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'The Burning of the Library at Alexandria in 391 AD' by Ambrose Dudley, c.1910 (The Stapleton Collection)

‘The Burning of the Library at Alexandria in 391 AD’ by Ambrose Dudley, c.1910 (The Stapleton Collection)

In Tom Stoppard’s masterful 1993 play Arcadia, a young woman is overwhelmed by an existential grief after reading of the destruction of antiquity’s great library of Alexandria:

…can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides — thousands of poems — Aristotle’s own library! … How can we sleep for grief?

arcadia1In response, her tutor tries to remind her that in the end, nothing can be lost, regardless of the calamity, because that’s not how life works:

By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady! You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe…

We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?

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