Aug 11, 2012

Nikos Deja Vu - Hypatia of Alexandria

Hypatia of Alexandria

Hypatia of Alexandria (Greek: Υπατία, born between 350 and 370 AD - 415 AD) was a Greek Neoplatonist philosopher, the first notable woman in mathematics, and who also taught in the fields of astronomy and astrology. She lived in Alexandria in Roman Egypt at the turn of the 5th century, at a time when paganism was actively suppressed. Her fame stems principally from her murder in 415 AD at the hands of a Christian mob.

Letters written to Hypatia by her pupil Synesius give an idea of her intellectual milieu. She was of the Platonic school, although her adherence was to the writings of Plotinus, the 3rd century follower of Plato and principal of the neo-Platonic school.

Later sources attribute several works to Hypatia, including commentaries on Diophantus's Arithmetica, on Apollonius's Conics, and on Ptolemy's works, but none have survived. Her contributions to science are reputed (on scant evidence) to include the invention, working with her father Theon, of the astrolabe and the hydrometer.

Life and career

Hypatia was the daughter of Theon, who was her teacher and the last fellow of the Musaeum of Alexandria. Hypatia did not teach in the Musaeum, but received her pupils in her own home. Hypatia became head of the Platonist school at Alexandria in about 400. There she taught on mathematics and philosophy, and counted many prominent Christians among her students. No images of her exist, but nineteenth-century writers and artists envisioned her as an Athene-like beauty.

In 391, Theophilus, the patriarch of Alexandria, ordered the destruction of some of the native Roman pagan temples in the city, which may have included the Musaeum and certainly included the Serapeum (a temple for the worship of Serapis and "daughter library" to the Great Library). In the same year Emperor Theodosius I had published an edict prohibiting various aspects of pagan worship, whereupon (although this was part of a wider phenomenon) Christians throughout the Roman Empire embarked upon a thorough campaign to destroy or christianize pagan places of worship.

Hypatia lived during a conflict between pagans and Christians, who were demanding the final destruction of paganism as an imperial institution. Hypatia, herself a pagan, was respected by many Christians, and was even exalted by a few later Christian authors as a symbol of virtue, often being portrayed by them as a virgin until her death. The Suda is one such source, which also tells the story of her rebuffing a suitor by throwing sanitary napkins at him, to show him that sexual love was carnal rather than spiritual. These later portrayals are not entirely reliable, as they often contradict one another. It is generally agreed that she never officially married, but lifelong virginity is hard to prove.

Her contemporary, the Christian historiographer Socrates Scholasticus in his Ecclesiastical History portrays her as follows:
There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not unfrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.

Some insight into the intellectual conflict of early 5th century Alexandria is given by the letters written by Synesius of Cyrene, Bishop of Ptolomais, to Hypatia, whom he loved and respected as his previous teacher. In one of them, he complains about people who begin to undertake philosophy after failing at some other career: "Their philosophy consists in a very simple formula, that of calling God to witness, as Plato did, whenever they deny anything or whenever they assert anything. A shadow would surpass these men in uttering anything to the point; but their pretensions are extraordinary." In this letter, he also tells Hypatia that "the same men" had accused him of storing "unrevised copies" of books in his library. This suggests that books were rewritten to suit the prevailing Christian dogma, which may also relate to the difficulty of finding accurate contemporary information about Hypatia's life and death.


Theories about the origins of the mob violence that ended Hypatia's life range from a local, spontaneous Christian uprising tolerated by the Christian Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria over a conflict between Cyril and the city prefect Orestes; to a conspiracy by the Emperor himself; to a lawless, civilian "peasant stock" mob (soldiers are never mentioned) made up of Christians and non-Christians alike, led by a man named "Peter". Another point of view holds that Hypatia was part of a rebellion and her murder inevitable.

Socrates Scholasticus described her death thus in his Ecclesiastical History:
Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed. For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church. And surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort. This happened in the month of March during Lent, in the fourth year of Cyril's episcopate, under the tenth consulate of Honorius, and the sixth of Theodosius [AD 415].

