Quid egeris tunc apparebit cum animam ages
‘What you have done with your life will become apparent once you lose your life’. This epitaph is engraved on Martin Bodmer’s tombstone in the old Cologny cemetery.
Individuum est ineffabile, nothing can truly describe a man. Nothing but his life achievements. The project of this refined aristocrat had a spiritual meaning, and its achievements were both challenging and exceptional. Bodmer owed his ‘spiritual education’, as he called it, to Zurich and Weimar, two well-known cultural centres. His aim was to create a ‘spiritual edifice’ that would bring together the written heritage of the ‘creations of the human mind’. It would be a place that would illustrate ‘man’s journey into his inner self’ (der Weg des Menchen zu sich selber). On many occasions he felt he was creating a work of art. Yet all along, it was his own personal fulfilment that he was seeking (indem man die Sammlung entwickelt, entiwickelt man sich selbst).
Bodmer considered his collection not only as a library, but also as a ‘museum of documents that trace the history of the human mind’: ‘Although the idea of a museum was far from our minds, the Bodmeriana is closer to being a museum than a library in the strict meaning of the word. ‘
On his 70th birthday, he described his vision in a letter to Bernard Breslauer:
‘The continuous concern for mankind’s spiritual development may not be the most dynamic endeavour but it is certainly the best. Tomorrow, like today, it will remain a meaningful and noble cause. Let us then get on with our task, and each in our own way contribute to achieving a true understanding of mankind’s spiritual evolution. ‘
It was this idealism that prompted him to write a synopsis of civilization and found a literary magazine for the intellectual elite of his time. During the war, this same idealism made him join the International Committee of the Red Cross where he pioneered the idea of intellectual assistance to war prisoners that has since become widely accepted.