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Ancient Alexandria’s Great Female Scholar
One day on the streets of Alexandria, Egypt, in the year 415, a mob of Christian zealots led by Peter the Lector accosted a woman’s carriage and dragged her from it, through the streets, and into a church, where they stripped her and beat her to death with roofing tiles. They then tore her body apart and burned it. Who was this woman and what was her crime?
Hypatia (c350-370 ~ 415 AD) was one of the last great thinkers of ancient Alexandria, Egypt, and one of the first women to study and teach mathematics, astronomy and philosophy. An avowed paganist (in those days pagan meant one who practiced a religion other than Christianity, Judaism, or Islam) in a time of religious strife, Hypatia was also one of the first women to study math, astronomy and philosophy. Though she is remembered more for her violent death, her dramatic life is a fascinating lens through which we may view the plight of science in an era of religious and sectarian conflict.
She was the daughter of Theon, a famous philosopher in his own right, who raised her as the son he never had, and from that profound upbringing she became a prominent thinker of the Neoplatonic School of Alexandria where she taught philosophy and astronomy, and was made head of that school when in her 30's.
As she wrote commentaries of her own, she always stressed that Neoplatonic philosophers must introduce the highest moral standards to political life and act for the benefit of their fellow citizens. She taught this principal to a succession of students from all over the Mediterranean areas from her own home where she constructed astrolabes, a portable astronomical calculator that would be used until the 19th century, and hydrometers, an instrument used for measuring the relative density of liquids based on the concept of buoyancy and typically calibrated and graduated with one or more scales such as specific gravity; and then taught her many students how to make their own. She also taught them the writings of Plato and Aristotle.
Ancient sources record that Hypatia was widely beloved by both pagans and Christians alike and she exerted profound influence with the political elite in Alexandria in troubled times. Although she herself was a pagan she was tolerant towards Christians and taught many Christian students, including Synesius, the future bishop of Ptolemais. As well known and loved as she was she would give impromptu lectures wherever she was to crowds of avid listeners.
Towards the end of her life, Hypatia was an adviser to Orestes, the Roman prefect of Alexandria, who was then in the midst of a political feud with Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria. Because of her friendship with Orestes rumors spread accusing her of preventing him from reconciling with Cyril and in March 415 AD she was murdered.
Her murder shocked the empire and transformed her into a "martyr for philosophy", leading future Neoplatonists such as Damascius to become increasingly fervent in their opposition to Christianity, especially that of the Roman Catholic church.
Many untruths of Hypatia have been stated in books and movies through the years. Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fantasies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing. The child mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after years relieved of them. In fact, men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth–often more so, since a superstition is so intangible you can not get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.
Socrates, a contemporary of Hypatia, described her thus:
'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 to 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 in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared 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.'
Hypatia has become a symbol for feminists, a martyr to pagans and atheists and a character in fiction. Voltaire used her to condemn the church and religion.
Neither paganism nor scholarship died in Alexandria with Hypatia, but they certainly took a blow. “Almost alone, virtually the last academic, she stood for intellectual values, for rigorous mathematics, ascetic Neoplatonism, the crucial role of the mind, and the voice of temperance and moderation in civic life,” Deakin wrote. She may have been a victim of religious fanaticism, but Hypatia remains an inspiration even in modern times.
During the Middle Ages, Hypatia was co-opted as a symbol of Christian virtue.
During the Age of Enlightenment, she became a symbol of opposition to Catholicism.
In the nineteenth century, European literature romanticized her as "the last of the Hellenes".
In the twentieth century, Hypatia became seen as an icon for women's rights and a precursor to the feminist movement.
researched and written by Joani Jiannine