John, Bishop of Nikiu, a 7th century author, described her death as follows, obviously drawing on Socrates but coming to rather different conclusions and portraying Hypatia as a witch:
And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through (her) Satanic wiles. And the governor of the city honored her exceedingly; for she had beguiled him through her magic. And he ceased attending church as had been his custom....A multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the magistrate - now this Peter was a perfect believer in all respects in Jesus Christ - and they proceeded to seek for the pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the prefect through her enchantments. And when they learnt the place where she was, they proceeded to her and found her seated on a (lofty) chair; and having made her descend they dragged her along till they brought her to the great church, named Caesarion. Now this was in the days of the fast. And they tore off her clothing and dragged her [till they brought her] through the streets of the city till she died. And they carried her to a place named Cinaron, and they burned her body with fire. And all the people surrounded the patriarch Cyril and named him 'the new Theophilus'; for he had destroyed the last remains of idolatry in the city.

Edward Gibbon in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire states (using words that are repeated almost verbatim in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology):
Hypatia, the daughter of Theon the mathematician, was initiated in her father's studies; her learned comments have elucidated the geometry of Apollonius and Diophantus; and she publicly taught, both at Athens and Alexandria, the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. In the bloom of beauty, and in the maturity of wisdom, the modest maid refused her lovers and instructed her disciples; the persons most illustrious for their rank or merit were impatient to visit the female philosopher; and Cyril beheld, with jealous eye, the gorgeous train of horses and slaves who crowded the door of her academy. A rumor was spread among the Christians, that the daughter of Theon was the only obstacle to the reconciliation of the prefect and the archbishop; and that obstacle was speedily removed. On a fatal day, in the holy season of Lent, Hypatia was torn from her chariot, stripped naked, dragged to the church, and inhumanly butchered by the hands of Peter the reader and a troop of savage and merciless fanatics: her flesh was scraped from her bones with sharp oyster-shells, and her quivering limbs were delivered to the flames. The just progress of inquiry and punishment was stopped by seasonable gifts; but the murder of Hypatia has imprinted an indelible stain on the character and religion of Cyril of Alexandria.

The Catholic Encyclopedia states:

In one of these riots, in 422, the prefect Callistus was killed, and in another was committed the murder of a female philosopher Hypatia, a highly-respected teacher of neo-Platonism, of advanced age and (it is said) many virtues. She was a friend of Orestes, and many believed that she prevented a reconciliation between the prefect and patriarch. A mob led by a lector, named Peter, dragged her to a church and tore her flesh with potshards till she died. This brought great disgrace, says Socrates, on the Church of Alexandria and on its bishop; but a lector at Alexandria was not a cleric (Scr., V, xxii), and Socrates does not suggest that Cyril himself was to blame. Damascius, indeed, accuses him, but he is a late authority and a hater of Christians.

Soldan and Heppe argue that Hypatia may have been the first famous "witch" punished under Christian authority, as was noted by many church-critical authors who argued that Hypatia's death seems to match the punishment for witchcraft prescribed by the Emperor Constantius II, to be "torn off their bones with iron hooks."

However, while some of the Christian invective used to justify or excuse her murder betrays a vulgar reliance on fear of black magic, the essence of Christian objections to her influence will have lain in the turbulent confluence of Christian and Platonic assertions about the nature of God and the afterlife, which achieved its most famous expression fifteen years later in Augustine's The City of God. The Patriarch, Cyril, a theologian who was posthumously canonised by the church, has been accused of complicity in the murder, although conclusive evidence of this is lacking.

Some authors have used Hypatia's death as a symbol of the "repression of reasoned paganism by irrational religion". Included among these was the astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan, who provided a vivid account of her death and the burning of the Library of Alexandria in his popular science book Cosmos. Earlier writers sharing that view include Voltaire and historian Edward Gibbon. A serious study by the Polish historian Maria Dzielska, Hypatia of Alexandria (1995), explains Hypatia's death as the result of a struggle between two Christian factions, the moderate Orestes-supported by Hypatia-and the more rigid Cyril. This point is alluded to by Smith, who states "She was accused of too much familiarity with Orestes, prefect of Alexandria, and the charge spread among the clergy, who took up the notion that she interrupted the friendship of Orestes with their archbishop, Cyril."

All the above works use ancient writers as their primary sources. Dzielska, alone, makes use of surviving personal letters written by students of the philosopher.

Bertrand Russell - History of Western Philosophy - Page 342 (The quote within the quote is of Gibbon):
St. Cyril, the advocate of unity, was a man of fanatical zeal. He used his position as patriarch to incite pogroms against the very large Jewish colony in Alexandria. His claim to fame is the lynching of Hypatia, a distinguished lady who, in an age of bigotry, adhered to the Neoplatonic philosophy and devoted her talents to mathematics. She was 'torn from her chariot, stripped naked, dragged to the church, and inhumanly butchered by the hands of Peter the Reader and a troop of savage and merciless fanatics: her flesh was scraped from her bones with sharp oyster-shells and her quivering limbs were delivered to the flames. The just progress of inquiry and punishment was stopped by seasonable gifts.' After this, Alexandria was no longer troubled by philosophers.

