The Bell Tower, Tower of London: Thomas More, Elizabeth I, and Other Histories, Part 1

Bell Tower, Tower of London, England

Saturday, May 4th, 2018

I first visited the Tower of London in January of this year with my friend Steven, a fellow student of history; I at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, he at King’s College, London. We had great fun, two history nerds running around London for a couple of days! While we were at the Tower, I looked for the cell where Sir Thomas More was imprisoned for over a year before he was executed for treason on July 6th, 1535. Like many brought up in Catholic families after the film was made, I grew up watching the adaptation of Robert Bolt’s Man for All Seasons starring Paul Scofield, seeing it so many times I believe I could have parroted the dialogue from entire scenes from memory with little effort. Going back and watching clips, I still remember just about everything that every character will say and do ahead of time. The tragic story of and Scofield’s compelling characterization of the clever lawyer and saint captured my imagination. Since then, I’ve read more about him over the years and broadened my understanding of this man, who was much more complex than the stellar but somewhat two-dimensional martyr of integrity and righteousness portrayed in the film.

Bell Tower placard, Tower of London, England

Early on in our Tower visit, I spotted a sign near the base of the Bell Tower, just across and to the left of the place where visitors enter the Tower, which identified the Bell Tower as More’s place of imprisonment. Upon further inquiry, I discovered that it’s not open to the public. It had been for a short while many years back, but wear and tear caused by visitors there and in other especially historically significant places within the Tower caused them to be closed off again. The damage was minor but happened more quickly than expected, even given the very large number of people that pass through every year: almost three million in 2017 alone! I persisted in my inquiries, as my historically nosy self is wont to do, and discovered that historians can and do seek and gain permission to visit. And so I did!

Simon Dodd, Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London

So on the morning of May 4th, 2018, I arrive at the Tower of London’s raven cages, this time with Laurence as my companion (unfortunately, Steven had a prior engagement and couldn’t make it.) We’re a little early for our assigned meeting time of 11 am with a Yeoman Warder of the Tower, one of the ceremonial guardians also commonly known as ‘beefeaters.’ We’re bleary-eyed since we had pulled an all-nighter: I was unable to get the night before off of work so I went straight to the airport after my shift in the very wee hours of the morning. Laurence very kindly met me there to keep me company. Fortunately, his sense of adventure is also strong and his knowledge of efficient travel to London excellent, so here we are, ahead of time. It’s a very sunny day, almost hot, much different than my first visit to the Tower which had been, appropriately, moodily gray and drizzly. As we wait, we watch the ravens. It’s long been a tradition to keep a certain number of these clever birds at the Tower, where they’re fed, groomed, and trained, their wings clipped just enough to keep them from going over the Tower walls but not enough to keep them from their perches. Some of them are roaming freely. Two of the ravens are nuzzling one another on a perch within one of the cages, one ducking regularly and enthusiastically to groom the other’s neck feathers.

Yeoman Warder Simon Dodd arrives and greets us. He proves throughout our time together to be an extremely friendly, knowledgeable, witty, and all-around delightful man, and very generous with his time. I couldn’t have asked for a better host or conversational partner. Laurence is particularly interested and well-read in military history and Simon has had a long and distinguished military career, so, we all have a lot to talk about. I only hope, as we tour and talk, that my sleep-deprived brain can form intelligent questions and process his answers. I take no chances with its ability to successfully retain information: I take plentiful notes as we go. After introductions and a brief chat, we start right in on our tour.

Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger, ca. 1527, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Before I get into the details of the day’s explorations, let me offer a few more details about Thomas More just in case this is your introduction to him, or, just in case it’s been awhile since you read or heard anything about him and your memory is rusty on the subject. Born on February 6th, 1478, he was a lawyer, scholar, writer, statesman, and Lord Chancellor of England from 1529 until he asked King Henry VIII to release him from the post in 1532 when More found himself no longer able to support the King in his power struggle with the Pope. Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was the widow of his older brother prior to Henry’s marriage to her. When the marriage failed to produce any living male heirs, Henry VIII sought to have his marriage to her annulled, freeing him to marry his paramour Anne Boleyn. Trouble was, Henry VIII had already sought and won a special dispensation to marry Catherine in the first place from the previous Pope; the new Pope was a virtual prisoner of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V; and Catherine was the Emperor’s aunt. So, as you can imagine, this whole annulment business was a sticky, tangled religious and political mess. Henry solved the problem in a typically aggressive and self-aggrandizing way: he tore the Church of England away from the Catholic Church and placed himself at the head of it, ruining careers, taking away titles, confiscating lands and property, and chopping off heads along the way.

More and Henry went way back. More first met Henry when the latter was a young prince. In 1499, More’s friend Erasmus brought him along to the palace where the royal family was staying. The bright, athletic, and precocious eight-year-old Henry was second in line to the throne behind his elder brother Arthur. More would become a huge influence on and trusted counselor of King Henry VIII until the King turned against him when More refused to formally acknowledge Henry as supreme head of the Church in England. Erasmus was another central figure in More’s life. He was twelve years older than More, yet the two became very intimate friends very quickly. Erasmus called More ‘sweetest Thomas’ and More called Erasmus ‘my derlynge’ (my darling). These two humanist scholars bonded deeply over books and writing; Erasmus and More were inspirations for one another’s most enduring works, Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly (in fact, the book’s original Latin title Moriae Encomium is a pun on More’s name) and More’s Utopia. When More decided to turn his energies to a life of public service instead of scholarship, Erasmus was disappointed, but they remained friends. Sadly, according to More’s biographer John Guy, Erasmus effectively abandoned him in his troubles with the King, yet More continued to write to him as to a trusted friend up to the end of his life.

A view of the Thomas More cell in the Bell Tower, Tower of London

The bonds of trust and friendship between More and Henry VIII only went so far, however, at least on Henry’s part. From the beginning, More made it clear to Henry that his beliefs regarding the annulment and the nature and extent of papal authority did not accord with Henry’s actions or with what was included in the final version of the Act of Succession. Henry promised to allow More the freedom to act in accordance with his conscience, but like so many of Henry’s promises, this one turned out not to be worth much. Eventually, Henry (perhaps prodded by Anne Boleyn) demanded that More swear to the Act. More found he could not since the preamble of the Act specified that the monarch was the supreme head of the church in England rather than the Pope; as he told the King’s ministers charged with administering the Oath of Supremacy to him, ‘…it were a very hard thing to compel me to say either precisely with [the Act of Supremacy] against my conscience to the loss of my soul, or precisely against it to the destruction of my body.’

To return to the story of the day… Simon leads us first to the place I first sought: the cell where Sir Thomas More was held. Well, maybe he was held here. There’s plenty of dispute about this: there’s no contemporary written record of where exactly More was held. Historians disagree and their dispute continues in books, newspapers, and elsewhere. The Tower of London’s signage indicates that he was most likely kept in this Bell Tower cell, but Simon responds to my questions regarding this dispute that the chances may even be ‘fifty-fifty’ that he was held here or in the Salt Tower, another very secure cell where politically dangerous but distinguished and influential people like More were held. He goes on to explain that the southwest or southeast tower, the Bell Tower or Salt Tower respectively, were the only two likely candidates for More’s cell. Outside of rooms in the central White Tower, which was not a place of imprisonment at the time, the Bell Tower cell is the most secure, with 11 foot thick stone walls and 30 foot deep stone foundations. The Salt Tower was also pretty secure, though not quite to this degree.

