July 17, 2014

Women of Doubt:
Hypatia's life and death make her a martyr to doubt

Last week's Women of Doubt started the series out with Jennifer Michael Hecht and Doubt: A History. This week picks up with one of the stories from Doubt that moved me deeply: the life and death of the mathematician, astronomer and philosopher Hypatia.

Who was Hypatia?

We don't know terribly much about Hypatia. We know she was born sometime in the ballpark of 350 to 370 CE. We know that her father, Theon, was an astronomer, scholar and mathematician in Alexandria, one of the last known members of the museum there that preserved a great deal of classical learning. We know that Hypatia was raised in an Alexandria that was already declining from its spot as a world center for learning. Sara Zielinski explains for Smithsonian Magazine:
Alexandria underwent a slow decline beginning in 48 B.C., when Julius Caesar conquered the city for Rome and accidentally burned down the library. (It was then rebuilt.) By 364, when the Roman Empire split and Alexandria became part of the eastern half, the city was beset by fighting among Christians, Jews and pagans. Further civil wars destroyed much of the library’s contents. The last remnants likely disappeared, along with the museum, in 391, when the archbishop Theophilus acted on orders from the Roman emperor to destroy all pagan temples. Theophilus tore down the temple of Serapis, which may have housed the last scrolls, and built a church on the site. 1 
 We don't know much about her early life. We have no idea who her mother was, and she may or may not have had a brother. She never married and appears to have lived a celibate life, perhaps in accordance with Platonic principles.

What we do know is that her father encouraged her scholarship. Zielinski says:
Theon taught mathematics and astronomy to his daughter, and she collaborated on some of his commentaries. It is thought that Book III of Theon's version of Ptolemy's Almagest--the treatise that established the Earth-centric model for the universe that wouldn't be overturned until the time of Copernicus and Galileo--was actually the work of Hypatia.1
She collaborated with her father on a number of other works and was herself a profound commentator. By about 400 CE, Hypatia had become the head of the Platonist school at Alexandria. She was a skilled mathematician and astronomer, but she also established herself as a philosopher. She was particularly fond of Neoplatonism, and appears to have espoused the ideas of Plotinus, who founded the movement, and Iamblichus. J.J. O'Connor and E.F. Robertson explain:
Plotinus taught that there is an ultimate reality which is beyond the reach of thought or language. The object of life was to aim at this ultimate reality which could never be precisely described. Plotinus stressed that people did not have the mental capacity to fully understand both the ultimate reality itself or the consequences of its existence. Iamblichus distinguished further levels of reality in a hierarchy of levels beneath the ultimate reality. There was a level of reality corresponding to every distinct thought of which the human mind was capable. Hypatia taught these philosophical ideas with a greater scientific emphasis than earlier followers of Neoplatonism. She is described by all commentators as a charismatic teacher.2
 However, Hypatia found herself in the midst of a political power struggle. O'Connor and Robertson elucidate:
In 412 Cyril (later St Cyril) became patriarch of Alexandria. However the Roman prefect of Alexandria was Orestes and Cyril and Orestes became bitter political rivals as church and state fought for control. Hypatia was a friend of Orestes and this, together with prejudice against her philosophical views which were seen by Christians to be pagan, led to Hypatia becoming the focal point of riots between Christians and non-Christians.2
Despite the fact that she had Christian students, and was respected by such as Synesius of Cyrene who would become the Bishop of Ptolemais, Hypatia was seen  as a threat to Christians. Zielinkski illuminates what happened one March, 1600 years ago:
One day on the streets of Alexandria, Egypt, in the year 415 or 416, a mob of Christian zealots led by Peter the Lector accosted a woman’s carriage and dragged her from it and into a church, where they stripped her and beat her to death with roofing tiles. They then tore her body apart and burned it.1
Hypatia was killed in the streets of Alexandria because she became synonymous with the pagan exploits of knowledge and doubt. She was killed because she was a threat to religious dogma.

 What did Hypatia have to say?

We only have references to Hypatia's work. O'Connor and Robertson say:
In addition to the joint work with her father, we are informed by Suidas that Hypatia wrote commentaries on Diophantus's Arithmetica, on Apollonius's Conics and on Ptolemy's astronomical works. The passage in Suidas is far from clear and most historians doubt that Hypatia wrote any commentaries on Ptolemy other than the works which she composed jointly with her father. 
All Hypatia's work is lost except for its titles and some references to it. However no purely philosophical work is known, only work in mathematics and astronomy. Based on this small amount of evidence Deakin...argues that Hypatia was an excellent compiler, editor, and preserver of earlier mathematical works.2
 There are a few quotes floating around that are attributed to Hypatia, and I will share a couple below, with the disclaimer that I can't verify the authenticity of them, although I did try to only cite quotes that were found in three or more sources that I considered credible. For your perusal:

"Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than to not think at all." --Hypatia
"Life is an unfoldment, and the further we travel the more truth we can comprehend. To understand the things that are at our door is the best preparation for understanding those that lie beyond it." --Hypatia
"Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fantasies. To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing. The child mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after years relieved of them." --Hypatia

 What was Hypatia's influence?

In Doubt, Hecht explains the implications of Hypatia's martyrdom:
Nonetheless, the overall idea was not lost on anyone: the age of philosophy was over. Hypatia's father was the last director of the Museum. After she was murdered so many scholars left Alexandria that it marks the beginning of the end of Alexandria as a major center of ancient wisdom. A bribe saed the killers from prosecution, and after Hypatia's murder no non-Christian in the Roman Empire actively attempted to propagate secular philosophy. Hypatia died in 415 CE. The same Cyril who killed her was the one who attacked the Nestorian idea--also, it would seem, in a bit of a jealous spite of rivalry. Cyrl went to the Bishop of Rome (the office was gaining importance, although only with Leo I [440-461]--often called the first pope--would the Bishop of Rome claim authority over the whole Church) and insisted that Nestorius's opinions had to be stomped out. They were condemned in 431. The result was that Nestorians broke off from Rome, set up their own patriarchy in Baghdad and spread eastward--to the far East, even: Nestorian missionaries were in China by the seventh century. This had extraordinary importance for the history of doubt, because the Nestorians left the West when the texts and legacy of ancient philosophy were still a part of an educated person's world. They would keep those texts, some in continued use, in remote Eastern monasteries while the same texts were driven out of the West and eventually forgotten there. Cyril, by the way, also drove the Jews from Alexandria.3
 So Hypatia's death represented a significant push of learning out of the West, and into the East. It also signifies a growing hostility towards doubt and religious dissension

Hypatia, in a way, is a doubting martyr--one who only sought truth and was put to death for it. It's a long history, dating back before Hypatia to the Greeks, and continuing well past her into the Inquisitions.


1 Sara Zielinski, Hypatia, Ancient Alexandria's Great Female Scholar, Smithsonian Magazine Online, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/womens-history/hypatia-ancient-alexandrias-great-female-scholar-10942888/ (July 16, 2014).

2 J.J. O'Connor, E.F. Robertson, Hypatia, School of Mathematics and Statistics University of St Andrews Scotland, http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Biographies/Hypatia.html (July 16, 2014).

3 Jennifer Michael Hecht, Doubt: A History: The Great Doubts and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson (New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003), 207-208.

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