Why Hypatia

Why Hypatia
| By Bruce Williams

She was a theist (Neoplatonist), so why should we look to her?Hypatia represents the best of her time and what even in today’s world would be someone we should emulate. She also represents what we should be wary of, the determination and brutality of those who want power.

Before we get too far into discussing this it would be helpful if you understood what we actually know about Hypatia from the first hand writings of others. Under About Us the section Writings About Hypatia I have included English translations of all first source entries that I know of for Hypatia, from the book “Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr” by Michael A. B. Deakin. It would be helpful if you read those so that you can understand in your own way what this review attempts to say.

So what do we have for First Hand writings about her?

During her lifetime we have:

One of Theon’s inscriptions in Book III of his commentary on Ptolemy’s Almagest where he states the edition had been prepared by Hypatia

11 letters written by Synesius of Cyrene (the Bishop of Ptolemais) to Hypatia and others. In these letters that Synesius wrote it becomes rather evident that even though he was a Christian Bishop he had a very high trust in her abilities as well as her knowledge of things both mathematical, physical, and philosophical.

About 20 years after her death: We have an entry From Philostorgius’s Ecclesiasticae Historiae, Liber VIII, § B praising her abilities and describing her death.

About 30 years after her death: Socrates Scholasticus (a 5th century Christian historian) writes in The Ecclesiastical History, Book VII, Chapter XIII about the most detailed entry of her life and how it was intertwined with the politics of the day.

About the same time from The Chronicle of John Malalas,Book 14, § 12 (a Greek chronicler from Antioch) there is a 2 line entry noting her death and praising her abilities.

Around 276 years after her death: from The Chronicle of John Of Nikiu (an Egyptian Monophysite Christian Chronicler) we have a story similar to Socrates, except now Hypatia is called a pagan devoted to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music – all of which are condemned by the church at this time. And the ones who killed her were now defenders of the faith as she had all the attributes that a witch would have. And St. Cyril, the one accused of ordering her murder, was now the hero of the story.

At about 500 years after her death: There is a 2 sentence excerpt from Theophanes’ Chronographia § 71 that is neutral towards all, mostly just acknowledging her death and her philosophical abilities.

About 600 years after her death: There were 4 entries in the Suda (a late 10th century Byzantine Encyclopedia) from Damascius and Hesychius about Hypatia. All essentially validating Socrates entries plus elaborating on some points here and there. These 4 entries have some historical errors in them as to who some of the out lying political figures involved were, but essentially verifying Socrates.

In these writings there are several things that stand out by the number of times they are mentioned:

Number of
mentioned           Comment
10                 Hypatia was known as a great philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician
7                   She was torn apart with “tiles” or similar torture.
6                   She was maliciously accused of actions she did not commit
5                   Christians were implicated in the killing
5                   She was killed primarily to further the political ambitions of St. Cyril
3                   She was kind and levelheaded as well as civic minded
3                   No action was taken by the state against her murderers
2                   She never married
2                   She was married
2                   Died Other Ways
2                   Not the best of philosophers
1                   She was elderly when she died
1                   Instances of stoning in the stories (Nothing to do with Hypatias death)

The question of married or not married can be answered by reading the letters of Synesius. He wrote to her up until a year before her death (when he died) and never mentioned her being married. Add to that the shieldcloth story and it is most likely she never married. (Yes – there are some people born a-sexual who never desire to get married, and Hypatia could have been one of those people, or she may have just been following the Neoplatonic tradition of lifetime celibacy. Also note that the people of Hypatia’s time had a reverent view of a female’s period, quite different than the modern view.)

From this list we can see with certainty that Hypatia was a respected philosopher, astronomer and mathematician of her time who was torn apart with “tiles” by Christians after being maliciously accused of actions she did not commit to further the political ambitions of St. Cyril. Her being levelheaded and respected in the community, as well as civic minded did not count enough for the state to prosecute her murderers.

These are the hard cold facts that in our world would be considered as legal evidence. In that short summary there is no accounting for the society at large at the time, but Michael Deakin has a short summary that I think best explains what happened.

“Hypatia’s case then was this. She lived in a time when her intellectual heritage, a seven-hundred–year-old tradition, was crumbling. The supporters that had once seemed so secure – the museum and the libraries – had all been swept away by the swell of ignorant dogmatism. Almost alone, virtually the last academic, she stood for the intellectual values, for rigorous mathematics, ascetic Neoplatonism, the crucial role of the mind, and the voice of temperance and moderation in civic life. By competence and by force of personality, she could command a crowd; her popular lectures and current charismatic presence drew the multitudes. She held the ear of the legitimate authority and was heard with respect.
But that tide of opinion which knows no possibility of doubt, which adheres blindly and mindlessly to a cause, which abandons intellectual quest for the assurance of a mute and unquestioning ‘faith’ – all this was against her; and her life became forfeit to the bloodlust of those who would claim, with the ironic certainty of unconscious self-refutation, their access to a higher morality.”2

After reading about the life of Hypatia there are those that will blame Christianity for the death of Hypatia, which is technically true, but the fact is there have been many more that have been murdered before and after her and by other religions including her own. The one factor that is common in all of these atrocities is the drive for power by those who commit those same atrocities for those same misguided reasons. There is no other totally common factor.

