Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Hypatia of Alexandria

Book Review: Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska – translated by F. Lyra
(Harvard University Press 1995)

This is a good scholarly work seeking the unembellished story of the great female Platonic philosopher, her eminent school, and her unfortunate demise among fanatical Christians. This account accords quite well with the very good 2009 movie Agora, about Hypatia of Alexandria. Hypatia was praised by her students and friends as a person of  great moral qualities, intelligence, and self-control (sophrosyne).The author sifts through and compares all the various sources about Hypatia, their faults and merits. She also sort of debunks (but only partially) literary legends of Hypatia stemming from 19th century enlightenment accounts of her.

The author seeks to downplay the simplistic notions of Hypatia as an innocent victim of fanaticism – she was murdered and torn apart by fanatical Christians – likely a hired gang of them – in the year 415 CE. She only partially succeeds but does provide a much more thorough and detailed account of her life and the political forces that led to her murder. Hypatia’s death as symbolic of the triumph of Christianity and the subsequent weakening of the Roman Empire is examined. Although she does provide evidence that there were continuing pagan and Neoplatonic philosophical traditions after Hypatia – one can hardly deny that her death and the preceding events in the once cosmopolitan city of Alexandria were a turning point that strengthened intolerance and fanaticism. It would be a few more centuries until the Arab conquest of Alexandria. The classical romanticists and enlightenment poets may well have deified her as a beacon of the last vestiges of a golden age of antiquity. Hypatia’s story has also been interpreted in modern ways in totally erroneous forms: as a convert to Christianity (which never happened); or more plausibly as an inspiration to feminists – although women in general were not treated a whole lot better before Christianity replaced paganism.

Hypatia was a Platonic philosopher and a scientist who gave public and private lectures in Alexandria at her residence – mainly to aristocrats, some traveling from Syria, Constantinople, and other parts of the empire. One of the sources: Damascius’s Life of Isodore – strongly condemns the Alexandrian Christians. Indeed Damascius (born 450) was a part of the continuing (but certainly not flourishing) Neoplatonic tradition. His account can be seen as one not tainted by a Church perspective as most of the others are.
During Hypatia’s life Alexandria was populated with a slight majority of Christians, mostly orthodox, but Nestorians (Syrian) as well. Actually it would be a bit later in 431 at the Council of Ephesus that Nestorius would be branded a heretic and the Church split along those lines. The patriarch Cyril (likely the instigator of Hypatia’s death) would be the one who most strongly condemned Nestorius. Alexandria also had a large population of Jews and pagans.

Hypatia taught Euclid’s geometry and Ptolemy’s astronomy as well as the philosophy of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and Pythagoras. Her students were very loyal to her and followed some precepts of secrecy and moral discipline required among late-antiquity Platonists. Her father was Theon, also a great teacher of science, astronomy, and philosophy as well as being a theurgist (magician). Although the author tries to paint Hypatia as more interested in science and less interested in theurgy than her father – it could also be that the climate for theurgy was not good during her time, especially after bishop Theophilus issued edicts against pagan temples in the 390’s, although she notes that there is no evidence that Theophilus and Hypatia had any ill will toward one another. Hypatia was her father’s closest and best collaborator. Indeed it does seem likely that Hypatia was more interested in Hellenistic philosophy than Hellenistic religious cults. Theon was known to practice both Hermeticism and Orphism and it seems likely Hypatia was schooled in those disciplines as well. Theon prepared books for publication and further commentary such as Ptolemy’s Amalgest – a classic astronomy text. Indeed Hypatia’s work may have been instrumental in those works and others that she prepared although no works attributed directly to her are known to have survived. Several of Theon’s books and commentaries survived. Late Platonism was regarded as a sort of religious mystery tradition according to several authors, where adherence to moral principles, moderation, abstinence of lust and greed, and generosity were encouraged and practiced. It was a lifestyle rather than simply an education. Such was the circle about Hypatia and a few centuries earlier the circle about the Syrian Platonist Iamblichus. Another goal was to orient the mind to a state of revelation, or contemplation, termed theoria.

Hypatia’s students included pagans, Christians, and Jews. Synesius of Cyrene who later became a bishop preserved much about the student circle. She was beloved of her students and it appears from his letters to her that the students and their teacher cultivated mindful relationships. The letters of Synesius are also a major source of our information about Hypatia. The letters written by Synesius to other students of Hypatia such as Olympius and Herculianus also reveal much about her circle of students around 400 CE. He often referred to her as “blessed lady.” Different researchers give different ages for Hypatia’s death – some say she was as young as 45 but the author makes a good case that she was about 60 years of age. It is likely that she began teaching in the 380’s at a fairly young age. The Christian monk Philamon was also a willing student of Hypatia, though originally he may have sought to discredit her. It is fairly certain that Hypatia wielded a highly respected social position in Alexandria. Damascius compares 5th century Alexandria to 5th century BC Athens where politicians would consult philosophers on matters of state. Orestes, the new prefect of Alexander and governor of Egypt was a friend and student of Hypatia as well. His quarrel with Cyril would spill into all facets of the city as the secular state and the new religion battled for political power. The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus is the most substantial source about Hypatia according to the author.

