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Book Review: Hypatia of Alexandria (Maria Dzielska)

In today’s popular culture, Hypatia, the woman philosopher/mathematician of the Fifth Century A.D., is a caricature with little or no grounding in reality. For example, in the 2009 film “Agora,” she is portrayed as the youthful originator of heliocentrism, killed by ignorant Christians opposed to science, who for good measure burn down the famous Library of Alexandria, of which Hypatia was Librarian. None of this is true in any way, of course, although it fits the modern liberal desire to contemptuously dismiss Christians and Christianity and to assign historical importance based on identity, rather than accomplishment.

As it happens, denigrating Christians by mischaracterizing Hypatia isn’t just a modern liberal desire. The use of a fictional Hypatia in this program began more than two hundred years ago, most notably with Gibbon’s “Decline And Fall,” where a fictional Hypatia is used in service of Gibbon’s theory that Christianity destroyed the strong and thriving Roman Empire. Since then, variations on this theme have been modestly common in Western writers, although the additional use of Hypatia as a pawn in the identity politics wars is new. (There were quite a few women intellectuals, philosophers and writers of some note in the Classical world, Christian and non-Christian, but that is usually ignored by those attempting to impute universal misogyny to our Christian ancestors in service of modern politics.)

Hypatia, though, unlike most exemplars used in identity politics, actually was very accomplished, and recognized as such in her time. Maria Dzielska’s “Hypatia Of Alexandria” is a short academic history, from 1995. It is not an entry in the identity politics wars; it is not a political book at all. It is a technical examination of what is really known about Hypatia, drawing on the handful of contemporaneous resources, and an attempt to harmonize the differences in those sources into a coherent picture of Hypatia’s time, life and death.

Dzielska’s book divides her treatment into three sections. She begins by outlining and rejecting the “literary Hypatia.” She finds no example of any literary treatment of Hypatia in the past two centuries that bears anything but a tenuous, if that, relationship to the truth, to the extent the truth is known. If “Agora” had come out before this book was published, Dzielska would doubtless have cast a jaundiced eye on it, as well. Such literary treatments include Gibbon, Voltaire, and numerous less famous writers, all of whom either created or embellished a story not based on history, revolving around a supposed beautiful young pagan philosopher, the last line of defense of Greek philosophy and thought, hater of Christianity, opposed to Christian irrationality and obscurantism, and murdered by the Christians as a result. All of this is made up out of whole cloth, as Dzielska notes.

In the second section, Dzielska digs deep into the source material to understand the milieu in which Hypatia lived and worked. Alexandria was one of the chief cities of the Roman Empire, sufficient to itself, such that Hypatia (and her also-famous father, Theon) never once left it. Dzielska closely parses the letters of Synesius of Cyrene, a disciple of Hypatia (and later a bishop), with their numerous references to other disciples of Hypatia. She also analyzes and compares the other primary sources, all of whom were somewhat hostile to Hypatia: Damascius, the pagan Neoplatonist philosopher of Athens; Socrates Scholasticus, a Christian writer of a church history that discusses Hypatia; and John of Nikiu, a later Christian writer. The analysis turns on careful reading of each writer in context, made deeper by cross-referencing other known facts that illuminate what is said about Hypatia and her circle. Through this analysis, Dzielska examines and attempts to view as clearly as possible not only Hypatia’s thought, acts and writings, but also the characteristics of her disciples.

Hypatia, and her circle of disciples, were upper-class elitists devoted to the life of the mind and the Platonic contemplation of knowledge. They were not populists and they occupied leading positions in city life. They were heavily involved in patronage networks to obtain advantage for other upper-class acquaintances and friends. They were not theurgists (i.e., interested in ritual magic), even though other philosophers and Hypatia’s father were. (In Classical times, the lines blurred among philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, astrologers, theurgists and so forth, but each individual tended to focus on one area.) They were not involved in any way in the debates among pagans and Christians; in fact, Hypatia’s students included many Christians, including a deacon, and there does not appear to have been any concern about that. Finally, although Hypatia was heavily involved in mathematics and astronomy, sometimes in conjunction with her father, these were not her prime focus, which was pure philosophy and the attainment of Platonic enlightenment (to which end she and her circle were somewhat secretive of their learning, fearing that it might be sullied if exposed to the uninitiated). She therefore did not create any new advancements in philosophy, mathematics or any other area, but instead taught the teachings of and commented on earlier writers such as Plato, Ptolemy (whose earth-centered universe she wholly endorsed) and Diophantus (the founder of algebra, if there was one specific person who founded it).

