Hypatia’s birthday is somewhere between 350 and 370 AD; a range of dates indicating great uncertainty, to be sure, but clear original sources this old are hard to come by, especially from a city as turbulent and violence-torn as the Alexandria of her day. The day of her death is better known, sometime in March of 415 AD. Since the latter date is more precise, we’ll break with our tradition here and remember Hypatia in the month of her tragic and violent death instead of on the date of her birth.
She’s a mathematician, astronomer, teacher, and philosopher, who writes commentaries on important works in geometry and astronomy with her father Theon, likely contributing original work of her own. Hypatia is a Neoplatonist, a philosophy with mystical overtones which posits that everything derives its being from the One, an ultimately conscious yet nonmaterial, non-spacial entity which is the pure ideal of everything that is. She is a scholar and teacher in a field and in a world that’s male-dominated, and historians from her day to ours emphasize her extraordinary talents and her femininity with a nearly equal mix of awe and bemusement.
So let us remember and honor Hypatia for her great contributions to human knowledge and to the history of women’s liberation, living proof that women are equals in intellect and courage.
And let us also remember her sad death as a cautionary tale against those who inflame popular sentiment to seize power for themselves. Hypatia meets her death at the hands of a Christian mob caught up in the anti-pagan hysteria of the day; Alexandria itself was caught up in a power struggle between civic and religious authority. The mob of extremists who drag Hypatia from her carriage, torture and kill her with roofing tiles, and defile her body are inspired by their partisanship with theocratic bishop Cyril to kill this pagan philosopher, this mathematician and astronomer (then often equated with sorcerer), this woman who dared teach men, this friend of Cyril’s rival Orestes, civic leader of Alexandria. As Hypatia scholar Micheal Deakin quotes: “Cyril was no party to this hideous deed, but it was the work of men whose passions he had originally called out. Had there been no [earlier such episodes], there would doubtless have been no murder of Hypatia.”
From the current presidential primary race, in which a certain millionaire is whipping up populist support* with extremist racial and religious rhetoric, back to Hypatia’s time and beyond, power-hungry opportunists plead innocence from the very violence they inspire. Yet it appears hard to justify that plea when reason and the lessons of history plainly reveal the nearly inevitable results of fomenting sectarian strife. Extremism in the defense of liberty or anything else is a vice** because of the way it drives away reason and sympathy, and after all, nothing is as liberty-destroying as mob violence and death.
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Read more about Hypatia:
Deakin, Michael.’Hypatia of Alexandria‘ from Ockham’s Razor radio program of Radio National of Australia (transcript), Sun August 3rd 1997. (click ‘Show’ across from ‘Transcript’)
O’Connor, J J and E F Robertson. ‘Hypatia of Alexandria‘, from the School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St Andrews, Scotland website.
‘O’Neill, Tim. ‘“Agora” and Hypatia – Hollywood Strikes Again‘. Armarium Magnum blog, Wed May 20, 2009
Zielinski, Sarah. ‘Hypatia, Ancient Alexandria’s Great Female Scholar‘. Smithsonianmag.com, Mar 14, 2010.
…and about Neoplatonism
Wildberg, Christian, “Neoplatonism“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
* ‘What If Trump Wins?’ by Jeet Heer in New Republic, Nov 24, 2015
** in reference to the quote ‘Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice’ from Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential nomination acceptance speech