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Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska

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Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska

Post by fljustice » Mon March 14th, 2011, 7:46 pm

(Originally posted on my blog as "Hypatia of Alexandria: Two Books.")

In March AD 415, a Christian mob murdered Hypatia, the renowned Lady Philosopher of Alexandria. The vicious act shocked the city and shamed the early Church. Socrates Scholasticus tells the story in his Historia Ecclesiastica:

"...Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time...For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more. Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed. For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church. And surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort. This happened in the month of March during Lent, in the fourth year of Cyril’s episcopate, under the tenth consulate of Honorius, and the sixth of Theodosius."

Since that time, only fragments about her life have come down to us; allowing poets, novelists, playwrights, scientists, feminists and religionists (both pro and anti) to appropriate her story for themselves. Hypatia’s story has resonated down through the years, touching many people. She’s a major character in my novel Selene of Alexandria, the subject of the recent movie Agora directed by Alejandro Amenabar, and she rated a plate in Judy Chicago’s massive art piece The Dinner Party. She’s the subject of plays, poetry, propaganda and new age pagan polemics. Her life is represented in art and music. But what do we really know about her? Not much.

In researching my book, I waded through a literary swamp, with no guide, trying to get at some coherent view of Hypatia and her story. She was young/middle aged/older when she died. She was single/married/promiscuous/virginal. She was a pagan/witch/Christian. She was a brilliant mathematician/scientist to some and, according to others, contributed nothing worthwhile in either discipline. I read the few primary sources, but didn’t have the academic background to evaluate their usefulness. Socrates was a contemporary, but a church historian. Damascius was a pagan who wrote a full generation later. John of Nikiu wrote 200 years later. Who had an agenda and what was it?

Two scholars have attempted to pull the pieces together in book form in the last two decades: Maria Dzielska, a Polish classics scholar, with Hypatia of Alexandria; and mathematics professor Michael A. B. Deakin with Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr. I’ve read both, several times, in my research and wanted to share my thoughts on the anniversary of Hypatia's death.
Hypatia of Alexandria (157 pages)
Maria Dzielska, (translated by F. Lyra)
Harvard University Press, 1995
When I first got this book in 1995, it was a godsend. I finally had a book that cut through the literary myth and put Hypatia’s life in context. Dzielska divides her book into three main sections. The first deals with the literary legend of Hypatia; the second with Hypatia’s students; and the third covers her life and death. I felt she did a Herculean job of sorting through the myths and legends; and showing the political and artistic roots of some of the best known novels and plays. But it was in interpreting the primary sources, and critiquing their veracity and usefulness, that was most helpful to me. Dzielska carefully lays out her theses and backs them up. When she engages in speculation, she makes it clear.

Among the most controversial of her proposals is that Hypatia was older than generally believed. Dzielska puts Hypatia’s birth year at about 355, making her 60 at death. Artists have a stake in her being a young beautiful martyr, but most scholars had put her age at death at about 45 (making her birth year around 370.) Dzielska argues that Hypatia would have been older than 20 or 22 when she was already teaching some of the land’s most elite young men. In the early 390’s Hypatia was a well-established philosopher and mathematician with many students from rich and powerful families. She might have been a math prodigy, but it’s unlikely she had the time to personally study the arcane nature of various philosophies and establish herself as one of the foremost philosophy teachers, much before her late twenties, at the earliest. Put another way, would a rich powerful man in the late 4C send his adult son to study with a twenty-year-old female? Possibly, but unlikely. It made sense to me that she was born before 370. How much before? No one knows. All scholars can do is present their theories and sources. As a novelist, it suited me to have her older in my narrative, so I went with Dzielska’s premise.

Since I’ve been following this stuff for over fifteen years, I also occasionally came across a criticism of Dzielska as a “Christian apologist.” I assume, because she interprets Hypatia’s death as a political act rather than an act of religious persecution. Hypatia wasn't a "pagan" in the sense that she worshiped mulitple gods or engaged in cultic practices. She believed in one god, but wasn't a Christian. However, as the quote from Socrates Scholasticus above indicates, a possible motive for her murder, was her relationship with the governor of Egypt. Bishop Cyril fomented a whispering campaign against a political foe and his followers brutally killed her.

Some commenters fault Dzielska for her conclusion, but I can't help but feel it's for their own political reasons. I personally think the critics are picking nits. It’s hard to separate politics from religion in this time. Until recently, there was no such thing as the separation of Church and State. Rulers claimed divine right to rule and religions of all kinds backed them up. This time period fascinates me precisely because there are such massive sociological shifts. The Christian Church was consolidating and exerting its power over Christians and non-Christians alike. The early Church used violence to suppress "heretical" sects within its own family, depose rival religions, and bully Emperors and Governors into granting it “most favored” status under laws and tax codes. It also set up and maintained schools and hospitals, provided food and shelter for the homeless and poor, and mediated disputes in their own courts. In my book, that’s political power. And Dzielska doesn’t let Bishop Cyril or the Church off the hook for Hypatia’s death:

"Cyril must be held to account for a great deal, even if we assume that the murder was contrived and executed by the parabolans, without his knowledge. For there is no doubt that he was a chief instigator of the campaign of defamation against Hypatia, fomenting prejudice and animosity against the woman philosopher, rousing fear about the consequences of her alleged black-magic spells on the prefect, the faithful of the Christian community, and indeed the whole city.

However directly or indirectly he was involved, Cyril violated the principles of the Christian moral order, which he was bound to nurture and uphold…It is not surprising that the sources on Hypatia are so few and so sparing and generally oblique in their accounts…as early as the fourth century Christian historians had achieved predominance and most likely they were ashamed to write about her fate…A cover-up campaign was orchestrated to protect the perpetrators, affiliated with the church, who murdered a person well-disposed toward Christians."

For those who want to see Hypatia’s life in context, this is a great book. There are many myths about Hypatia. This book pulls back the curtain and lets us see (as clearly as possible with scant resources) the woman behind the legend, presented in lucid prose.
I'll continue my review with Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr by Michael A. B. Deakin, in its own thread, which you can find here.
Last edited by fljustice on Mon March 14th, 2011, 8:36 pm, edited 4 times in total.
Reason: add links to second post
Faith L. Justice, Author Website

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