Trevor's Reviews > Hypatia of Alexandria

Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska
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Jun 14, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: history
Read in June, 2009

When my youngest daughter started high school they had to do this thing for SOSE (Studies of Society and Environment – I think it was what I used to call Geography and History, but such names had to be replaced as they were a complete give-away) called The Night of the Notables. Basically, the kids had to pick someone from history that they would like to dress up as and to prepare a very brief talk about. Maddy asked for my advice as she wanted to do a woman that was really impressive – I suggested Hypatia.

Now, Hypathia of Alexandria was nothing if not impressive – she is the patron saint of Agnostics, Enlightenment Types, female mathematicians and anyone else annoyed with the Christian Dark Ages. What I didn’t know was that like the stories of most other Saints she was somewhat different in ‘reality’.

The Myth:

Take a beautiful woman, and I’m talking seriously beautiful (body of Aphrodite is the phrase that is constantly used to describe her) and give her one of the finest minds of all time (she gets compared to Plato). Then, just for good measure, make her the embodiment of most of the virtues, but mostly and most impressively (as everyone that meets her agrees) was her sophrosyne. No, I didn’t know what it meant either, and it wasn’t in either the Concise Oxford nor the Shorter Oxford. Answers dot com defines it as: “(Greek, self-control, temperance, soundness of mind) One of the cardinal virtues, consisting in a harmonious state of rational control of one's desires.”

She was so beautiful and so intelligent that an early Christian Saint (Saint Cyril – I kid you not) felt intimidated by her and decided to get his band of cronies to kidnap her, drag her to a church, strip her naked and cut her to pieces with sharpened sea shells before bringing the bits of her body to the outskirts of the city to burn.

What better symbol do you need for the death of rational thought that was brought about by the conversion of antiquity to Christianity? Here is a Neo-Platonist, a mathematician, a scientist, a virgin, a follower of the Greek Gods (and she is hot), being viciously murdered by a bunch of fundamentalist Christian thugs hell bent on bringing down the shutters on the best of Greek thought and replacing it with their band of narrow-minded, closed-minded nonsense. “Boo, Boo, Hiss”, said Voltaire, Gibbon and me. A hero of Western Science and Feminism is born.

The Reality:

Have you ever noticed how reality is never half as much fun as the myth? There are some little adjustments that need to be made to the standard myth in this case and this book does a good job in presenting its case – even convincing me, who really did want to believe all of this myth, to be honest.

The first problem with this myth is that the original sources do show that some of Hypatia’s strongest followers and allies were Christians. So, the simple division of the world into Christians on one said and good guys on the other is a little difficult to sustain. The next problem is that she is a Neo-Platonist and so having her as the poster girl for the scientific team is obviously going to be a bit of a stretch.

She was a virgin and she probably was also very pretty – the story of one of her students falling in love with her (this was one of the stories that struck my daughter the most at the time) and her presenting him with her used sanitary napkin and saying that this is what he loved, not her true self is rehearsed here. That is the sort of story that would have Nietzsche jumping up and down saying, “See, see, I told you so!” Plato believed this world of appearances was degenerate and that one should reject the worldly pleasures in favour of the contemplative life. And while I do think there is a place for the contemplative life (which is particularly fun after sex, I find), I still do have problems with people who utterly reject sex. I think such absolute convictions mess with one’s mind. Plato was very keen on this sort of thing - hence the phrase Platonic Love.

The other bit of the myth torn down here is how old Hypatia was. In the myth she is around 30 and, as I said, HOT. In fact, it now seems she was probably in her 60s. While being in your 60s is no reason to be stripped and murdered, it probably does somewhat diminish the erotic undertone to the story.

The rest of the myth doesn’t actually seem to be too much of a myth. It seems she was brilliantly clever. There is reason to believe that the annotated versions of Ptolemy’s works that are extant may well have been annotated by Hypatia. She had a clever father who, since he was a Neo-Platonist, educated her (Plato having famously been in favour of educating daughters – an interesting fact to remember when reading later philosophers who are generally excused of their sexism with reference to the age they lived in).

