Who was Hypatia?

The Myths

Hypatia has been depicted as a revolutionary woman scientist,1 the last of the ancient pagan scientists,2 a representative of feminist values,3 and the designer of the astrolabe and hydrometer.4 5 Her death has been considered exemplary of the intolerance of religion,6 and the death of Greek science.7 8

The Facts

Hypatia was a neo-Platonist lecturer and scholar in 4th century Alexandria (Egypt), who taught mathematics and astronomy to members of the privileged elite9 as part of the mysteries of Neoplatonism.10 She was not the first woman ‘scientist’11 or mathematician.12 13 14 Her position as a teacher of men did not threaten the existing social or religious order.15 She did not invent the astrolabe,16 17 and there is no evidence she invented the hydrometer.18

Her brutal murder by a Christian mob was due to political power play, not conflict between Christianity and paganism or science.19 20 21 22 23 24 Her earliest historian (a Christian), praised her and condemned her murderers.25 She is quoted as having expressed many rationalist ideals,26 27 28 29 30 but these are all fictional. 31 32 33 34 35

  1. ‘Hypatia of Alexandria (ca. 370–415) Egyptian astronomer, philosopher, teacher, and mathematician regarded as the first woman scientist, and the first woman to contribute to the study of mathematics.’. Todd, ‘The Facts on File Algebra Handbook’, p. 66 (2003). []
  2. ‘Alic, Margaret. Hypatia’s Heritage: A History of women in Science from Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century. Boston: Beacon and London: Women’s Press, 1986. Examines biographical and scientific evidence to reveal the lives and accomplishments of women in natural and physical sciences and mathematics. The material dealing with Hypatia claims for her the roles of the last important pagan scientist in the western world, and the representative of end [sic] of ancient science.’, Magill, Moose, & Aves (eds.), ‘Dictionary of World Biography: The ancient world’, p. 583 (1998). []
  3. ‘Little known for centuries, Hypatia emerged in the nineteenth century as a symbol for feminists of the historical suppression of women’s accomplishments.’, McIntyre, ‘Hypatia’, in Traver (ed.), ‘From polis to empire, the ancient world, c. 800 B.C.-A.D. 500: A Biographical Dictionary’, The Great Cultural Eras of the Western World, p. 205 (2001). []
  4. ‘Synesius refers to two mechanical devices, a hydrometer and a silver astrolabe, that he and Hypatia invented‘. Rosser, ‘Women, Science, and Myth: Gender beliefs from antiquity to the present’, p. 13 (2008). []
  5. ‘Synesius of Cyrene (North Africa) a student of Hypatia, credited her with the invention of apparatus for distilling water and measuring the level of liquids.’, Lumpkin, ‘Hypatia and Women’s Rights in Ancient Egypt’, in Van Sertima (ed.), ‘Black Women in Antiquity’, p. 155 (1984). []
  6. ‘Usually interpreted as an illustration of barbaric religious fanaticism and intolerance for humanistic inquiry,’, Naylor, ‘North Africa: a history from antiquity to the present’, p. 51 (2009). []
  7. ‘Her death presents the perfect symbol of the end of the classical world, the end for a long time of the possibility of disinterested scientific inquiry.’, Whaley, ‘Women’s history as scientists: a guide to the debates’, p. 19 (2003). []
  8. ‘Van der Waerden reiterates the theme that Alexandrian science ceased with her death:’, Dzielska, ‘Hypatia of Alexandría’, p. 25 (1995). []
  9. They were from wealthy and influential families; in time they attained posts of state and ecclesiastical eminence. Around their teacher these students formed a community based on the Platonic system of thought and interpersonal ties. They called the knowledge passed on to them by their ‘divine guide’ mysteries. They held it secret, refusing to share it with people of lower social rank, whom they regarded as incapable of comprehending divine and cosmic matters.’, ibid., p. 105. []
  10. To her disciples Hypatia was a medium of divinely revealed truths. []
  11. In Hypatia’s day there was actually no such thing as a ‘scientist’ in the modern sense of the term, only the ‘natural philosopher’, who studied the natural world and typically combined observations with religious and philosophical commentary. []
  12. ‘She [Dzielska] also unearths a number of references to women in the late Greek philosophical world, which show Hypatia’s example to be not so unusual as had been thought.’, Hodgkin, ‘A history of mathematics: from Mesopotamia to modernity’, p. 72 (2005). []
  13. ‘(Incidentally, Hypatia is not the earliest known woman mathematician; Pappus had directed a polemic against a female teacher of mathematics named Pandrosion, and a certain Ptolemais is quoted in Porphyry’s commentary on Ptolemy’s Harmonics.)’, Jones, ‘Later Greek and Byzantime mathematics’, in Grattan-Guinness (ed.), ‘Companion Encyclopedia of the History and Philosophy of the Mathematicla Sciences’, volume 1, p. 65 (2003). []
  14. Hypatia, after all, wasn’t the first woman philosopher. The Project on the History of Women in Philosophy amply documented that there were many women philosophers before Hypatia; she didn’t come along unti lafter the fourth century A.D. Among those who preceded her were numbers of Pythagorean women philosophers from the sixth to the third or second century B.C. and others -‘, McAlister, ‘Hypatia’s Daughters: fifteen hundred years of women philosophers’, p. x (1996). []
