Sunday, April 13, 2014

Excerpt from "Hypatia of Alexandria"

Excerpt from Hypatia of Alexandria, Maria Dzielska (translated by F. Lyra) (1995, Cambridge, Harvard University Press)

On the story of Hypatia of Alexandria: “The legend will continue to unfold along its own course, according to tastes and fashions, as we can observe…” (p 102) But according to the thorough and erudite scholarship of Maria Dzielska, who writes that “…there is no doubt that Hypatia’s circle included Theotecnus, Athanasius, Theodosis and Gaius…”(p 37) 

This is an excerpt from the conclusion of her book Hypatia of Alexandria:

“…Hypatia was born around A.D. 355, and not, as customarily held, around 370. When she died in 415 she was of an advanced age, around sixty years old. Thus there appears to be no legitimate support for the picture of Hypatia, at the hour of her horrid death, as a young girl, endowed with a body worthy of Aphrodite, provoking the murderers’ sadism and lust.

She was a resident of Alexandria, from a prominent family. Her father was a well-known scientist, a member of the Museion, a writer, a philosopher interested in Hermetic an Orphic texts. Theon’s scholarship (and that of his daughter) centered on eminent Alexandrian predecessors, mathematicians and astronomers. We learn from Hesychius of Miletus that as the father was writing commentaries on Euclid and Ptolemy, Hypatia was busy with the works of Apllonius of Perge, Diphantus, and Ptolemy. It has been always assumed that her studies of these authors have not survived. But Alan Cameron asserts that not all of Hypatia’s text are lost; editions of Ptolemy’s Almagest and Handy Tables, now available were probably arranged and prepared by Hypatia. It is also possible that she edited and annotated Diophantus’ extant books.

 Philosophy was Hypatia’s other interest. Thanks to the reminiscences of her disciple Synesius [who became the bishop of the town of Ptolemais] in his correspondence, we know far more about her philosophical teaching than about her mathematical and astronomical research. In her home in Alexandria she formed an intellectual circle composed of disciples who came to study privately, some of them for many years. They arrived from Alexandria, from elsewhere in Egypt, and from Syria, Cyrene, and Constantinople. They were from wealthy and influential families; in time they attained posts of state and ecclesiastical eminence.


Hypatia’s private classes and public lectures also included mathematics and astronomy, which primed the mind for speculation on higher epistemological levels. Her lectures took place either at her house (where they sometimes attracted crowds of admirers) or in the city’s lecture halls. Occasionally she participated in the activities of the polis, serving as an esteemed adviser on current issues to both municipal and visiting imperil officials. She possessed great moral authority; all our sources agree that she was a model of ethical courage, righteousness, veracity, civic devotion, and intellectual prowess. The virtue most honored by her contemporaries was her sophrosyne, which colored both her conduct and her inner qualities; it manifested itself in sexual abstinence (she remained a virgin to the end of her life), in modest dress (philosophical tribon), in moderate living, and in a dignified attitude toward her students as well as men in power.” (p 102-103)

According to Dzielska, in a political power-play by Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, trying to extend the powers of the local bishopric over civil authority managed by Orestes (also a Christian), Cyril encouraged his local employees to start a rumor of witch-craft against Hypatia which escalated with her assassination at the hands of a crowd of locals and Cyril’s paid supporters.

As some myth-creators would have us believe; this was not the death of Hellenic philosophy or Neoplatonism, nor the death of science or mathematics--but a tragic death of a famous and powerful teacher of philosophy.

Also understand that Hypatia considered herself elitists; she was not egalitarian, and would not teach women. But here is a woman who was taught and encouraged by her father; put in a unique position in an era unsympathetic to women, teaching a discipline that taught that the female intellect was inferior.
I recommend you read the entire book to understand the creation of the legend surrounding Hypatia, and how Dzielska teases out the truth from the various letters and stories. 

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