The Herstory of Hypatia

(Image Source: Julius Kronberg/Public Domain)

Roughly speaking, the Hellenistic religion lasted from about 300 BCE to 300 CE, give or take a century or so. In the wake of that, a girl named Hypatia was born in Alexandria, Egypt (which was part of the Eastern Roman Empire) in the year 355. She was the only child of an ambitious and acclaimed mathematician named Theon, who tutored her quite well in the subject, to say the least. This would allow her to become the first female in history to make a substantial contribution to the development of mathematics. Although written records tell us nothing about her mother, we do know that Hypatia’s father made sure that his daughter received the finest education money could buy. So, as well as becoming a famous legacy geometer, Hypatia received her primary education in the ancient Greek city of Athens, which was the philosophical capital of the Greco-Roman world.

In many ways, she was fated to become a famous female philosopher, right from the start. That is to say, Hypatia was destined to lecture on the teachings of Pythagoras, Plato, Plotinus, and more. As part of that, Hypatia trained as much as she could, as often as possible, both mentally and physically. She strove to become a champion athlete, excelling at running, swimming, and horseback riding. Along with that, she was very intelligent, highly literate, and well versed in philosophy. After all, Theon wanted her to be perfect in every way, and she nearly was (at least the way some people tell the tale). The point is that Hypatia quickly surpassed her father’s abilities in one subject after another. Even though, Theon was no ordinary man himself. In fact, they were both heroic defenders of data (as the stewards of scrolls and caretakers of codices) who proudly fought for the freedom of information, in opposition to ignorance and illiteracy.

As a perfect example of what I mean, in the year 391, Archbishop Theophilus acted on the orders of Emperor Theodosius and tore down the Serapeum, which was the Temple to Serapis (serving as an annex for the long-lost Library of Alexandria). This was important because every scroll was a hand-written papyrus, many of which were cherished original copies. More to the point, the bitter civil wars between Christians, Jews, and pagans led to the outright obliteration of much of that invaluable content. However, as the senior resident scholar, Theon fought hard to keep a great deal of the remaining documents intact, in an attempt to preserve as much of the precious knowledge as possible. Nonetheless, the Dark Ages had begun. Regardless, as a result of Theophilus’ tolerance of Hypatia’s teachings, she was free to continue calculating and philosophizing.

Within a few years time, she became a renowned astronomer and astrologer. Then, as the 4th century grew to an end, she took on a job as a professor of philosophy and mathematics. A little while later, after being influenced by great minds like Aristotle and Diophantus, she finally took over as Head of the Neoplatonic School at Alexandria — in the year 400 (when her father died, leaving her in charge of everything). According to at least one account, she was even paid with public funds to teach in Alexandria, which was totally unheard of for any woman to do in antiquity. Of course, that was all the more reason for her to give great lectures to pupils from all over the Mediterranean, and beyond. On top of that, she brought philosophy to anyone who would listen in the public square, donned in a Roman pallium or “philosopher’s cloak”.

As part of that, Hypatia sought to achieve higher unity with a mystical force known as “the One” (which is an underlying spiritual reality partially accessible via the power of abstraction from Platonic “forms”). That is to say, in the 3rd century, Plotinus taught that there is an ultimate reality beyond the reach of human thought. Furthermore, according to Neoplatonic teachings, the object of life is to aim at the One which can never be fully described. In line with that, Plotinus taught that people don’t have the mental capacity to fully understand the source of everything or the consequences of its existence. Then, in the 4th century, Iamblichus went on to distinguish further levels of reality in a hierarchy beneath the ultimate reality described by Plotinus — thus providing the mechanism(s) by which illumination can enter into “Plato’s Cave”. More importantly, in the 5th century, Hypatia taught those concepts with greater scientific emphasis than ever before.