This being the case then are there many different people who could be cited as martyrs in this fight against the brutality of mindless power seeking? One might think that there should be many more, but few if any live up to Hypatia’s accomplishments.

To begin with she was a female in a patriarchal society. By the writings of Socrates as verified by later writers she had both the knowledge and heart to deal with everybody from the highest of political officials to the everyday ordinary uneducated citizen of Alexandria. Something none of the males in her society could accomplish even though they were given the upper hand by being born male. This great gift of hers was apparently one of the major factors in St. Cyrill’s decision to kill her. Someone not exceptionally strong in physical strength or commanding a large army, but rather strong in humanity was one thing St. Cyrill could not overcome without just eliminating her. In other words he could get some of the people to follow him by promising them rewards in the future and using deception and blind faith, but she could make many more feel better in this world and give them hope in what they considered to be the next world without requiring them to be brutal towards others, but rather by being tolerant and attempting to help and educate others in the truth as it can best be determined by known information.

One of Hypatia’s strengths that we should emulate was her following the truth in mathematics and the sciences including the realization that none of the sciences are complete yet. And one of her weaknesses we must not fall pray to is that there are and always will be those that are willing to do harm because of their desire for power and inability to deal with other people’s right to exist (empathy).

We must also face one of the Hellenistic’s greatest faults, assuming that the important people operate on an intellectual level and that those that don’t are somehow lesser than those that do.

We must also realize that those who operate on an intellectual level are actually in the minority, and those that operate more on the emotional level are the majority. That is not to say that either group is better or worse than the other, just different. We must also realize that if we wish intellect to guide humanity then we must learn from the failings of others and present our ideas in a way that those that do not wish to spend their life analyzing the philosophical aspects of life can easily understand and agree with. If we do not do this, then those that desire power for power’s sake can and will. And as it has always been, the results will benefit the power seekers and not humanity.

While it is stated that St. Cyrill received a lot of condemnation for this act by his people, that does not change the fact that nothing was actually done about the people who sacrificed Hypatia. And whether one wishes to admit it or not if there are no consequences, then what you did is obviously okay!

And while our “Greatest Generation” held the Nuremberg and International Military Tribunal for the Far East trials to quash the idea that just because you were “just following orders” you are exempt from action for the atrocities you commit, these trials only turned out to be a temporary moral thing for humanity because it has not been followed through on. We know that it has not been followed through because in our generation that same attitude of letting people commit atrocities has not changed. We (since the Greatest Generation) still let those in power commit atrocities and only slap them on the wrist, and even then sometimes with a wink. Look at what our former president did when he authorized torture even against people not convicted of a crime, not even war crimes, as well as what has happened in the last year alone with Michael Brown,Tamir Rice, and others. We neither go after the perpetrators because they are part of the political structure nor do we go after the leaders because they are the leaders. Our society is devolving such that it no longer understands that human life deserves preserving and those that would take it in malice need to be punished be they political pawns or leaders!

Compounding this fact is that even though we know the history involved, the practice of the authorities in calumniously reporting unrelated actions of those that they wish to wrong continues. And this continues blatantly and those in power don’t seem to realize in their blind drive to hold on to their power that people can see right through what they have done. But then what is the problem for those who seek power if there is no one to hold them accountable for their heinous acts? After all we all know that if there are no real consequences than we can keep doing it because it “is okay”.

Another thing that Hypatia’s death teaches us is that the belief in ambiguous religious doctrines which includes commands by the god(s) or philosophies of that doctrine allow the killing and oppression of people for reasons not related to physical self-defense allows those seeking power to use the ambiguity and nebulous reasons for killing people as a force in their drive to gain more power. And this is not limited to just Christians, it has been used by every religion and non-religion since humans existed. And without clearly defined limits and enforcement, those seeking power will continue to kill and oppress as they see fit.

Our final lesson in this atrocity is that so much knowledge was denied people resulting in so many centuries of additional pain and suffering that was unnecessary due to the destruction of the knowledge of past ages just because those who wanted power could only get it through the force of death and relying on a society of uneducated people who could not question what they said. And these practices continue through the denial of fundamental science and the destruction in other times and in other countries of the artifacts of those that were oppressed or killed off.

So, we can say Hypatia is the ubiquitous example of everything that allows our systems to be bad. She suffered and we still allow:

Politicians and those with a political position to commit atrocities with impunity.

Not punishing the politicians minions for the atrocities they commit.

Not punishing politicians and their minions who defame people for unrelated actions that they have hurt or wish to hurt.

Rewarding those with power and dismissing those with no power.

Women to be treated as less than men.

People with ambiguous writings from their gods/philosophers to direct society.

The destruction of the past to enforce an arbitrary view point.

Treating people as lesser because of a birth condition

Other people have also suffered from many of these, but Hypatia is one of the few that we can say got caught up in the full force of all these conditions.

In summery we can say that Hypatia represents all the good we non-theists wish to bring the world towards, and supplies us with the problems we must overcome to do that. It does not matter that she was a theist in her time, that is what was known in her time. In the 1600 years since her time we know that science provides us with true answers, and were those answers will lead us we do not know. But it will be the truth if we like it or not.

This article is free and open source. You have permission to republish this article under a Creative Commons license with attribution to the author and the HypatianChronicle.net as well as any noted 3rd party attributions.