Her students seemed to have adored her. Not just the guy who ended up with her sanitary napkin, but some of the smartest people in the city at the time begged for her attention and advice.

The problem, as is often the case, was political. When Cyril became patriarch he was less than the most popular choice for the job. He did the standard things Christians of the age did to become popular – he persecuted the local Jews, eventually kicking them all (or possibly only most) out of the city. This had a bad effect on the city’s economy and made the smart people of the city even more opposed to his remaining patriarch. One of these smart people was probably Hypatia who was less ‘other-worldly’ than she is often made out. Cyril was mostly opposed by Orestes and Orestes seems to have had his courage and arguments strengthened by Hypatia – her making the bullets and Orestes firing them. Cyril, or perhaps just his supporters, decided that getting Hypatia out of the picture was what was called for.

Because she was so interested in plotting the courses of the planets they decided she was a witch (always a good first guess) and so they started to spread rumours about her. Although she was greatly loved by the ruling classes of the city, she was to become a victim of that other obnoxious bit of Plato’s philosophy – that the only people who really matter are the elite. So, while she had lots of friends among the educated, the great unwashed didn’t really think much of her at all, and were more than happy to believe she was a witch. This grew, commands were given and then all smiles stopped together. It seems she was stripped, was cut to pieces and killed and then was burned by a Christian mob. If this was not done under Cyril’s direction, it was done for his advantage.

This book is an academic text and could have done with being re-drafted to tell the story in a bit more lively fashion. If you are thinking of reading this, you might just want to read the conclusion (a mere 6 pages) – which tells the story in a much more readable way than the book itself did. I found the book was just a bit too concerned with sources to be truly readable.

So, although there are some differences between the myth and the reality she is still one of my heroes and still deserves to be remembered. My daughter once told me she will think about naming a daughter Hypatia. And that is a pretty cool idea, if you ask me.
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message 20: by Kim (new)

Kim Great review, Trevor!

message 19: by Manny (new)

Manny I don't know how I can have lived to my present age without learning what the Hypatia myth was all about. Thank you for a delightfully circumstantial account!

By the way, the lead character in Shaw's play Misalliance is called Hypatia, usually shortened to "Patsy". You might want to pass that on to your daughter.

message 18: by Nick (new)

Nick Black Manny wrote: "I don't know how I can have lived to my present age without learning what the Hypatia myth was all about. Thank you for a delightfully circumstantial account!

By the way, the lead character in Sh..."

Don't forget Groff's The Five Hysterical Girls Theorem!

A movie was just released about her, "Agora". The girlfriend mentioned it in conjunction with Cannes.

Trevor I like Patsy. I was also thinking that Tia would be a cute diminutive too.

message 16: by Bonnie (new)

Bonnie I don't know how I can have lived to my present age without learning what the Hypatia myth was all about. Thank you for a delightfully circumstantial account!

Ditto; great review! :)

message 15: by Trevor (last edited Jun 18, 2009 02:55PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Trevor Look, it was a fluke I had heard of her when Maddy asked - I'd just read Pythagoras' Trousers and fell in love pretty well immediately.

message 14: by Bruce (last edited Jun 21, 2009 06:00AM) (new)

Bruce Great review, better than a Cliff's Notes on Hypatia history. A question about my favorite line, if I may reduce you to a litterateur for a moment. You evocatively wrote, "This grew, commands were given and then all smiles stopped together." In my mind this creates an image of myriad spinning wheels of fortune each coming miraculously to rest on a single, fixed expression. Dang scary and Jokerish, that. Or did you mean "... the smiling stopped altogether," which would be okay too if a bit less infernal? (I need to know as it seems to me this line fairly begs to be inserted in a bit of verse.)

Trevor Robert Browning - My Last Duchess."This grow; I gave commands; then all smiles stopped together." One of my favourite lines from one of my favourite poems.

message 12: by Bruce (new)

Bruce aHA! Terrific allusion. Looking up the Browning now, thanks!

Trevor That is the second time recently I've alluded to poetry and been caught out - I guess lines of poetry shine like gold against the sullen ground of my standard prose.

message 10: by Bruce (new)

Bruce Well, if it's any consolation, I thought you were being original. Personally, given the largely unattributed e-world we live in, I try to make a point to always identify my verbatim sources. You're no less erudite for enriching your prose with others' allusions; quite the contrary?

