandria, there were different opinions, different religions, different ways of doing things but these differences were seen as a source of knowledge, opportunities to enrich oneself, and not perceived as a threat. Tolerance is the first step but on its own, it will not bring about a positive change in our society. It is not only to look at our differences and learn from them but also to recognise what we have in common, to be in solidarity. As human beings, we have more in common than what separates us. We have the same DNA, we share sentiments of love, generosity, goodness, and we all have dreams for a better world. These sentiments and ideals unite us in their universal nature. The Neoplatonists would advise connecting with that which is universal in ourselves so that we can recognise that universal aspect in others, to recognise our commonality and differences at the same time. This can be a challenge for the human being because the mind tends to think in black and white: either you are with me or against me. To be in solidarity is to accept the differences and at the same time to work together to find common solutions and not to allow the differences to dismantle the unity.
In Alexandria, we have the opportunity to learn from their history, from their experiences of what went well and not so well. It was not perfect, no city or time in history is but even through their mistakes there is an opportunity for learning. It is a model of tolerance and solidarity as other civilisations have been throughout humanity’s history such as Ashoka in India and Moorish Spain, to name just two examples. In facing the current challenges in our world today the qualities of tolerance and solidarity are indispensable to rekindle unity among all people.