A wider view of Thomas More’s cell, Bell Tower, Tower of London

Another More historian, Peter Ackroyd, believes More might have been held at least for a time in the Beauchamp Tower, where many other religious and political prisoners were held. But those cells were not so secure nor isolated as the Bell or Salt Tower cells. According to the notes for Ackroyd’s biography, Sonja Johnson of the Tower of London described More’s cell as ‘one of those apartments which were reserved for the more influential or privileged “guests” of the lieutenant. His was a pentagonal stone chamber, with a vaulted ceiling; it was some nineteen feet in height, with a floor space of approximately eighteen feet by twenty feet. The walls themselves were between nine and thirteen feet thick, the floor flagged through with rough and uneven stone, the windows merely arrow-slits or “loops”‘. And, it was cold: cold enough that, Simon says, it was used as a larder for a time. The cold, in fact, the very cool temperature helped preserve it, despite the damp. Johnson’s description fits perfectly with this high-ceilinged, chilly stone room we’re in.

John Fisher and Thomas More portraits in chamber below St Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London

There are other reasons to think More may not have been held in this cell, at least not during the entire time of his imprisonment in the Tower. Historical researcher Stephen Priestley told the Guardian’s Maev Kennedy that Tower authorities tried to break up communication between More and fellow prisoner Bishop John Fisher, who was also opposed to the Act of Succession, much more openly than More, and also thrown into the Tower for it. The cell above this one in the Bell Tower, which at the time could be reached by a narrow staircase from this one, was the one that held Fisher, or at least, probably did. This leads Thomas to surmise that Fisher and Thomas would have been eventually placed where they could not communicate so easily with one another. I also consider the stories that Simon and others tell of More rapping on the ceiling to get Fisher’s attention in the room above. But, as you can see yourself from the photos and as Simon points out today, this hardly seems possible in the Bell Tower cell, no matter how hard you might pound on the ceiling if you found a way to reach it at all. Perhaps, then, More and Fisher were held, at least for awhile, in neighboring cells where such communication was possible. Or perhaps, the ceiling-rapping stories are apocryphal and More and Fisher communicated only by smuggled notes and letters, as we know for certain they did.

On the way from the Bell Tower’s lower cell to our next destination, we spot Merlin the Raven. Simon Dodd tells us that she was named prior to knowing her sex, which was later determined by DNA. That’s the only way you can tell, he says – other than by such behavior as egg-laying, of course.

Overall, given what I’ve read and heard, I think, like Ackroyd does, that at least More’s place of imprisonment changed at least once. In one of his letters written in 1534 from his prison cell to his eldest daughter and confidante Margaret Roper, who he called ‘Meg,’ More reports that he was returned to ‘close keeping’ and ‘shut up again.’ Does this mean he was imprisoned more securely, perhaps in a different room, or just not allowed to leave it? Ackroyd interprets More’s comments to mean he was held in solitary confinement, but perhaps it could also refer to his being moved to a more isolated, stronger cell away from others where escape or rescue was far less likely.

After spending some time looking closely at the cell, talking over its history, and discussing the likelihood and duration of More’s imprisonment in this cell, Simon, Laurence, and I re-emerge from the dim cell blinking against the bright sun’s light.

Next, we make a short visit to the Queen’s House. Simon tells us a bit about the history and historians of the Tower and that there have been 160 Constables of the Tower since 1066. He told us about the early-to-mid 19th century Constable Duke Wellington who worked to make the Tower function better, made it look more like it did in the medieval era, increased its military management, and who was dismayed when tourism to the Tower drastically increased during his tenure there. Simon recommends us to read and watch David Starkey’s, Lucy Worsley’s, and Anna Keay’s books and audiovisual productions to learn more about Tudor history in general. In researching this piece, I recently read a Telegraph article about Starkey’s sharp criticism of the BBC’s Wolf Hall‘s negative portrayal of Thomas More.

A room in the Queen’s House, Tower of London

Simon Dodd telling us history in the Queen’s House, Tower of London

Simon also describes changing features of the Tower over the centuries with reference to a lovely old painting of the Tower hanging on the wall, and indicates the route by which More would have been taken from the gate through which he entered the Tower to his cell in the Bell Tower.