Trevor My mate George tells me there's a film!

More when I get to see it.

message 8: by Eric_W (last edited Nov 16, 2010 05:45AM) (new)

Eric_W Very nice review. I fear my ignorance is showing but I had never heard of Hypatia. My favorite line in this review is "That is the sort of story that would have Nietzsche jumping up and down saying, “See, see, I told you so!” That really brought out a grin.

Another is "I still do have problems with people who utterly reject sex. I think such absolute convictions mess with one’s mind." That certainly explains, St. Paul.

message 7: by Hazel (last edited Nov 16, 2010 06:29AM) (new)

Hazel I'm not sure I should thank you for debunking the myth, Trevor, it's such a
good one. The movie stars Rachel Weisz, who is usually a fairly intelligent actress, but I hesitate to see it. :-)

I agree with your daughter. Hypatia is a great name for a girl.

message 6: by Carol (new)

Carol My daughter's school also held a Nigtht of the Notables - they studied their character's history and dressed the part, and all the parents went around asking the students questions about their character until they guessed who they were - I learned a lot of history that night!

message 5: by Trevor (last edited Nov 16, 2010 11:22AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Trevor Yes, St Paul indeed. What agonies has his little line about marriage brought the world? And how much more effective it has proven since it was offered as a challenge, you know, if you have to marry, well, I guess you had better, but if you want to be better then you really ought not to.

We are off to see the film this Monday, I think - Ironically enough for a boys' night out. Seems like an odd pick, when you think of it.

Both of my daughters had a night of the notables, they were really good clean fun. But Maddy was determined she would be someone worth being.

message 4: by Clif (new)

Clif Hostetler Your dialog with Bruce about Robert Browning's poem, The Last Duchess, happened to have an unusual ring of coincidental familiarity to me. Just two weeks ago I attended a book group meeting in which that poem was read and discussed.
With this kind of exposure and reinforcement I will probably be using the expression, "…the smiling stopped altogether," in my future conversations.

Trevor It is an amazing poem, Clif. I know a lot of it by heart - which, I guess is the definition of liking a poem. I often think of the section in the middle where he is explaining that he chooses never to stoop as saying something terribly sad about love. The things that can be said and the things that can't - although, obviously, the guy in the poem does go a little too far with this theme in his own life. I've often wondered if the narrator is saying all this because he is arrogant or because he is trying to stop them marrying their daughter to him. Surely, even in Italy no one would actually send their daughter off to be married to such a man.

message 2: by Trevor (last edited Nov 22, 2010 04:13AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Trevor The film is beautifully made and the story is properly infuriating, but I was quite disappointed with two things. The first was making her a female Kepler - this had two disadvantages, it almost certainly wasn't true and people will probably leave the film thinking that we have winter due to the elliptical orbit of the earth around the sun - when in fact this is not even remotely the case.

The second was the end which didn't involve her being hacked with oyster shells. She is 'spared' by a 'good Christian' - but this would be like a Roman making a film about the life and death of Jesus and skipping the Crucifixion because it might upset the audience.

All the same, it would be hard to come out of the film without feeling outraged.

One of the things I worry about with such stories - Socrates and Hypatia - is that they were probably both elitists and so these are stories in which the mob kills the heroes. I've never been terribly fond of mobs, but I don't really like the idea of elites being the only alternative.

There are some remarkably moving moments in the film though - particularly those involving her Christian followers and Cyril reading from the first letter to the Corinthians about women being silent.

Oh, and amusingly, this film is worth watching just to hear the females in the audience when Hypatia hands over her soiled rag. The silence from the men in the audience is also very interesting.

message 1: by Hazel (last edited Nov 22, 2010 06:19AM) (new)

Hazel Trevor wrote: "The film is beautifully made and the story is properly infuriating, but I was quite disappointed with two things. The first was making her a female Kepler - this had two disadvantages, it almost c..."

Hmmn, I'm not sure, Trevor. I might give this one a miss. I like myths, but not Hollywood myths. :-)

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