Hypatia of Alexandria was one of the most brilliant female philosophers of the ancient world. She was especially gifted in mathematics and taught a number of distinguished dignitaries from all over the Roman Empire. But Hypatia lived at a time when the Church was gaining strength, and she soon became the target of Christian fanatics. An important and prominent figure in her community, she soon found herself caught up in a dark conflict between an ambitious Christian bishop and local secular authorities. The result of all this was a real tragedy.
Hypatia (Hypatia) was born around 355 AD. NS. and lived in the thriving intellectual city of Alexandria. According to some sources, thanks to the upbringing of her father Theon, a popular mathematician and philosopher, she had an unusually brilliant mind and was extremely talented in mathematics, and it is not surprising that at some point she surpassed her own father in abilities.
Unfortunately, like many other writers of the ancient world, her work was mostly lost in time, so it is difficult to restore what she could write. It is only known that some of her works included commentaries on a number of important thinkers, including the Arithmetic of Diophantus, Ptolemy's Almagest, and Apollonius' work on conical structures. Diophantus' work in particular was very advanced, consisting of an early precursor to later Arabic algebra.
The name Hypatia is also mentioned several times in connection with astronomy, including in a letter in which it is indicated in passing that she taught one of her students how to create an astrolabe, an instrument used to study the heavens.
What could have been the more philosophical teachings of Hypatia, unfortunately, is not known, but historians and scientists all as one insist that she was part of the neo-Platonic school that dominated late ancient philosophy. This school viewed the study of mathematics, in particular, as an important intellectual activity that can bring a person closer to the divine.
The Neoplatonists combined many ancient philosophies into one tradition, and they believed very strongly in the all-encompassing Deity, the One, or the first principle that can be experienced through intense contemplation. After the death of Hypatia, Alexandria gained an excellent reputation for its Neo-Platonic philosophers, and it seems that this trend was launched by Hypatia herself.
By the time she came of age, a respected female philosopher was running her own school, teaching some of the best and brightest minds from across the empire. Teachers at large intellectual centers such as Alexandria often competed for students from the aristocratic elite of Rome who received a philosophical education before embarking on a career.
Hypatia of Alexandria was one of these respected and prestigious teachers. She was admired by her students and was a popular figure in her local community who seemed to give public lectures from time to time.
Hypatia is probably the most famous of the female philosophers of the ancient world due to her shocking death. It is also worth noting the fact that she was not the only woman to teach philosophy in the Roman Empire.Hypatia was part of a long tradition inherited from classical Greece, in which some schools of thought accepted female students and teachers. Plato, in particular, argued in his Republic that if women and men could be given the same education, they could both play the same roles in their community.
He was heavily influenced by one of his predecessors, the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Pythagoras. Pythagoras created a kind of philosophical commune, which included both men and women educated in philosophy, mathematics and music.
Pythagoreanism was extremely popular for many centuries, and Pythagorean groups were common throughout the Greek and Roman world. Hypatia's own philosophical school, Neoplatonism, blended the teachings of both Plato and Pythagoras quite comfortably, and she is one of several women philosophers known within this tradition.
Unfortunately for Hypatia, she lived in a transitional period between the classical world and the early Middle Ages, at a time when ideas about philosophy and religion were changing very quickly. Although the Roman Empire had Christian emperors since the time of Constantine I, during the life of Hypatia, Emperor Theodosius I made great efforts to eradicate non-Christian religions.
By AD 392 NS. Theodosius promulgated a series of anti-pagan decrees, excluding pagan religious holidays from the calendar, forbidding people to make sacrifices in temples or even passing through them, and dismissing the Vestals - all in a concerted effort to strengthen Orthodoxy.
Hypatia's hometown of Alexandria has been particularly hard hit by the religious conflicts resulting from this suppression. Temples were soon abandoned or turned into churches, and those who feared the potentially demonic power of pagan imagery began destroying statues, chopping off the arms, legs and noses of ancient works of art throughout Egypt. Many pagans did not take these desecrations lightly, and riots soon broke out in Alexandria between Christians and pagans.
One group of particularly devoted pagans established a stronghold for themselves in the Temple of Serapis, an important building in Alexandria that housed one of the city's main libraries. But when the emperor learned of the conflict, he ordered the pagans to leave their positions in the Serapeum, allowing an angry Christian crowd to crush the place.
Despite the rise in violence in her city, it was not obvious early in her life that Hypatia was likely to fall prey to any violent behavior. Philosophy fell into a gray zone for many Christians as it covered many topics and has long been the backbone of higher education for wealthy people.
While Hypatia was a pagan, she seemed to be quite comfortable with the growing Christian elite in her city. The Neoplatonic philosophy of Hypatia was extremely popular in Late Antiquity, and while some Neoplatonists invested heavily in pagan rituals and even magic (theurgy), others focused entirely on an abstract form of theology that was far from traditional paganism.
This form of Neoplatonism had many points of contact with Christian thought. For example, Hypatia herself remained chaste throughout her life, most likely within the framework of her rejection of the material world, which, as many Neoplatonists and Christians believed, could distract humanity from the connection with the divine.
The ineffable all-inclusive deity in which the Neoplatonists believed could also easily be identified with the Christian God. Neoplatonism had a huge impact on the early Christian church, especially through the figure of St. Augustine of Hippo (Aurelius), who used Neoplatonic ideas to interpret Christian dogma.
