Emerging out of ancient Alexandria’s cauldron of brilliant minds was the luminescent teacher, mathematician, and astronomer Hypatia (355-415 CE). Like many of her Alexandrian predecessors, Hypatia was also a philosopher, a Greek word meaning, “lover of wisdom.” Her brutal death at the hands of the Archbishop of Alexandria is legendary, but it is the breadth and depth of her inquiring mind that endures and inspires through time.
In 331 BC, hundreds of years before Hypatia’s birth, Alexander the Great took Egypt from the Persians and founded the city of Alexandria. After Alexander’s death, his senior general Ptolemy Soter took control of Egypt. Alexandria’s location made it an ideal crossroads for trade in goods as well as ideas. Capitalizing on this, the new dynasty of Ptolemy Greek pharaohs ushered in an explosion of thought and innovation in Alexandria that continued for several hundred years.
The preeminent Alexandrian library and museum became the meeting place of astute minds and at one time the library was said to have housed three-quarters of a million scrolls. This was before 48 BC when Julius Caesar invaded Egypt and accidently burned it down, or at least part of it after setting fire to ships in the harbor. There were later more intentional destructions of both the library and museum.
With or without the actual buildings, the forward-thinking culture of Alexandria persisted. Theorists included Euclid (300 BC), the father of geometry; Aristarchus (c. 310 – c. 230 BC), the first to envisage a heliocentric solar system; Archimedes (287 BC – c.212 BC) who anticipated modern calculus and derived an accurate approximation of pi; Eratosthenes (276-195 BC), the first to measure the circumference of the earth; Claudius Ptolemy (90-168 CE), the father of both astronomy and geography; and Galen (129 – 199 CE), the greatest doctor and physiologist of the age. Although recognized for excellence in a particular field, Alexandrian scholars went further to integrate and achieve mastery in all branches of knowledge, to become true philosophers.
These scholars survived many changes but beginning in the second and early third centuries, philosophy was set to collide with Christianity, the first proselytizing religion the world had ever known. Philosophy was for curious and inquiring minds, whereas religion required strong beliefs and faith. [Pollard & Reid, p. 210.]
In the late fourth century, born into this mix was the extraordinarily gifted woman, Hypatia. She received a classical education from her father Theon, a notable mathematician and predictor of eclipses, and the last of the names associated with the museum before its destruction. In addition to editing some of her father’s works, Hypatia wrote commentaries on, among others, the compositions of Apollonius of Perge (262 – 190 BC), known for his works on conics and Diophantus (c. 201/c. 215 – c. 285/c. 299 CE), reputed inventor of algebra. [Pollard & Reid, pp. 266-267.]
Revered in the public domain, Hypatia conversed on, among other things, the thoughts of Plato and Aristotle, the earth’s relationship to the sun, and all the issues arising from what were the shifting politics and religions of Alexandria at the time. She drew a smaller cadre of disciples that included Greeks, Jews, Christians, Pagans, and native Egyptians. One of these disciples, Synesius of Cyrene praised her as one who “presided over the mysteries of philosophy.”
Hypatia demanded of her students and herself, to inquire more deeply into matters, to look at the universe with fresh eyes, and to question the axioms of their day. In one of his letters, Synesius writes, “she taught her charges to ‘release the luminous child of reason’.” [Pollard & Reid, p. 270.]
At a time when Christianity was rooting out Jews and pagans, or anyone not an avowed believer, Hypathia’s reasoning and popularity became an affront to the religious beliefs of Cyril, the Archbishop of Alexandria. In a twisted political move that boiled down to grabbing secular power, Cyril ordered his Christian thugs to destroy Hypatia. In a fit of misogynistic brutality, his gang attacked her just outside the Caesareum, a then converted Christian Church. There, by the three obelisks known as Cleopatra’s Needles, they surrounded her, yanked her from her chariot, and pulled her into the Church. They stoned her with tiles, displayed her mutilated body by dragging it through the streets, and finally burned her.
She may have been killed for her non-Christian compliance, for her love of wisdom, for being a woman of influence, for being a gifted savant, for staring at the stars, for being curious, for her political association with the Governor, for her refusal to marry, or for all of the above.
Unfortunately, all of her writings were destroyed. Her history is primarily drawn from the contemporary correspondence of two of her pupils and the writings of a Christian historiographer. Yet how germane her story remains as, perhaps surprisingly, after hundreds of years equanimity and inquiry continue to challenge the very foundations of polarizing religious campaigns.
I am grateful for Hypatia’s story as she moves me to reclaim philosophy as a lover of wisdom; inspires me to encourage public discourse; and challenges me to engage in leadership from a healthy feminine perspective.
- Maria Dzielska (translated by F. Lyra), “Hypatia of Alexandria,” Harvard University Press, 1995.
- Justin Pollard and Howard Reid, “The Rise and Fall of Alexandria, Birthplace of the Modern World,” Viking Penguin, 1968.
- Brian Trent, “Remembering Hypatia a Novel of Ancient Egypt,” iUniverse, Inc., 2005.
Internet References by Author:
- Michael A.B. Deakin, “Hypatia and Her Mathematics,” The American Mathematical Monthly, March 1994, Vol. 101, No. 3, pp. 234-243.
- Bryan J. Whitfield, “The Beauty of Reasoning: A Reexamination of Hypatia of Alexandria,” The Mathematics Educator.
- Sarah Zielinski, “Hypatia, Ancient Alexandria’s Great Female Scholar,” Smithsonian.com, March 14, 2010, www.smithsonianmag.com/womens-history/hypatia-ancient-alexandrias-great-female-scholar-10942888/
Internet References Without Author:
- Daily Kos member, “Women in Science: Hypatia 350/370-415,” Desert Scientist, Jan. 19, 2013, www.dailykos.com/story/2013/01/20/1179144/-Women-in-Science-Hypatia-350-370-415.
- “Hypatia,” https://penelope.uchicago.edu/-grout/encyclopaedia_romana/greece/paganism/hypatia.html
- “Hypatia,” from Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypatia.
- “Agora,” directed by Alejandro Amenábar, starring Rachel Weisz.
2 thoughts on “Hypatia – Lover of Wisdom”
You too are a Hypatia…lover of wisdom. Thank you for sharing this!
so many incredible women are killed no wonder we have a fear of being too visable!
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