Thursday, 21 July 2011

Hypatia of Alexandria


Hypatia was a Greek reared in Alexandria. She is often associated with the phenomenon called Neoplatonism, generally credited as commencing in the third century CE. She was born circa 355, and her Greek father Theon was a mathematician. Over a century earlier, Ammonius Saccas had taught in Alexandria, and he is considered the effective founder of Neoplatonism. 

Ammonius was an obscure philosopher, apparently self-taught, who functioned outside the conventional Platonist curriculum. His pupil Plotinus (c.204-270 CE) appears to have shared the same independent orientation. Plotinus moved from Alexandria to Rome, where he lived for the remainder of his life. Hypatia also taught a version of the Platonist outlook, using her home in Alexandria as a base. She is reported to have been proficient in mathematics and astronomy. 

None of her writings on philosophy survive. Her mathematics has been reconstructed, and was not the modern version. Hypatia viewed geometry as a route to the One, and this outlook was compatible with celibacy. Astronomy was still a sacred science in her time, though often admixed with astrology (which Plotinus rejected). 

Modern scholarship has concluded that Hypatia did not teach the theurgy lore which pervaded much of the later Neoplatonism associated with Iamblichus and Proclus. She has instead been viewed by some interpreters as a Neoplatonist in the Plotinian sense; an early annalist refers to her in a context of the tradition of Plato and Plotinus. Like Plotinus, her lifestyle was frugal and disciplined, and she never married, remaining a virgin. Female philosophers were a rarity. There were a few women amongst the pupils of Plotinus, though they reaped obscurity. 

The fifth century annalist Socrates Scholasticus (c. 379-450) was a contemporary Greek Christian of Constantinople. In his Ecclesiastical History, he profiles Hypatia as a major philosopher of her day, and refers to her as following the Platonist way of thought via Plotinus. Professor J. M. Rist suggested that it was Hypatia who revived interest in Plotinus at Alexandria. The same scholar also linked her to the outspoken Cynic tradition; she wore the rough cloak strongly associated with Cynic teachers. 

The Platonist curricula relied on students from wealthy families. Hypatia was no exception. Her pupils came from various towns in Egypt, and also from further afield in Syria, and even distant Constantinople. There were Christians in her circle, and two of these became bishops, including Synesius of Cyrene, a Greek Platonising Christian who was at first reluctant to become Bishop of Ptolemais, though he did so in 410. 

This was a difficult time for the surviving paganism, which was now increasingly the minority in territory ruled by Christianity. Persons from wealthy Christian families still learned Greek philosophy, though theological dominance meant that Platonism and Neoplatonism were on the defensive, and more so in Alexandria than at Athens. 

Hypatia was eventually murdered. There are different versions of her death in the early reports. With regard to the Hypatia biography in general, scholarship has to be distinguished from novelism. Eighteenth century writers like Voltaire and Gibbon have been accused of creating a literary legend. Nineteenth century embellishments followed, and the twentieth century added a further round of Hypatia lore influenced by contemporary preferences. 

An early sixth century report was supplied by Damascius, a Neoplatonist who studied in Alexandria two generations after the death of Hypatia. This source affirms that she gave public lectures on Plato and Aristotle; further, the Alexandrian Patriarch Cyril (in office 412-44) became envious of her fame and plotted the murder of Hypatia, goading a mob to kill her. 

Cyril was a Christian archbishop who later gained a repute as the persecutor of pagans. Hypatia was on cordial terms with the governing secular prefect Orestes, a rival of Cyril in the political power stakes, and who resisted clerical attempts to gain secular control. Orestes was a Christian, and thus the issue was not paganism versus Christianity, but civic versus ecclesiastical interests. Hypatia might have expressed some degree of opposition to the church hierarchy, but she was not anti-Christian and cared for her Christian students, who apparently included Orestes. She provided a convenient political scapegoat for Cyril, who was opposed to pagans, Jews, and heretics. 

Some commentators have attributed the murder of Hypatia to Christian monks. That is a theory, and not proven fact. Another interpretation has more feasibly urged that Cyril utilised a private cadre known as the parabolans. This grouping comprised 800 young men employed by the Alexandrian Patriarch in the service of the church. In contrast, the Coptic monks were an independent faction. 

The parabolans sometimes exercised a benevolent role of caring for the sick and homeless, but they were also deployed as militant agents of the Patriarch in various places. They are described by some scholars as soldiers in the private army of Cyril. The parabolans were the most likely tool of the former Patriarch Theophilus in the destruction of the Serapeum and other pagan temples. This cadre were almost certainly involved in the fanatical attack on the Jewish quarters at Alexandria in 414, a molestation inseparably associated with Cyril. 

Professor Maria Dzielska concluded that these young men were incited to spread adverse rumours about Hypatia, and subsequently caused an Alexandrian mob to kill her in 415. She was depicted as a witch, and the unreasoning attitude is evident in the seventh century version of events by Bishop John of Nikiu, who describes Hypatia as a witch deserving to be killed. 

The full background to the murder, in the details surviving, is revealing. Cyril is implicated as having caused riots between Jews and Christians in the critical year of 415. He proclaimed that all Jews must leave Alexandria. In contrast, Orestes was committed to preventing the persecution of non-Christians. Not surprisingly, Jews and pagans favoured him against Cyril. 

In 415, Cyril’s private army attempted to murder Orestes; the attack failed, and although Orestes was wounded, the victim was rescued by Christian onlookers. The leader of the attack was apparently a monk named Ammonius, who was afterwards killed by the army of Orestes. Cyril then glorified Ammonius as a saint, and the church led the public to believe that urban strife would cease if Hypatia was eliminated. She was murdered by a Christian mob. 

Orestes apparently departed from Alexandria, probably in fear of his life. Damascius reports that the perpetrators of the crime went unpunished. The alarmed city council made repeated petitions to the court at distant Constantinople. As a consequence, the following year (416) Cyril was divested of his authority over the parabolans, whose numbers were reduced by an imperial ordinance to 500. Yet only two years later, Cyril regained his leadership of the parabolans, a factor conferring power in his subsequent attacks on pagans. 

See further Maria Dzielska, Hypatia of Alexandria, trans. F. Lyra (Harvard University Press, 1995); Michael A.B. Deakin, Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr (New York, 2007); Sandy Donovan, Hypatia: Mathematician, Inventor, and Philosopher (Bloomington, 2008). 

Kevin R. D. Shepherd 
July 21st 2011 

ENTRY no. 41

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