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 Commons

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 Commons

Hypatia’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 mob caught up in the anti-pagan hysteria of the day, an at least partly political religious hysteria shared by Christians, Jews, and pagans alike; Alexandria itself was caught up in a power struggle between political and religious factions. The mob of extremists who dragged Hypatia from her carriage, stripped and then tortured and killed her by tearing off her skin with broken roof tiles, and then defiled her body were inspired by their partisanship with theocratic bishop Cyril to kill this pagan philosopher also admired by many Christians, 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.”*

Learn more about the great Hypatia of Alexandria:

Hypatia: Mathematician and Astronomer – by Michael Deakin for Encyclopædia Britannica

Hypatia of Alexandria‘ – by Michael Deakin for Ockham’s Razor radio program of Radio National of Australia (transcript), Sun August 3rd 1997. (click ‘Show’ across from ‘Transcript’)

Hypatia of Alexandria‘ – by Beckett Graham and Susan Vollenweider for The History Chicks podcast

Hypatia of Alexandria‘ – by J J O’Connor and E F Robertson for the School of Mathematics and Statistics of thr University of St Andrews in  Scotland website.

“Agora” and Hypatia – Hollywood Strikes Again – by Tim O’Neill for Armarium Magnum blog, Wed May 20, 2009

Hypatia, Ancient Alexandria’s Great Female Scholar – Zielinski, Sarah. ‘, Mar 14, 2010.

…and about Neoplatonism

Wildberg, Christian, “Neoplatonism“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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* Versions of this piece were originally published here at Ordinary Philosophy one and two years ago. As you can see from past comments, some took issue with my characterization of Hypatia’s murder as, at least in part, inspired by anti-pagan and anti-science religious extremism which in turn, could make her appear as an ideological martyr. One of the most impassioned critics of this piece accused me of perpetuating a partisan and ideologically-motivated distortion created by the anti-clerical John Toland in 1753. This critic insisted that Hypatia’s death was entirely the result of politics, not religion, and therefore any retelling of her death that even hints at religious persecution is likewise just more myth-making. I respond, in brief, that one: the circumstances surrounding her death are still the subject of much scholarly debate given the paucity of contemporary sources and two: that it seems ahistorical to separate out the political from the religious. In Hypatia’s time and indeed, throughout much of history, the religious and political were intertwined and thus, impossible to consider as fully separate issues. I do agree, however, that modern accounts of Hypatia’s murder tend to emphasize the religious and anti-science persecution elements without enough consideration of the political aspects, which is why I include a variety of resources and articles for the reader to consider. I’ve also edited it lightly for clarity, and removed a section in which I drew a parallel between the circumstances which led to Hypatia’s violent death and a timely political news story.

O.P. Recommends: American Philosophical Association Interview with Aaron James

Photo by StockSnap via Pixabay, cropped, free to use under Creative Commons license


Do you like philosophy and surfing and dislike assholes while curious about what makes them tick? Then Aaron James is the thinker for you!

Skye Cleary interviewed Professor James in December for The American Philosophical Association.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


O.P. Recommends: Speaking Ill of Hugh Hefner, by Ross Douthat

‘No doubt what Hefner offered America somebody else would have offered in his place, and the changes he helped hasten would have come rushing in without him.

But in every way that mattered he made those changes worse, our culture coarser and crueler and more sterile than liberalism or feminism or freedom of speech required….

Now that death has taken him, we should examine our own sins. Liberals should ask why their crusade for freedom and equality found itself with such a captain, and what his legacy says about their cause. Conservatives should ask how their crusade for faith and family and community ended up so Hefnerian itself — with a conservative news network that seems to have been run on Playboy Mansion principles and a conservative party that just elected a playboy as our president.’