When she began teaching at the end of the 4th century AD.e., many people did not see the contradiction between studying classical philosophy and being a Christian, among other things, some of the disciples of Hypatia were themselves Christians. One of her key students was Synesius, who, having become a bishop in neighboring Ptolemais, continued to write mystical texts until the end of his life, in which pagan philosophy and Christian ideas were rather comfortably mixed.
Fortunately for historians, there are one hundred and fifty-six letters written by Synesius, some of which were written by Hypatia herself. In his letters, he makes it very clear that Hypatia and her circle of disciples, both pagans and Christians, remained good friends and kept in touch with each other until the end of their days. But while Hypatia enjoyed the attention of the elite in her city, both pagan and Christian, an ever-growing group of religious militants would soon begin to denounce her school, and a ruthless Christian bishop was about to mobilize them.
Hypatia did not experience the full brunt of religious turmoil in her city until the old bishop of Alexandria Theophilus died in 413 CE. NS. He was soon replaced by a much more radical preacher, Bishop Cyril, whose election was marred by dirty politics and incitement from local rabble. Cyril was later made a saint and a church doctor, but he was an extremely unpleasant character. After his election, Kirill was determined to use the radical elements of his own flock to sow confusion and gain political power for himself.
Alexandria had a very large Christian population, but it was also extremely cosmopolitan, and the new bishop was keen to exploit Christian prejudices in order to become more popular. He began by targeting the heretical Novatian Christians, a large unorthodox Christian sect in Alexandria who had been expelled from their churches, and soon he chose an even larger target: the vast and centuries-old Jewish population of Alexandria. One of Cyril's agents was soon accused of causing riots among a crowd of Alexandrian Jews, and he was arrested and executed without trial by the Roman prefect, a man named Orestes, starting a feud between the two men.
Orestes, like many other local nobles, was a close friend of Hypatia, which subsequently threatened her with serious trouble. The prefect tried to restore order in the city, but the situation soon got out of control. After a group of Jews brutally took revenge on some of the local Christians, Cyril was able to completely expel the Jews from Alexandria with the help of an angry mob, completely undermining the power of an enraged Orestes.
He wrote to the emperor to complain about the troubled bishop, but never received an answer. Cyril's worst and most violent supporters were the radical Nitrian monks from the Egyptian desert and the Christian Parabolans, a group that was supposed to heal the sick and help the community, but seemed more interested in terrorizing the local population.
Orestes's enmity with the bishop did not benefit him, and soon some of Cyril's monks actually attacked the prefect in the streets, throwing a stone at his head and accusing him of being a pagan and an idolater. The man who threw the stone, a monk named Ammonius, was later arrested and killed, prompting Cyril to declare him a martyr. As this tense situation continued to escalate dangerously, Cyril and his gang turned their attention to Orestes's friend Hypatia.
Hypatia's assassination was not a direct religious conflict, but rather a power battle between rival dignitaries. By this time, she was already an old woman, and she would have been in her sixties when she died, but nevertheless, Hypatia still seemed a threat in Cyril's eyes. She was not only associated with the prefect, but also personally enjoyed immense popularity. One of the sources says that Cyril was furious when he saw the crowds of people gathered to listen to Hypatia's speech, and decided to destroy her reputation.
In a great omen event that set the tone for Christian Europe's treatment of women in the Middle Ages and beyond, Hypatia's knowledge and influence was soon branded as witchcraft. This rumor will be repeated centuries later by one medieval chronicler.
It is difficult to say whether Cyril himself started this rumor, but soon Cyril's supporters began to whisper that Hypatia's power over people was the result of witchcraft, and for some Christians at that time this was an extremely serious accusation. Soon, a group of Christian militants, led by a church reader named Peter, took it upon themselves to interpret the scriptures literally. The crowd found Hypatia in the streets of Alexandria and pulled her off the chariot.
She was stripped naked and then beaten and stoned to death with roof tiles in a horrific act of bloody violence, and her mutilated body was later unceremoniously burned. Her terrible death made her a martyr for many people, both pagans and Christians.
In modern times, she has become both an icon of feminism and an anti-Christian symbol. By the 18th century, her story was enthusiastically taken up by Enlightenment philosophers such as Voltaire, who increasingly rejected the Christian religion. And in the 19th century, in the bestselling book Hypatia, written by the anti-Catholic Charles Kingsley, Hypatia was used as a symbol of the gross misconduct of the Christian church. In more modern examples, it has often been used as a symbol of secular thinking.
By far the most famous portrayal of Hypatia comes from the 2009 blockbuster Agora directed by Alejandro Amenabar, starring the brilliant Rachel Weisz as the legendary woman philosopher. The film plays with facts from the life of Hypatia to create an entertaining narrative, but it deserves praise for both the plot and the portrayal of late Roman history on the big screen, which was rarely done. However, the film's narrative transforms Hypatia into a completely modern hero that she was not.
At one point in the film, a member of the Alexandria Council states that they shouldn't listen to a brazen philosopher woman because she doesn't believe in anything. In fact, as a Neoplatonist, Hypatia had deep spiritual convictions. The goal of the Neoplatonist philosophers in the late Roman period was to achieve union with God through philosophical contemplation and intellectual effort. For Hypatia, reason and religion were inseparable.
Hypatia was the victim of a growing and ugly phenomenon, an extremely intolerant current of the Christian religion, which would become noticeable throughout the Middle Ages. She was ultimately killed because she was an influential person, a woman, and a thinker who stood in the way of a power-hungry person who was ready to use the hate crowd, fueled by superstition.
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