Thursday, March 15, 2012

Re-membering Hypatia. Egyptian Mathmetician/Astronomer/Philosopher

Recently Netflix sent me a movie that I swear I did not add to my que.  But I was pleasantly surprised. The Agora turned out to be the story Hypatia of Alexandria, a fourth to fifth century CE (ca. 370/390 - 415) female philosopher, astronomer, and mathmetician. Hypatia's father Theon raised her.  Her mother made no appearance in the film and, historically, little is known of her.  Hypatia was considered a woman way ahead of her time.  She taught young men mathematics, philosophy and astrology. She followed in her father's intellectual footsteps.  Theon was a mathmetician, philosopher, astronomer, astrologer, and he was the last director of the Museum at Alexandria. He himself educated his daughter.  And the student surpassed the genius of her teacher (what all good teachers hope for).
Hypatia lived in one of the intellectual capitals of the ancient world, Alexandria. According to the movie, Hypatia never married. But in Damascius's Life of Isidore, she was the wife of the philosopher Isidorus. 

Hypatia suffered a vicious and premeditated death motivated by decontextualized interpretations of Pauline texts employed prescriptively and proscriptively. After Constantine made Christianity the dominant religion (later, it became the state religion, ca 391), the state and many Christians put pressure on others to conform to Christianity. Hypatia, as a teacher of young men, came under scrutiny. Thus, some Christians invoked the Pauline prohibition about women teaching men against her, according to the movie. Hypatia refused to become a Christian and to stop teaching. Consequently, a Christian mob seized her, stripped her, and stoned her to death.  Socrates Scholasticus re-members in his Ecclesiastical History: 
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. Yet even she fell 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 [brick] 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.

Hypatia suffered an early and butal death. Letters written by her most famous student, Synesius of Cyrene, who was to become the wealthy and powerful Bishop of Ptolemais, are extant. In a letter to an old schoolmate he wrote of Hypatia, "You and I, we ourselves both saw and heard the true and real teacher of the mysteries of philosophy." Damascius wrote the following about her:
The woman used to put on her philosopher's cloak and walk through the middle of town and publicly interpret Plato, Aristotle, or the works of any other philosopher to those who wished to hear her. In addition to her expertise in teaching she rose to the pinnacle of civic virtue. She was both just and chaste and remained always a virgin [not sure how this accords with the claim that she was Isidorus' wife]. She was so beautiful and shapely that one of her students fell in love with her and was unable to control himself and openly showed her a sign of his infatuation. Uninformed reports had Hypatia curing him of his affliction with the help of music. The truth is that the story about music is corrupt. Actually, she gathered rags that had been stained during her period and showed them to him as a sign of her unclean descent and said, "This is what you love, young man, and it isn't beautiful!" He was so affected by shame and amazement at the ugly sight that he experienced a change of heart and went away a better man.
Hypatia was, to use contemporary slang "all that and a bag of chips." She was a sharp sister. Hypatia authored two books and edited one. I'll leave it to the reader to draw her own lessons from this re-membering. 


fljustice said...

Thanks so much for this post on Hypatia. The more people who know about her the better. She was a remarkable woman. I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz' performance as Hypatia. I thought the film was beautifully shot, a bit uneven, and a wonderful exploration of modern themes in a historical context; but it is a fictionalized version of Hypatia's life. I've written extensively about Hypatia including a series on the historical events and characters in the film at my blog (a "reel vs. real" discussion) and my most recent post evaluating the primary sources (a couple of which you quote.) So glad to find another Hypatia admirer!

WomanistNTProf said...

You are welcome fijustice. She was truly remarkable, indeed. I'll have to check out your blog. I love to read more about her.