Damascius tells the famed story of a regular student that fell in love with Hypatia and unable to abstain, confessed his love for her. She was said to show him her bloodied sanitary napkin and state. “This is what you really love, my young man, but you do not love beauty for its own sake.” Hypatia was reputed to have remained a virgin her whole life. She also practiced moderation and restraint and was valued for her self-control – the moral virtue of sophrosyne. Such was a requirement to achieve the desired philosophical state of apatheia – complete liberation from emotions and affections. Her ascetic leanings are exemplified by her wearing of the philosophic tribon, the simple garment of philosophers.

Hypatia was also renowned for her mathematical and astronomical achievements. She and Theon taught how to build astrolabes for the study of astronomy. She taught Euclid’s geometry and Pythagorean mathematics as well as the mathematics of the Alexandrian algebraist Diphantus. For Hypatia and her school though, mathematics and astronomy as well as “sacred geometry” were inseparable from philosophy as all were ways to approach the divine in nature. The initiates and their teacher referred to themselves as hetairoi, or companions – they being a microcosm of the macrocosm of divine nature.  The author speculates whether Hypatia’s tradition stemmed from that of Iamblichus or Plotinus and Porphyry. Since Iamblichus was a theurgist and theurgic terms are not used in any writings about Hypatia it is assumed it was the latter tradition. Even so, such theurgic works as the Chaldean Oracles were studied as mentioned by Synesius. The author depicts both Hypatia and Synesius as cultural Hellenists rather than religious ones. While that may be true for Synesius, I suspect Hypatia was just more careful about it since her beloved father Theon who she lived with till his death was such an avid Hermeticist and theurgist. Indeed, before Hypatia was Antoninus, the son of Sosipatra, who was a Neoplatonic theurgist who worked his theurgy and religious paganism discretely while teaching philosophy to packed audiences. He was also associated with the cult of Serapis but died before the destruction of the temples in Canopus and Alexandria under the orders of Theophilus. He and his mother Sosipatra were also associated with asceticism, restraint, and high moral character according to Neoplatonic ideals.

Theophilus became bishop of Alexandria in 385. He quickly began a campaign against paganism. In 391-392 he moved in on the cult of Serapis at the Serapeum in the city center and prohibited cult practices causing an outrage among the pagans. There were riots. Many barricaded themselves in the temple which gave Theophilus pretext to call military and civil authorities for help. Since Christianity was gaining in the empire and was predominant in the military this was permitted and many of the pagan temples and statues were appropriated and destroyed. Many of the Hellenes and Neoplatonists sided with the pagans. After this there were outbreaks of violence. Priests of Thoth (Hermes) and Amon (Zeus) were also routed in the prohibition of paganism in Alexandria. Hypatia and her school were not attacked or persecuted by Theophilus at this time. This would occur later when Cyril became bishop of Alexandria. The author states that she was not interested in exoteric paganism and deity worship but it could well be that she did not want to be associated with the most scorned elements of Hellenism by the ecclesiasts. Since she also taught Christians and Jews – it is also possible that she was above the petty violence. During the destruction of the Serapheum it is thought that more books from the famed Alexandrian library were burned – since they were a testament to the Hellenic pagan culture. The invading Arabs would complete the task in 645 CE as the Koran became the only book worth having.

