Hypatia of Alexandria

Hypatia, daughter of Theon, comes down to us as much a myth as a reality. In the hands of writers of various ideological persuasions, she was a Christian martyr, the last philosopher of Hellenism, or a pagan who deserved what she got. Besides the usual positioning to prove a dogmatic point, the reason for this disparity of opinion is that there simply isn’t much primary source material with which to form a biographical picture of Hypatia. Maria Dzielska, in her book on Hypatia, has combed through the primary and early secondary sources in search of some semblance of truth as regards the life and works of Hypatia. The result is a short work divided into three main sections, each section largely repeating what the other sections portray.


“What Hypatia got,” of course, was murdered by an Alexandrian mob in 415, when she was 60 years old. While the date of the murder is well attested, her age is not. In the literary myths that have grown up around Hypatia, she is portrayed as a young and beautiful virgin, typically around 25 years old. As her writings are slowly being reconstructed, however, it becomes obvious that she must have been considerably older, and thus her birth year is given as 355 [67-8]. Another common misconception is that Hypatia was a pagan. In fact, primary sources (especially letters written by Synesius of Cyrene) indicate that her allegiance were with her own system of ethical values which transcended—or were aloof from—both the pagan and the Christian factions. With its modern connotations, calling Hypatia a “virgin” doesn’t capture the depth of her practice of sophrosyne [103]. More than mere abstinence, hers was, as the etyms of the word suggest, a “wise restraint,” or, more psychologically, a conscious sublimation born of her love of wisdom.

Hypatia was politically active in Alexandria, and up until Cyrus was elected patriarch, often consulted by politicians [27 ff]. She was greatly admired for her aretai politikai, her practicality, and her independence [87]. Indeed, Hypatia’s arete is what ultimately resulted in her death. She was a friend and advisor to the Alexandrian prefect, Orestes, and together they attempted to check the controlling and power-grabbing patriarch, Cyrus. Infuriated by Orestes and his allies, Cyrus began to plant rumors about Hypatia among the illiterate of the city. With little understanding of astronomy and mathematics, the population was easily convinced that Hypatia was a diviner, a practitioner of the black arts, and a witch. In March of 415, the patriarch’s guards (called the parabolans), led by Peter the Reader, attacked Hypatia as she rode home through the streets in her chariot [92 ff]. Most accounts agree that she was stripped, beaten, dragged through the streets of the city, and finally burned just outside of town. Cyrus was never held accountable for his part in the murder.

A beloved teacher, Hypatia’s students included at least two bishops of the Christian church, as well as prominent citizens from all over the Mediterranean and western Asian world. We can be fairly certain that she taught mathematics and astronomy, which subjects, at that time, would have indeed included such divinatory sciences as astrology. She was probably “busy with the works of Apollonius of Perge, Diophantus, and Ptolemy” [102]. Although much of her work has been lost, it is now thought that the extant editions of “Ptolemy’s Almagest and Handy Tables… were probably arranged and prepared by Hypatia” [ibid.].

These studies probably were part of a holistic system of epistemology, ontology, and axiology, with astronomy and mathematics forming one thread, and a “Platonic system of thought and interpersonal ties” [103] forming another. This neoplatonism, prevalent throughout late antiquity and the Middle Ages, amounted to providing her students with a “divine guide” [ibid.]. We should not think of Hypatia herself as the divine guide. Rather, she likely provided her students with the texts and ideas, likely in the form of gnomes, upon which to meditate and find their own “inner” guides. Dzielska calls this method “indescribable” [ibid.], which is certainly true only if one’s perspective is circumscribed by modern notions of empiricism and logic. In fact, Hypatia was likely, at least in the broad sense of the term, a gnostic, one who knows through direct experience. Thus, the path she taught led to “silence, mute ecstasy, contemplation that could not be expressed” [ibid.]. Although “secret” and full of “mysteries” [ibid.], it seems fair to class Hypatia within the Alexandrian milieu which itself has ties, at least by analogy, with other great Asian sacred epistemological systems, such as Lao Tzu’s Taoism and Ibn Sina’s Persian gnosticism.

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