Was not Hypatia the greatest philosopher of Alexandria, and a true martyr to the old values of learning? She was torn to pieces by a mob of incensed Christians not because she was a woman, but because her learning was so profound, her skills at dialectic so extensive that she reduced all who queried her to embarrassed silence. They could not argue with her, so they murdered her.
A quote from English art historian, novelist, and journalist Iain Pears, in his novel The Dream of Scipio. This a quote that aptly sums up who Hypatia was. Possibly one of the greatest philosophers of her age (4th century AD), her eminence doesn’t really stem from her being a woman in a “man’s world”. Rather it takes a more intrinsic route, and transcends gender characterizations, to account for the best of ‘humanity’.
In essence, she was an intelligent, smart, and most importantly courageous human being who stood up for her ideals even when faced with the greatest of all adversities – death. Such laudable facades of personality certainly make her stand out in the realm of history, with brave-hearted heroism taking center stage in the life of a female philosopher and mathematician who lived during ancient times.
Life in Alexandria
Hypatia (or Ὑπατίᾱ) was a Greek mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher who was born circa the 4th century AD (probably between 350-370 AD) in Egypt, which was then under the control of the Eastern Roman Empire. Her earlier inclination towards the classical fields of study was fueled by her father, the noted mathematician Theon Alexandricus (335 – 405 AD).
According to some sources, Hypatia was in fact educated in Athens in her younger days. But all the more impressive is the fact the Hypatia went on to become the head of the Platonist school at Alexandria in around 400 AD.
There are also hypotheses that allude to how the philosopher remained celibate all her life, not due to any religious inclination, but rather because of her diligent support for Plato’s philosophical ideas on the abolition of the family system.
Now to put things into a historical perspective, the city of Alexandria (originally founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC), was the bastion of cultural and intellectual advancements when the Roman Empire was undergoing various political upheavals (after the 4th century AD).
These ‘civilizing’ factors were epitomized by the Great Library of Alexandria, an incredibly impressive establishment from the ancient world that was said to house over half a million scrolls, in spite of its accidental destruction and rebuilding in the preceding centuries.
Simply put, Alexandria was the cultural successor to the great classical cities of Athens and Rome; and as such its varied population of different faiths and factions mirrored its hotbed status. In such mercurial circumstances that married progressive notions and chaotic affairs, credit must be given to Hypatia, who emerged among many of her intellectual peers, to take an active leading role in the philosophical output of then-contemporary times.
Furthermore, as she grew older and mature, she also took a keen interest in mathematics and science (including astronomical pursuits), thus lending credence to the entire ‘package’ of classical studies when the Roman world was ironically gravitating towards Christianity.
And it is interesting to know that in spite of seemingly opposing views, Hypatia as a teacher also had followers among the eminent Christians of her time. Her contemporary, Socrates Scholasticus, describes her in his Ecclesiastical History –
There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded in the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions.
On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired as a consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she did not infrequently appear in public in the 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.
Death in Alexandria
Socrates Scholasticus also offered a detailed overview of the unfortunate circumstances that eventually led to the murder of Hypatia in her beloved city. As we mentioned before, Alexandria by this time had become a hotbed of different religions, especially alluding to the denominations of both Christianity and Judaism.
And beyond just competing faiths, the religious overtones of the time also had profound effects on the political system of the metropolis. Such a potentially ‘explosive’ scenario was mirrored by Orestes, the Roman governor of Alexandria, and Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria.
Orestes through one of his edicts concerning Jewish dancing exhibitions paved the way (quite unintentionally) for religious violence that basically incited the Christians against the Jews. In the ensuing riots and their aftermath, many people of the Jewish faith were unceremoniously banished from the city.
Remorseful over such an action that would economically afflict Alexandria, Orestes stubbornly resisted the peace overtures supposedly made by Cyril, thus (by principle) supporting the Jewish population.
Such views of the Roman governor further instigated many orthodox sections of the Christians, and one such angry monk named Ammonius apparently struck Orestes in the head with a rock, causing him to be grievously injured. Ammonius was immediately tortured and put to death – which raised ardent calls for his martyrdom from Cyril and his powerful followers.
This finally put Orestes at loggerheads with most of the Christian adherents of the city who were guided by their Bishop. Unfortunately for Hypatia, she was known to have connections with Orestes and also her penchant for ‘pagan’ classical avenues. Some voraciously fanatic Christians directly blamed the female philosopher for her teachings which they viewed as having an ‘evil’ influence on the Roman governor.
So as the rumor spread like wildfire, a mob led by a reader (probably a minor cleric) named Peter, gathered in the streets. Finally, the fanatics (possibly confused by the intellectual tendencies of the philosopher) kidnapped Hypatia on her way home and took her to the “Church called Caesareum. They then completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles.”
Achievements in Her Fields
Regrettably, most history sources deal with Hypatia’s sensational death, thus sparking the age-old controversy between religion and science, while at the same time leaving out most of her actual achievements in the fields of mathematics and philosophy. This is partly due to the lack of available literary works that describe Hypatia’s contributions in their original details.
However, to fully comprehend the precious contributions of Hypatia, we have to understand that ancient mathematics was primarily divided into four branches: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. And Hypatia excelled in the first three of these avenues – as is evident from her teaching career that mainly dabbled with arithmetic, geometry, and (possibly) astronomy.
In fact, some ancient (surviving) letters written by Synesius, one of Hypatia’s students, talk about how Hypatia invented the astrolabe, a device used in studying astronomy. But other sources place this invention at least a century later.
Now according to the Suda Lexicon, a massive 10th-century Byzantine encyclopedia, Hypatia primarily authored (or made revisions) to three written specimens – an entire work called The Astronomical Canon (possibly based on her father’s commentary), a commentary on The Conics of Apollonius (thus leading to the notions of hyperbolas, parabolas, and ellipses) and a commentary on Diophantus. She had also probably written and edited a few mathematical texts that survive to the present day.
One example would pertain to Book III of the Almagest, in which Theon himself alluded to the contribution (edits and improvements) made by his daughter. The subsequent chapters do showcase a far more efficient manner of doing long divisions (in Greek numerals), thus suggesting Hypatia’s crucial input. Furthermore, the female mathematician could have also authored other related books that are now ‘lost’ to history.
Till now we had talked about the mathematics side of affairs; but what about Hypatia, the female philosopher? Well harking back to Socrates Scholasticus, Hypatia did don the proverbial philosopher’s cloak in a quite literal way and confidently walked through the town center while fluently delivering discourses on the works of Plato, Aristotle, and other renowned philosophers.
One of her famous quotes does allude to the profoundness of her thought – “Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.” And as we mentioned before, in spite of the competition in the city of Alexandria, Hypatia went on to become the head of the Neoplatonist school (espousing rationalist thinking) in around 400 AD.
It should also be noted that Synesius (the student who credited her with the invention of the astrolabe) went on to become a bishop in the Christian church and assimilated some Neoplatonic ideals into the doctrine of the Trinity.
And thus, Professor Michael Deakins summed up the contributions and gravitas of Hypatia, in quite a succinct manner –
Imagine a time when the world’s greatest living mathematician was a woman, indeed a physically beautiful woman, and a woman who was simultaneously the world’s leading astronomer.