Theophilus died in the fall of 412. Then his nephew Cyril would come to power as bishop. Though Church historians canonized him a saint and praised him for his theological and dogmatic knowledge, the people in his place and time generally did not. Sources of the time described him as power-hungry. Even his election to the bishopric caused unrest as many factions favored Timothy, with the backing of the military. After a few skirmishes Cyril was installed as bishop. Episcopal authority was strengthened under Cyril and soon began to spread to municipal affairs. He sought orthodoxy, first expelling the Novatian Christians from the city, closed their churches, and confiscated their religious objects. Next he went after the Jews. Jews had lived peacefully in Alexandria for many centuries. The prefect Orestes had just come to Alexandria to help sow order. As he announced an ordinance against pantomimic performances the Jews rebelled saying there were agents of Cyril among the crowd come to cause trouble. Orestes considered their complaints. There were riots. People were killed. Hierax, the agent of Cyril, was arrested and tortured by the prefect. Possibly, he resented Cyril’s growing power to replace the authority of the empire with the authority of the Church. After a Jewish attack on Christians Cyril retaliated heavily through the use of empowered Christian mobs to confiscate the property of Jews and expel many of them from the city. This also served to weaken opposition against him. Orestes was enraged and reported these events to the emperor as did Cyril. These accounts come mainly from the writings of Socrates Scholasticus. He reports that more moderate Christians encouraged Cyril to come to terms with Orestes. Even though Orestes was a Christian he would not submit to Cyril’s authority. He was also a Hellene and was said too to be taken by the teachings of Hypatia. Cyril employed Nitrian monks from the nearby desert as foot-soldiers (as had Theophilus) and pursued other methods. These monks had the audacity to insult Orestes and the monk Ammonius attacked Orestes, injuring him badly with a large stone. For this he was tortured which resulted in his death. Reports were dispatched to the emperor. Cyril proclaimed Ammonius a martyr. Orestes was supported by many of the nobles of the city (including his friend Hypatia) and therein lies a clue to their downfall. The aristocracy did not have the support of the lower classes of Alexandria and the Christian doctrines of poverty and belief-based spirituality was more accessible to poor folk. Indeed, Synesius’s letters indicate a kind of contempt for the lower classes, their philosophical ignorance, and more questionable moral character. Socrates noted that Hypatia was seeking the reconciliation of the prefect and the bishop. He also suggests that the remaining Jewish community supported Orestes against the incursions of the bishop. The city officials, most of them moderate Christians, also opposed Cyril. Hypatia may have been especially feared since her influence extended beyond Alexandria to her distinguished students from Syria, Constantinople, and Libya. Though she was well-liked among the aristocracy she was not among the masses, perhaps even the lower class pagans, as she was not known to have joined their cause against Theophilus’s incursions against their temples a few decades earlier. Thus, rumors began to circulate about Hypatia being a witch and using her magic to enchant the Christian Orestes against the schemes of Cyril and his version of Church authority over civil matters. This slander had an affect on the masses. One later source, that of John of Nikiu, is very explicit about her being a satanic witch casting spells over city officials – nonsense for sure but effective in her time in a battle for influence among the masses. He sought to portray her gruesome death as just punishment and her tormentors as heroes.

A certain clergyman known as Peter the Reader led the charges and the mob against Hypatia. As Hypatia was in the habit of traveling about the city in a chariot, the mob pulled her out of it, ripped her clothes off, stabbed her to death with pottery shards, ripped her apart, and finally brought her body parts to be burned at a pyre. Most accounts are more or less in agreement here. Afterwards the city officials contacted officials of the empire to complain about Cyril but some in the empire wanted to keep quiet about the affair since they favored Cyril’s policies of prohibition of paganism. The author considers that the whole affair of slandering, lynching, and murdering Hypatia was a well-planned plot by Cyril and the evidence is quite good that it was. Cyril was never punished, only slightly reprimanded by having his large group of young church helpers of the homeless and poor – but in reality his army to enforce his policies – slightly reduced in number. This lasted for a year or two then Cyril was allowed more freedom for his dogma enforcers. The fact that her murder went unavenged and unpunished was said to bring a mark of shame on the city, the third largest city of the whole Roman Empire.

In a concluding chapter the author notes that Hypatia’s death did not mark the end of the Neoplatonic tradition in Alexandria or in other parts of the empire. She states that the Neoplatonic tradition in Alexandria achieved its height in the 5th and sixth centuries with theurgical and pagan practices intact. Even so, I suspect they were less accepted by the ecclesiastical authorities and the general populace and less eclectic than Hypatia’s famed school had been. I can hardly believe that doctrines in any way related to outlawed cults (such as those of Isis and Serapis) and other similar ones could thrive unchecked. In essence I disagree with the author that Hypatia’s persecution and death was not symbolic of the end of Hellenism. It was certainly the end of the free expression of Hellenism, both philosophy and especially cults.

The author also gives a small section on other learned women of late antiquity. Most or all were Neoplatonists. Porphyry’s wife Marcella is one. The Roman Gemina was a student of Plotinus. Iamblichus had a student – the female philosopher Alete.

“The best-known, most original, and most influential woman philosopher was Sosipatra. She lived in the first half of the fourth century, teaching philosophy in Pergamon.”

Sosipatra was said to be initiated in Chaldean practices. Later, there were famous Christian Neoplatonist philosophers that included women such as Aedesia.

The legend of St. Catherine of Alexandria has some interesting parallels to the life of Hypatia. Indeed, this could possibly have been the Church’s later attempts to canonize the admirable qualities of Hypatia, but this is mere speculation. I find it interesting as well that the Templars many centuries later were said to have especially venerated this St. Catherine. There was an inscription found in Asia Minor dedicated to a St. Hypatia Catherine. The author suggests that this might have been a middle name since Hypatia was a common name but it seems more likely to me that her legend was being appropriated long after her death – a not uncommon phenomenon in popular folklore.

Overall, a very good book that considers all the sources about Hypatia. Though I don’t completely agree with all of the author’s conclusions, she does present quite plausible cases for them. When the movie Agora came out in the US in 2009 there was some backlash and protest among Christians since the story could hardly not paint the fanatical Christian mobs associated with Cyril as anything but gruesome.

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