Unfortunately, very little of her published work remains to this day. Still, it is known that she wrote a commentary on Diophantus’ thirteen-volume Arithmetica. Plus, in the Almagest, Ptolemy proposed a division problem for calculating the number of degrees swept out by the Sun in a single day as it orbits the Earth. However, it wasn’t until the text was edited by Hypatia, that she was able to put forward a tabular method for this. Moreover, along with her theoretical work, she also delved into a number of applied sciences. For instance, in letters from Synesius to Hypatia, it is clear that she must have demonstrated great command of the astrolabe — a very sophisticated portable astronomical device, allowing one to tell what time it is during the day or night, identify the time of sunrise and sunset, determine the length of the day, and locate celestial objects in the sky.

As part of that illustrious career, Hypatia stayed in touch with many of her former students, and those lifelong friends benefited her in several different ways. For instance, in the year 410, Synesius became the Bishop of Ptolemais. More importantly, as one of her star pupils and a brilliant syncretist, he was one of the key figures in reconciling Neoplatonism with Christianity. More to the point, as a highly prestigious woman, Hypatia regularly appeared in the presence of magistrates, and she was on nearly every council and committee in the city. As a result of those things, she had tremendous sway in the world but was also at the epicenter of some of the biggest social conflicts in early civilization. This was important because although Hypatia believed in the God of the Neoplatonists, most of her contemporaries believed in the God of the Christians.

Regardless, Hypatia was one of the foremost scholars in the world at that time. However, she was still a Neoplatonic woman in a society full of Christian men, but that didn’t phase her one bit. Theon had raised her better than that. So, unlike the other women of her day and age, Hypatia could move and speak freely among the men (not as property like other women, but as her own person). The fact was that her brilliance was far too bright for her not to have asserted herself in that way. Of course, as a result of her self-confidence, she had endless suitors, but the thing is that she never really wanted to get married. Instead, Hypatia was a genuine philosopher, meaning “lover of wisdom”, so she really only cared about learning. This was important because as a Vestal Virgin for Truth, Hypatia remained celibate her entire life.

Tragically, as a consequence of her unconventional approach to life, just two or three generations after Christianity went mainstream, Hypatia became the last of her kind. This was because, the Archbishop of Alexandria, Cyril (the nephew of Theophilus) accused her of ungodly sorcery. So, in the year 415, while on her way home from work, Hypatia was accosted by a ruthless band of Christian terrorists known as the Parabalani. The frenzied mob (led by Peter the Lector) ripped her from her chariot and tore off her clothes in public disgrace. Then, they dragged the sixty-year-old high-born crone into a temple-turned-church called the Caesareum. Once there they proceeded to cut out her eyes and flay her alive, slicing Hypatia to pieces with broken roofing tiles. Then, they ripped her from limb to limb and burned her corpse on a pyre at Cinaron near the edge of Alexandria.

Treating her as though she were a pagan priestess being condemned for unforgivable sins against their established faith, the Christian extremists executed Hypatia for witchcraft long before the era of the Witch Trials ever began. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t a witch. It never does. The only thing that mattered was that she had caused problems between Archbishop Cyril and Governor Orestes (who Cyril claimed Hypatia had beguiled with magic). Of course, the truth was that her teachings didn’t even conflict with the dogma of the prevailing theology of Biblical scriptures. However, the mob of mad monks still murdered her because of the influence that she had as a public philosopher. Thus, Hypatia became a romantic heroine and a martyr for liberated freethinkers the world over.

In many ways, Hypatia’s death at the hands of Cyril’s sympathizers marked the end of Classical Antiquity. It was exactly the kind of thing that made the Dark Ages so dark, with bigotry through patriarchy and other forms of hegemony. Unfortunately, knowledge was no longer as valuable as gold in Cyril’s theocracy. As if that wasn’t bad enough, most of the remaining scrolls and codices from the Neoplatonic School of Alexandria were destroyed not long after Hypatia was assassinated. Ironically, scant remains now reside in Christ Church College, of all places. To make matters worse, the archbishop became officially recognized as Saint Cyril. Thus, adding insult to injury. Nonetheless, the point is that the world lost far more than just Hypatia the day she died. In the end, the spirit of Hellenism died with her, thereby changing the course of history forever.

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An Autodidact Polymath

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Joshua Hehe

Joshua Hehe

An Autodidact Polymath

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