Finally, Dzielska discusses the specifics of Hypatia’s life and death. She concludes Hypatia was about 65 when she died, in 415 A.D. She was killed by a mob acting in the perceived interest of Cyril, the recently elected archbishop of Alexandria. Prior to that time, Hypatia had had an excellent relationship with the Church authorities, in the person of Theophilus, the previous archbishop. Cyril, a hard and power-hungry man (though a canonized saint in the Roman Catholic Church), was in a political conflict with Orestes, the recently appointed prefect of Alexandria (i.e., the representative of civilian Imperial power). Hypatia, well-connected to the upper classes throughout the city, was a supporter of Orestes and the upper classes generally in this struggle. Orestes had ostensibly more political power, but Cyril had plenty of allies, many among the lower classes, who saw Hypatia’s alliance with Orestes as an obstacle to getting rid of him.

Therefore, Orestes’s enemies spread rumors that Hypatia was an idolater and sorceress (not a pagan, which everybody knew and nobody cared). These rumors were aided by her (dead) father’s known theurgical tendencies and her close relationship with her father. This whipped up the lower classes against Hypatia, who was already regarded as a member of the elite and no friend of the common people. Then a political assassination of Hypatia was planned and executed, involving a political riot (common in Alexandria) and the dismemberment and burning of Hypatia. The act was probably done by the hired young thugs of the cathedral guard (not by monks—although those had earlier attacked Orestes). The murder was well planned and had its desired political effect: Orestes left, never to be heard from again, and Cyril (who may not have known of the plan at all, but, like Henry II in his struggle with Thomas Becket, probably desired the effect) acceded to the main political power in the city.

Such political assassinations are, of course, common throughout history, up to the present day (just ask Hugo Chavez, if you can find him among the plumes of sulfur, or Vladimir Putin). This was not at all a struggle between pagans and Christians. Both Cyril and Orestes were very much Christian, and Hypatia not only took no part or position in, but was not affected in any way by, Cyril’s earlier suppression of the pagans and their cult center at the Serapheum (which was not the Library—that had likely been destroyed by Julius Caesar, with the destruction completed under Aurelian, both accidentally). In fact, Alexandrian mobs had earlier murdered two separate Christian bishops in a manner similar to how Hypatia was murdered, so there was actually nothing unique about her murder.

Dzielska shows that most accepted facts about Hypatia are wrong. She wasn’t a pagan in the sense of polytheist; philosophers who were pagan in that sense joined the Alexandrian mini-civil war that ended in the sacking of Serapheum, and had already all been killed or exiled. Instead, she was a Platonist philosopher, attempting “to achieve religious experience as the ideal of philosophy,” and not interested at all in religious struggles. Misogyny had little or nothing to do with her death; men also died in similar ways in similar political struggles. Nor did Hypatia’s death mark in any way the passing of the Classical world, as Gibbon would have it. Neoplatonist philosophy continued thereafter, as did paganism. And, of course, Christianity in the Classical world, as later, was not at all opposed to science and philosophy—the vast majority of scientific advances prior to the Industrial Age were made by avowed Christians, in medieval times mostly under the aegis and financial support of the Church.

Hypatia’s death didn’t mean anything at all, really, any more than the death of Archimedes at the hands of Roman soldiers at Syracuse did. All people die; some accomplish more than others before it happens to them. And although it may not be kind to say so, Hypatia created nothing new and did not advance human knowledge, although she undoubtedly was an excellent teacher of the work of others, and her students were devoted to her. Her work was purely derivative of the work of others; she made no advances in any area in which she studied, nor did she invent any scientific instruments, despite laughable claims she invented the astrolabe and the hydrometer. Bluntly, nobody at all would remember her except as an obscure figure, any more than hundreds of other known people of similar accomplishments, had she not been a woman and her manner of death gruesome and endlessly fascinating to later writers. But whatever the reason, we do remember her, such that Hollywood makes major movies about her, and this book is an excellent summation of what we actually know about her, in contradiction to what is normally said about her.

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