From Alexandria to the Outskirts of Empire


The Great Library of Alexandria, founded around 300BC, was the locus point for philosophers, mathematicians, and scholars of every kind. At its height, the Library held 750,000 scrolls, acquired by the Ptolemies from the many markets of the Mediterranean. Manuscripts flowed into its shelves from the great empires of Greece, Egypt, and Babylon, and burgeoning civilizations as far away as India. Alexandria, positioned at the crossroads of the developed world, soon became the world’s intellectual capital.

One wonders whether those who were brilliant and privileged enough to study within its walls truly grasped the historic nature of the site. Surely the vastness of the Library itself would have struck those who visited. The complex included two libraries, a museum, a research laboratory, a zoo, and an observatory. And the minds that studied there read like a who’s who of ancient thought. Eratosthenes, who calculated the Earth’s circumference to within one percent of its actual value, Aristarchus, who posited that the Earth revolved around the Sun nearly 2000 years before Galileo developed such hedonic ideas, and Euclid, the father of geometry, sharpened their minds in the stacks of the Great Library.

Whether there are any Euclid’s or Eratosthenes’ among our contemporaries at Harvard University, we may never know. But what must be clear to each of us is that we are studying in the modern-day Great Library. Cambridge, Massachusetts, which 400 years ago was but a pasture along a dirty river, is now the intellectual capital of the world. Harvard boasts nearly 16 million volumes in its library system, second in the United States to the Library of Congress. But Cambridge’s status as the global capital of intellectualism does not simply flow from the number of books on the shelves. It flows from the minds that are drawn to this old cow pasture from every corner of the Earth and the reputation of the Harvard brand worldwide.

For many, the next stop from the Great Library is the Rome and Athens of our time: New York City. For some who grew up in New York, and many more who did not, myself included, the gravitational pull of the center of the world’s greatest empire is overwhelming. Just as the learned men of Alexandria gravitated to the great political and cultural centers of the ancient world, so the graduates of Harvard University flock to New York, as well as Boston, DC, and other metropolises, to ply their trade.

And yet, there is a danger in such concentration of intellect. The danger is in the disconnect between the global power centers and the majority of the world’s population that lives in what a good friend described as “the outskirts of the Empire.” The needs people on the periphery must make us reassess what it means to have studied and grown at the Great Library. Put simply, the knowledge gained at the Library and the gateways to power and privilege that it opens, must not be used only to create utopian droplets in a world awash with suffering.

The ancient library of Alexandria was not public. Indeed, in order to study within its walls, you needed an invitation, just as you need an acceptance letter to gain access to Harvard University today. However, what distinguishes the ancient library from Harvard is a post-modern, democratic understanding of ownership of the library and the fruits its bears. The ancient Library belonged to the Ptolemaic Kings of Egypt. In Cambridge, Harvard University, no matter what you may hear from the President and Fellows of Harvard College, as the corporation is officially known, belongs to the world. The Great Library of the modern age is a human asset, and as such, its offspring, including those graduating from Harvard Law School, owe their allegiance to no one man, but to the world.

The need to assess the problems of the periphery need not blind us to the problems of the center of Empire, either. Indeed, even in Manhattan, the second-wealthiest county in the country and the beating heart of the world’s financial markets, misery is ever-present. For all the wealth and power that the center of the Empire has, it too, like the periphery, is fraught with poverty and pain. Just as the Great Library of old offered emancipation for the multitude through the devoted studying of the few, so Harvard University offers up the fruits of its collection-the graduates-to the world at large.

In a few short weeks, some of our classmates are leaving the Library for good-for others, another year, or more, awaits. For those who are departing, we can only hope that the knowledge you have gained from this University will trickle down to the outskirts of all empires and touch the lives of people who will never have the chance to walk through our gates. While there will be 500 new minds at this Law School next year, the Great Library, and its privileged patrons who will return to toil in its stacks, will miss you. For now, onward from Alexandria you must go, with the lessons of the Library as your tool to tackle the problems of the Empire and the World-in its metropolises and on its outskirts.

Andrew Kalloch is a 2L.