Joshua J. Mark
published on 02 September 2009
Hypatia of Alexandria (c. 370 CE - March 415 CE) was a female philosopher and mathematician, born in Alexandria, Egypt possibly in 370 CE (although some scholars cite her birth as c. 350 CE). She was the daughter of the mathematician Theon, the last Professor at the University of Alexandria, who tutored her in math, astronomy, and the philosophy of the day which, in modern times, would be considered science. Nothing is known of her mother and there is little information about her life. As the historian Deakin writes, "The most detailed accounts we have of Hypatia's life are the records of her death. We learn more about her death from the primary sources than we do about any other aspect of her life" (49). She was murdered in 415 CE by a Christian mob who attacked her on the streets of Alexandria. The primary sources, even those Christian writers who were hostile to her and claimed she was a witch, portray her as a woman who was widely known for her generosity, love of learning, and expertise in teaching in the subjects of Neo-Platonism, mathematics, science, and philosophy in general.
In a city which was becoming increasingly diverse religiously (and had always been so culturally) Hypatia was a close friend of the pagan prefect Orestes and was blamed by Cyril, the Christian Archbishop of Alexandria, for keeping Orestes from accepting the 'true faith'. She was also seen as a 'stumbling block' to those who would have accepted the 'truth' of Christianity were it not for her charisma, charm, and excellence in making difficult mathematical and philosophical concepts understandable to her students; concepts which contradicted the teachings of the relatively new church. Alexandria was a great seat of learning in the early days of Christianity but, as the faith grew in adherents and power, steadily became divided by fighting among religious factions. It is by no means an exaggeration to state that Alexandria was destroyed as a centre of culture and learning by religious intolerance and Hypatia has come to symbolize this tragedy to the extent that her death has been cited as the end of the classical world.
By all accounts, Hypatia was an extraordinary woman not only for her time, but for any time. Theon refused to impose upon his daughter the traditional role assigned to women and raised her as one would have raised a son in the Greek tradition; by teaching her his own trade. The historian Slatkin writes, "Greek women of all classes were occupied with the same type of work, mostly centered around the domestic needs of the family. Women cared for young children, nursed the sick, and prepared food" (34). Hypatia, on the other hand, led the life of a respected academic at Alexandria's university; a position to which, as far as the evidence suggests, only males were entitled previously. She never married and remained celibate throughout her life, devoting herself to learning and teaching. The ancient writers are in agreement that she was a woman of enormous intellectual power. Deakin writes:
The breadth of her interests is most impressive. Within mathematics, she wrote or lectured on astronomy (including its observational aspects - the astrolabe), geometry (and for its day advanced geometry at that) and algebra (again, for its time, difficult algebra), and made an advance in computational technique - all this as well as engaging in religious philosophy and aspiring to a good writing style. Her writings were, as best we can judge, an outgrowth of her teaching in the technical areas of mathematics. In effect, she was continuing a program initiated by her father: a conscious effort to preserve and to elucidate the great mathematical works of the Alexandrian heritage (112).
This heritage was so impressive that Alexandria rivalled Athens as a jewel of learning and culture. From the moment of its founding by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, Alexandria grew to epitomize the best aspects of civilized urban life. Early writers like Strabo (63 BCE-21 CE) describe the city as "magnificent" and the university was held in such high regard that scholars flocked there from around the world. The great Library of Alexandria is said to have held 500,000 books on its shelves in the main building and more in an adjacent annex. As a professor at the university, Hypatia would have had daily access to this resource and it seems clear she took full advantage of it.
In 415 CE, on her way home from delivering her daily lectures at the university, Hypatia was attacked by a mob of Christian monks, dragged from her chariot down the street into a church, and was there stripped naked, beaten to death, and burned. In the aftermath of Hypatia's death the University of Alexandria was sacked and burned on orders from Cyril, pagan temples were torn down, and there was a mass exodus of intellectuals and artists from the newly-Christianized city of Alexandria. Cyril was later declared a saint by the church for his efforts in suppressing paganism and fighting for the true faith. Hypatia's death has long been recognized as a watershed mark in history delineating the classical age of paganism from the age of Christianity.
The 2009 feature film Agora, which tells the story of Hypatia's life and death, accurately depicts the religious turmoil of Alexandria c. 415 CE at the same time that it takes license with events in the philosopher's life (such as the details of her death). The film sparked controversy upon its release from some segments of the Christian community who objected to the depiction of early Christians as fanatical enemies of learning and culture. History is clear, however, that Alexandria began to decline as Christianity rose in power and the death of Hypatia of Alexandria has come to embody all that was lost to civilization in the tumult of religious intolerance and the destruction it engenders.
- Death of the Classical World by Mangasarian
- Great Philosophers: Hypatia
- Deakin, M. A. B. Hypatia of Alexandria. Prometheus Books, 2007.
- Dzielska, M. Hypatia of Alexandria. Harvard University Press, 1996.
- Slatkin, W. Women Artists in History. Pearson, 2000.