Yesterday, Kathleen Parker used her column in the Washington Post to inform readers that she has finally watched the hit reality show “Honey Boo Boo,” which documents the life of a bratty child pageant participant, age seven. A bold admission, from which she draws a broad conclusion. It didn’t even take a full episode of vulgarity and mindlessness to convince her that civilization is basically over. Back in the good old days of ancient civilization, “knowledge was valued as much as gold,” and regardless of the inclinations of individuals, “the larger culture collectively aimed at something higher.”
Maybe. It’s a tempting conclusion, and she shares a number of insights to support it. As recently as her own childhood, people were largely skittish about spectacles like circus freakshows, since it was regarded as unseemly to delight in the faults of others. Our modern defense of trashy pop culture, which usually hinges on free speech, is likewise misguided: the founding fathers intended to ”to liberate ideas, which is not the same as exploring man’s basest instincts.”
So far so good. But when she gets sick of “Honey Boo Boo,” what was her solution? “In urgent need of purification,” as she puts it, Parker dramatically plucks up the remote, and . . . changes the channel. She watches a TV documentary about the ancient city of Alexandria and the famous library built there. It’s this TV show that guides her conclusions about the glories of the past, and it leads her right into a historical trap:
Notably, in the fourth century A.D., Christian mobs dragged the beautiful and brilliant Hypatia — philosopher/mathematician/
astronomer/teacher — from her carriage and commenced to strip, flay and chop her into pieces before burning her body parts on a pyre. A confessed pagan, she was a tad too smart for divinely inspired men — what with that astrolabe she was always toying with.
It may seem unimaginable to us now that Christians from the lower classes in late antique Alexandria could have conspired in the horrific assassination of an unarmed woman and a respected scholar, but, as it happens, that was how Alexandria was often governed at street level, by every sect and persuasion.
In the royal quarter, pagans, Christians, and Jews generally studied together, shared a common intellectual culture, collaborated in scientific endeavor, and attended one another’s lectures. In the lower city, however, religious allegiance was often no more than a matter of tribal identity, and the various tribes often slaughtered one another with gay abandon.