Year of birth

Conversion of Hypatia, by Charles William Mitchell (1885), depicts Hypatia a moment before her death, in an alleged conversion to Christianity - although without historical basis. Her nudity is surprising, considering the nature of Christianity. Even in pagan Greek culture, men were often nude; women were not.

Hypatia could have been born anytime between AD 350 and 370. Traditionally a late date of birth has been ascribed to Hypatia, perhaps influenced by after-the-fact romanticized images of her, which depict her dying as a young and beautiful woman. Many authors presumed she died in her forties, and thus had been born around 370. However, Maria Dzielska has most recently argued that she was more likely born around 350 and thus would have been in her sixties when she was killed. And yet, Dzielska also makes a case for Hypatia's father, Theon, having been born in 335. This can be found on page 68 of her book Hypatia of Alexandria. If this is so, and if Hypatia was born, as claimed, in 350, Theon could have been no more than fifteen years of age at her birth. As this is unlikely, a later date for Hypatia's birth seems obvious. A date as late as 370 would make Theon thirty five, a much more likely age for fatherhood. (Theon's birthdate seems to be an accepted fact, as evidenced by "Theon of Alexandria" by G. J. Toomer in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography 13:321-325.)

References in Modern Culture

Hypatia is believed to be the sole woman represented in Raphael's 1506/1510 work The School of Athens. She is standing at the lower left, dressed in white and looking directly at the viewer.

In 1853, the novelist Charles Kingsley wrote the serialized novel Hypatia, based loosely on the historical Hypatia.

In 1868 Julia Margaret Cameron created a photograph entitled Hypatia. It is held in a private collection, but can be viewed in Marsh, Jan, and Pamela Gerrish Nunn. Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists. London: Thames & Hudson, 1998. (33, cat#38)

In 1885, the artist Charles William Mitchell painted his only famous work, a stylized interpretation of Hypatia standing at a church altar, moments before her death.

In the late 1970s, Hypatia was depicted by feminist artist Judy Chicago in her work The Dinner Party. Hypatia sits at the end of the First Wing.

Hypatia figures prominently in the first episode of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage by Carl Sagan in scenes decpiting the Library of Alexandria. He reprises the story in the last episode. For many people who are not classical scholars, this is the first time they heard of Hypatia

In the Heirs of Alexandria series, by Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint and Dave Freer, Hypatia's conversion to Christianity and subsequent correspondence with John Chrysostom and St. Augustine altered history dramatically. Though she does not actually appear in the novels, set in the 1530s, her actions are directly responsible for the alternate fantasy premise of the series.

Hypatia Cade, a precocious child and main character in the science fiction novelThe Ship Who Searched by Mercedes Lackey and Anne McCaffery is named after Hypatia of Alexandria. (Cade's parents are archaeologists.)

In Umberto Eco's novel Baudolino (Milan: Bompiani, 2000. English translation by William Weaver, New York: Harcourt 2002, ISBN 0-15-100690-3), the titular main character meets a member of a secluded society of satyr-like creatures who all take their name and philosophy from Hypatia.

Rinne Groff's 2000 play The Five Hysterical Girls Theorem features the genius daughter of a prize-winning mathematician named Hypatia, who lives silently, in fear that she will one day suffer the fate of her namesake.

Remembering Hypatia is a fictional treatment of her life and death by author Brian Trent.

In Mark London Williams' Danger Boy time travel series for young readers, Hypatia is a recurring character.

Hypatia is the name of a 'shipmind' (ship computer), modeled after the historical Hypatia, in The Boy Who Would Live Forever, a novel in Frederick Pohl's Heechee series.

Charlotte Kramer's Holy Murder: The Death of Hypatia of Alexandri is a novel published in 2007.

Hypatia Sans Pro is an Adobe typeface named after her. Debuting in limited release as a partially complete set (a retail edition with italics is projected) on April 16, 2007, the font is a geometric sans serif with humanist tendencies and capitals based on classical Roman proportions, according to its designer, Thomas Phinney.

Of the three hundred or so craters on the Moon named after mathematicians, one is called Hypatia.

The Corto Maltese adventure Fable of Venice, by characteristic superposition of anachronistic elements, sees Hypatia preside over an intellectual salon in pre-Fascist Italy...

Nikos Deja Vu

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