Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Hypatia of Alexandria

A friend of mine has lent me a book on ancient female philosophers. Amongst the women is Hypatia of Alexandria, who lived in the fourth century, was a neo-Platonic philosopher, mathematician, astronomer and teacher. She lived at the time which saw the end of paganism, the rise of Christianity, and conflict between Jews and Christians. Her students gained positions of power, and consulted her whilst in these positions. She wrote three books, one on Ptolemy’s work, one on Conic Sections, and is thought to have invented an instrument to determine the weights of liquids to be administered to the sick. It is possible that Copernicus, who deduced that the sun rather than the earth was the centre of the universe, was influenced by her work.

She taught a type of philosophy that was compatible with paganism and Christianity. Before the age of thirty she was a famous teacher. She taught men, and moved freely in the world of men. The Roman government of the time persecuted pagans and Jews, but paid Hypatia, who was known as a pagan (although there is no documentation of her religion), to head the prestigious school of Plotinus, in the Museum of Alexandria, which was a univeriversity. Alexandria was known as the centre of ancient intellectual life, and the Library housed thousands of volumes of scholarly works. The library was burnt twice. Plutarch (CE 46–120) wrote that during his visit to Alexandria in 48 BCE Julius Caesar accidentally burned the library down when he set fire to his own ships in a strategic military action. The daughter library, based on a collection given to Cleopatra by Marc Antony, was destroyed by the Bishop of Alexandria, who ordered the destruction of the Serapeum (pagan temple) in 391.

Hypatia was killed by a Christian mob who skinned her alive, quartered her and burned her body.

I saw a film yesterday called Agora which tells this story. An agora in ancient Greece was an open space (we get the word agoraphobia from the word), a public space. In ancient Greece it was the centre of government. The film is rated M, because of the violence. What is shows is mostly factual, and it raises lots of issues about many things. The message for me was about religious tolerance, particularly pertinent in light of the ethics course just being introduced in public primary schools in NSW as an option for those who don't subscribe to a world religion. Also, showing a strong woman who excels in her work (and it helps if you keep slaves), it can also be seen as feminist. She remained unmarried, and the way she deterred her suitor in the film is based on truth.

I recommend the film. Let me know what you think.


Anita said...

I learned of Hypatia from the movie and she sounds like a fascinating woman, however I was extremely disappointed in the film, I felt like it was an attempt to document her life but the creator got so caught up in the religious feud that the movie centered more around the violence then it did on who she was, what her accomplishments were and what she went through during her life. (btw, I'm from I found your site because you recently linked to me.)

Motherhugger said...

Hi Anita. Thanks for your comment.

I think that the story of her life can't be told without the religious feuds. Probably the most remarkable thing was that she was allowed to continue to teach even though she didn't convert.

It is difficult to be very specific about life in ancient times - the documentation is often patchy. However, I'm glad a major female figure from antiquity is gaining some attention. That's worthwhile.