In Memory of Hypatia of Alexandria

Detail of the death portrait of a wealthy woman, c. 160-170 AD near modern-day Er-Rubayat in the Fayum, public domain via Wikimedia CommonsHypatia’s birthday is somewhere between 350 and 370 AD; a range of dates indicating great uncertainty, to be sure, but original sources that 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 birthday remembrance tradition here and celebrate the memory of Hypatia in the month of her tragic and violent death instead of on the date of her birth.

She was a mathematician, astronomer, teacher, and philosopher who wrote commentaries on important works in geometry and astronomy with her father Theon, likely contributing original work of her own. Hypatia was 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 was a scholar and teacher in a field and in a male-dominated world, 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 met 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 dragged 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. According to Hypatia scholar Micheal Deakin, “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 a certain millionaire we all know* who rose to power whipping up populist support throughout his presidential race 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.

* ‘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 

Read more about the great Hypatia of Alexandria:

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.)

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~ A version of this piece was originally published here at Ordinary Philosophy one year ago

3 thoughts on “In Memory of Hypatia of Alexandria

  1. ” Hypatia met 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 dragged 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.”

    It’s great that you’ve linked to one of my articles on the myth of Hypatia’s death as part of an “anti-pagan” pogrom or as a reaction to her intellectualism. But it’s weird that you’ve done so in an article that repeats those very myths. There is no trace of either of these ideas in any of the contemporary accounts or references to her. Nothing suggests that “paganism” was the issue, in fact Maria Dzielska’s magisterial monograph on Hypatia – which is strangely missing from your reading list – argues strongly against the idea of her being particularly religious at all. And far from any dislike of her learning being an issue, Socrates Scholasticus says that her death happened despite the high esteem in which she was held on account of that learning and attributes it clearly to “political jealousies”. And none of these contemporary sources make any mention of “sorcery” – that was some lurid embroidery by John Nikiu, writing centuries later.

    Please don’t perpetuate these myths, even if it is in the cause of getting in a kick against Donald Trump.

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    • I look forward to reading Maria Dzielska’s work on Hypatia, which I have not yet had a chance to do; I didn’t include it in my reading list because that was a list of reading material currently available online, and I tried to include a variety that presented a range of views. I liked your careful consideration of the various issues in terms of Agora (which I agree wasn’t very good) so I included it.

      I have not yet made a deep study of Hypatia’s life and of the circumstances surrounding her death, though I intend to. From what I did read, it seems there were factions who were anti-pagan and / or religious factions, one of which took it upon themselves to murder Hypatia. If my further reading reveals I presented her death wrongly, I will follow up accordingly.

      This brief piece was not written with the intent to ‘get a kick’ to Donald Trump, it was a ‘by-the-way’ connection I made as I read about the murderous zealotry that overcame the posse’s human feeling following irresponsible inflammatory rhetoric made by an influential person. I often make these connections between old ideas and events and the world of today, in light of the spirit and purpose of Ordinary Philosophy.

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      • “I have not yet made a deep study of Hypatia’s life and of the circumstances surrounding her death, though I intend to.”

        Wouldn’t it have been better to write this article after doing this study, rather than before?

        From what I did read, it seems there were factions who were anti-pagan and / or religious factions, one of which took it upon themselves to murder Hypatia.

        Yes, that is a common way the story is presented/ Unfortunately, it’s not to be found in the actual sources, which make it clear that the issue was a purely political one – a struggle for political dominance between two civic factions, both of which were Christian. The romantic idea that she was some kind of “last pagan” makes for a nice story. So does the polemical idea that she represents “learning” being crushed by “religious superstition” ushering in a “dark age”. These are great stories, they just aren’t found in any of the sources and so can’t be presented as history.

        “This brief piece was not written with the intent to ‘get a kick’ to Donald Trump”

        I realise that. I was referring to the aside at the end, which is predicated on the myth of Hypatia as opposed to what actually happened.

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