We will see and talk about many, many more things during our day’s tour of the Tower so I’ve decided to break up this story into multiple parts. Stay tuned for more about our Tower adventure…

Patron of this Tower of London journey: Laurence Murphy ~ With warmest gratitude, thank you!

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

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Sources and inspiration:

Ackroyd, Peter. The Life of Thomas More. London: Chatto & Windus, 1998

Annual Survey of Visits to Visitor Attractions: Latest Results.‘ VisitBritain.org

Borman, Tracy. The Story of the Tower of London. London: Merrell Publishers Limited, 2015

Borman, Tracy. ‘The Tudors and the Tower.‘ Tudor Times website, 3 Aug 2015

Camden, William Norton, Robert; Hans and Hanni Kraus. The historie of the most renowned and victorious Princesse Elizabeth, late queen of England. Contayning all the important and remarkeable passages of state both at home and abroad, during her long and prosperous raigne. Composed by way of annals. Neuer heretofore so faithfully and fully published in English.
Sir Francis Drake Collection Library of Congress. London: Printed by N. Okes for B. Fisher; 1630

Collinson, Patrick. ‘Elizabeth I (1533–1603), Queen of England and Ireland.‘ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

English Monarchs website: ‘The Bell Tower’ and ‘The Queen’s House

Freeman, Thomas S. (2002). ‘`As true a subiect being prysoner’: John Foxe’s notes on the imprisonment of Princess Elizabeth, 1554-5.‘ (Notes And Documents). The English Historical Review, 117(470), 104-116

Furness, Hannah. ‘Wolf Hall is ‘Deliberate Perversion’ of History, says David Starkey.The Telegraph, 26 Jan 2015

Guy, John. A Daughter’s Love: Thomas and Margaret More. London: Fourth Estate, 2008

Guy, John. ‘For What Did Thomas More So Silently Die?’ Lecture published at Tudors.org

House, Seymour Baker. ‘More, Sir Thomas [St Thomas More] (1478–1535), Lord Chancellor, Humanist, and Martyr.‘ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Ives, Eric William. ‘Henry VIII (1491–1547), King of England and Ireland.’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Jones, Jonathan. ‘Wolf Hall is Wrong: Thomas More was a Funny, Feminist Renaissance Man.‘ The Guardian, 29 Jan 2015

Kennedy, Maev. ‘Historians Scorn Claims over Thomas More’s Cell.The Guardian, 10 Jan 2000

Marc’hadour, Germain P. ‘Thomas More.’ Encyclopædia Britannica

More, Thomas. The Apology of Sir Thomas More, Knight. from The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, Vol. 9. Yale University Press, published online by The Center for Thomas More Studies

More, Thomas. Conscience Decides: Letters and Prayers from Prison Written Between April 1534 and July 1535. Selected and arranged by Dame Bede Foord; preface by Trevor Huddleston; introduction by Germain Marc’hadour. London: Geoffrey Chapman Ltd, 1971

More, Thomas. The English Correspondence of Sir Thomas More, 1947 Rogers edition, Princeton University Press, published online by The Center for Thomas More Studies

Moynahan. God’s Bestseller: William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the Writing of the English Bible – A Story of Martyrdom and Betrayal. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003

Plowden, A. ‘Grey [married name Dudley], Lady Jane (1537–1554), Noblewoman and Claimant to the English Throne.Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Roper, William. The Life of Sir Thomas More1556. Ed. Gerard B. Wegemer and Stephen W. Smith. Center for Thomas More Studies, 2003

Stanford, Peter. ‘Sir Thomas More: Saint or Sinner?’ The Telegraph, 20 Jan 2015

Teysko, Heather and Melita Thomas. ‘Tudor Times on Thomas More.’ Renaissance English History Podcast: A Show About the Tudors, episode 55, Sep 16, 2016

 

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. ‘Smithsonianmag.com, Mar 14, 2010.

…and about Neoplatonism

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

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

* 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.

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.)

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and is ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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

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 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.

Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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