Read this article in full in the New York Times‘ Opinion Page for Sep 30th, 2017

~ One thing I’d like to make clear: I don’t at all endorse the ageism I discern in many of the articles I’ve read that are critical of Hefner, including this one. So many of these writers imply that Hefner’s sexuality was distasteful, at least in part, because of the physical attributes associated with aging. For example, Douthat mocks Hefner’s ‘papery skin’ and ‘decrepitude’ as if they were among those things the reader should be disgusted by. I don’t believe it’s any more justified to stereotype older people as it is to stereotype women based on narrow conceptions of what desirable or likable people should look like.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Trump Embraces a Post-American World

Fareed Zakaria

By Fareed Zakaria
Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017

President Trump’s speech to the United Nations was well delivered. But it was a strange mishmash of topics and tones, in parts celebrating realpolitik but then also asserting the importance of freedom and democracy. There was, however, one overriding theme — the embrace of nationalism. And in striking that chord, Trump did something unusual, perhaps unique for a U.S. president: He encouraged, even embraced the rise of a post-American world.

First, the mishmash. Early in his speech, Trump asserted, “In America, we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone.” But then, a few minutes later, Trump proceeded to castigate North Korea, Iran, Venezuela and Cuba for their undemocratic political systems, virtually demanding that they all become Western-style liberal democracies.

The danger of this kind of lofty rhetoric is that it has been selectively applied, so it is seen cynically…

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The Country is Frighteningly Polarized. This is Why, by Fareed Zakaria

An excellent piece by my favorite political commentator on the cultural and political polarization that’s driving America apart, and on ill-conceived attempts by both the left and right to quash free expression they don’t like.

Fareed Zakaria

Wednesday’s shooting at a congressional baseball practice was a ghastly example of the political polarization that is ripping this country apart. Political scientists have shown that Congress is more divided than at any time since the end of Reconstruction. I am struck not simply by the depth of partisanship these days, but increasingly also by its nature. People on the other side of the divide are not just wrong and to be argued with. They are immoral and must be muzzled or punished.

This is not about policy. The chasm between left and right during much of the Cold War was far wider than it is today on certain issues. Many on the left wanted to nationalize or substantially regulate whole industries; on the right, they openly advocated a total rollback of the New Deal. Compared with that, today’s economic divisions feel relatively small.

Partisanship today is more about identity…

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The Comey Firing Reminds Us of a Bigger Danger, by Fareed Zakaria

Zakaria’s analysis of Trump’s presidency is excellent.

Fareed Zakaria

By Fareed Zakaria
Thursday, May 11, 2017

I have tried to evaluate Donald Trump’s presidency fairly. I’ve praised him when he has appointed competent people to high office and expressed support for his policies when they seemed serious and sensible (even though this has drawn criticism from some quarters). But there has always been another aspect to this presidency lurking beneath the surface, sometimes erupting into full view as it did this week. President Trump, in much of his rhetoric and many of his actions, poses a danger to American democracy.

The United States has the world’s oldest constitutional democracy, one that has survived the test of time and given birth to perhaps the most successful society in human history. What sets the nation apart is not how democratic it is, but rather the opposite. U.S. democracy has a series of checks intended to prevent the accumulation and abuse of…

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New Podcast Episode: Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 3, Part 1

Margaret Sanger with Fania Mindell inside Brownsville clinic, forerunner of Palanned Parenthood, Oct. 1916, public domain via Library of Congress

Margaret Sanger with Fania Mindell inside Brownsville clinic, forerunner of Palanned Parenthood, Oct. 1916, public domain via Library of Congress

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

I get out in decent time to start the day’s explorations, just after eight, but it’s not long before I realize I’m tired and hence, a little cranky. My friends and I watched the third Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump debate last night and some of the commentary which followed, then finally went to sleep very late after we talked about what we just watched, and other things. I’m mostly on New York time now, but not quite.

The abortion issue came up almost immediately in the debate since the first question from the moderator was about the Supreme Court and the appointment of justices. Trump pledged to nominate only strongly anti-abortion candidates. Clinton was adamant that Roe v. Wade and laws protecting women’s access to birth control and abortion (with appropriate limitations) be upheld. Clinton also strongly endorsed Planned Parenthood, praising the services it provides and criticizing all efforts to defund it. I, for one, am grateful to Planned Parenthood, the organization that Margaret Sanger founded…. Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!