March 15 is a day of remembrance for Hypatia, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer from Alexandria in Roman Egypt. Hypatia is claimed both as a Pagan and an Atheist martyr, for in 415 or 416 a mob of Christian zealots dragged her into a church, stripped her and beat her to death with roofing tiles. Then they tore her body apart and burnt it. Her crime was a combination of her gender, education, non-Christian views and role as a publicly respected teacher.
In an article for Smithsonian.com (1), Sarah Zielinski says, “though she is remembered more for her violent death, her dramatic life is a fascinating lens through which we may view the plight of science in an era of religious and sectarian conflict”. Hypatia’s life (350/70? – 415/16?) was devoted to the Alexandrian Academy, where she was the pupil and subsequently colleague of her father Theon. She became the head of the Academy on his death and as a teacher is best remembered for her contribution to mathematics.
Hypatia has been described as “the first recognizably Neoplatonic teacher in Alexandria” (2), which links her into a belief system in which everything emanates from the One, but where the One is not the personal God of popular religion. Her pupils included Synesius of Cyrene, who later became a Christian Bishop of Ptolemais. Her public lectures were popular and drew crowds. “Donning the robe of a scholar, the lady made appearances around the centre of the city, expounding in public to those willing to listen on Plato and Aristotle”, wrote the philosopher Damascius after her death.
She was also admired by Orestes, the Roman Governor of Alexandria. But this was less of a protection than it might seem. For many years, the city had been beset by fighting among Christians, Jews and Pagans, as the pressure for religious uniformity grew. Notable casualties included the city’s once famous Library and Museum. The last remnants “likely disappeared … in 391, when the Archbishop Theophilus tore down the temple of Serapis, which may have housed the remaining scrolls, and built a church on the site” (1). Hypatia’s father, Theon, was the last known member of the Museum. The Academy continued, with Theon and Hypatia working together, and then with Hypatia by herself taking pupils at home. Lessons included instruction on how to design an astrolabe, a kind of portable astronomic calculator that continued in use until the nineteenth century. Hypatia also wrote commentaries on important texts of the day.
In 412 Alexandria got a new Archbishop – Cyril, nephew to Theophilus. The hostile pressure on other faiths, now including Christian heresies, continued. One of Cyril’s first actions was to close and plunder the Churches of the Novatian sect. It became a fight over who controlled Alexandria. The Governor Orestes was a Christian, but not in this bigoted form, and in any case did not want to cede power to the Church. In 415 a three-sided feud broke out over the regulation of Jewish dancing exhibitions in Alexandria (3), with the Jewish community, Cyril’s Christian faction and the civil power all taking different positions. It seems that Orestes consulted Hypatia for neutral advice. The situation escalated. Orestes tortured one of Cyril’s followers on suspicion of instigating an anti-Jewish riot; Cyril then threatened “utmost severities” against the whole Jewish population; a group of Jewish extremists responded by killing several of his followers. At this point Cyril “rounded up all the Jews of Alexandria, then ordered them to be stripped of all possessions, banished them from Alexandria, and allowed their goods to be pillaged by the remaining citizens of Alexandria”.
Orestes was incensed and wrote to the Emperor, “excessively aggrieved that a city of such magnitude should have been suddenly bereft of so large a portion of its population”. Cyril, too, wrote to the Emperor. Then he changed tack and tried to restore relations with Orestes, but Orestes refused. Cyril changed tack again and brought down 500 monks of “a very fiery disposition” from the mountains of Nitria into the city. They attacked Orestes’ chariot in the street and tried to stone him to death, but they were driven off. One of the monks, who had struck the Governor on the head with a rock, was arrested and executed. Cyril’s people had come off worst and needed a counter blow.
Hypatia was an easier target than Orestes. A rumour was spread that she was preventing Orestes and Cyril from settling their differences. A contemporary, Socrates Scholasticus of Constantinople, tells of “the fierce and bigoted zeal” with which she was waylaid, and the great public revulsion against the Alexandrian Christian community that followed her brutal murder. He laments, “surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort” (3). But 200 years later, in a world of deepened Orthodoxy, John of Nikiu celebrates the final defeat of Pagan idolatry “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 Satanic wiles … a multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the Magistrate … and they proceeded to seek for the Pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the Prefect through her enchantments”. John seems entirely at ease as he goes on to recount the story of Hypatia’s death.
Even in later times Hypatia remained controversial. The Deist/Pantheist scholar John Toland defended her in the early eighteenth century. but got a spirited reply from Thomas Lewis, in a 1721 tract The History of Hypatia, a most Impudent School-Mistress of Alexandria, Murder’d and torn to Pieces by the Populace, in Defence of Saint Cyril and the Alexandrian Clergy, from the Aspersions of Mr. Toland. In 1853 Charles Kingsley needed to adjust history. Hypatia; or New Foes with an Old Face initially portrays the scholar as a “helpless, pretentious and erotic heroine”, though later she is redeemed her through her conversion by a Jewish Christian character, Raphael Aben-Ezra, having supposedly become disillusioned with Orestes.
More recently, Hypatia has attracted more favourable attention from people as diverse as Carl Sagan and Judy Chicago. Iain Pears features a Hypatia-like figure in his novel A Dream of Scipio. Maria Dzielska published Hypatia of Alexandria, a scholarly study of her life, in 1995 and Michael Deakin wrote a book of the same name in 2007. The Indiana University Press publishes Hypatia: a Journal of Feminist Philosophy. The Spanish film Agora tells a fictional story of Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) struggling to save the library from Christian zealots, which is nonetheless faithful to the issues raised by her life and death. For me Hypatia’s is a living story, with lessons still to offer. It is well worth a day of remembrance.
- Pauliina Remes Neoplatonism Stocksfield: Acumen Press, 2008