  15. ‘The highly public nature of Hypatia’s career was consistent with the African tradition of Egyptian women,’, Lumpkin, ‘Hypatia and Women’s Rights in Ancient Egypt’, in Van Sertima (ed.), ‘Black Women in Antiquity’, pp. 155-156 (1984). []
  16. ‘The invention of the astrolabe is usually attributed to Hipparchus of the second century BC. But there is no firm evidence to support this view. It is however certain that the instrument was well known to the Greeks before the beginning of the Christian era.’, Sarma, ‘The Archaic and the Exotic: studies in the history of Indian astronomical instruments’, p. 241 (2008). []
  17. ‘It is generally accepted that Greek astrologers, in either the 1st or 2nd centuries BCE, invented the astrolabe‘, Krebs, ‘Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions, and Discoveries of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance’, p. 196 (2004). []
  18. *In fact her student Synesius wrote her a letter telling her how to make one for him, and explaining how to use it; ‘I am in such evil fortune that I need a hydroscope. See that one is cast in brass for me and put together. The instrument in question is a cylindrical tube, which has the shape of a flute and is about the same size. It has notches in a perpendicular line, by means of which we are able to test the weight of the waters. A cone forms a lid at one of the extremities, closely fitted to the tube. The cone and the tube have one base only. This is called the baryllium. Whenever you place the tube in water, it remains erect. You can then count the notches at your ease, and in this way ascertain the weight of the water.’ Fitzgerald, ‘The Letters of Synesius of Cyrene’, p. 99 (1926). []
  19. ‘As the Czech historian Maria Dzielska documents in a recent biography, Hypatia got caught up in a political struggle between Cyril, an ambitious and ruthless churchman eager to extend his authority, and Hypatia’s friend Orestes, the imperial prefect who represented the Roman Empire.’, Lindberg, ‘Myth 1: That the Rise of Christianity Was Responsible For the Demise of Ancient Science’, in Numbers (ed.), ‘Galileo Goes to Jail: and other myths about science and religion’, p. 9 (2009). []
  20. her death had everything to do with local politics and virtually nothing to do with science. Cyril’s crusade against pagans came later. Alexandrian science and mathematics prospered for decades to come.’, ibid., p. 9. []
  21. ‘That Synesius, a Christian, maintained such close ties with the Greek intellectual traditions and with his teacher Hypatia, suggests that a hybrid amalgam existed between the intellectual pagan and intellectual Christian traditions.’, Wessel, ‘Cyril of Alexandria and the Nestorian controversy: the making of a’, p. 54 (2004). []
  22. ‘Among Christian intellectual elites, this Neoplatonic variety of paganism posed no real threat to their theological views. Such easy coexistence between certain pagan and Christian intellectuals suggests that Hypatia’s paganism per se may not have angered Cyril as much as John of Nikiu claimed.’, ibid., p. 54. []
  23. ‘Hypatia was a pagan, but she had a lot of students who were Christians and maybe even a few Jewish students.’, Moore & Bruder, ‘Philosophy: the power of ideas’, p. 85 (2001). []
  24. Pagan religiosity did not expire with Hypatia, and neither did mathematics and Greek philosophy. (Dzielska 1995, p. 105).’, Hodgkin, ‘A history of mathematics: from Mesopotamia to modernity’, p. 72 (2005). []
  25. Socrates Scholasticus, ‘Historia Ecclesiastica’ (c. 439). []
  26. Hypatia was unimpressed with what she called religious superstition. She once described how she felt “truth” was different from religious beliefs: “Men will fight for superstition as quickly as for the living truth – even more so, since superstition is intangible, you can’t get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.”‘, Donovan, ‘Hypatia: Mathematician, Inventor, and Philosopher’, p. 43 (2008). []
  27. ‘Making matters even worse, Hypatia made public statements against organized religion: All formal… religions are delusive [able to easily mislead people] and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final.’, p. 48. []
  28. ‘As Hypatia explained, “Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.”‘, p. 43. []
  29. She also warned about the dangers of teaching children myths and fairy tales: Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing. The mind of a child accepts them, and only through great pain, perhaps even tragedy, can the child be relieved of them.’, ibid., p. 42; this is sometimes understood as advice against teaching religion to children. []
  30. This has derived support from Lynn Osen’s ‘Women in Mathematics’ (1975), which ironically does not attribute these statements to her at all, but to her father Theon; ‘”All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final,” he told her. “Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all” (Hubbard 1908, p. 82).’, Osen, ‘Women in Mathematics’, p. 24 (1975). []
  31. ‘The most creative is the exciting account of Hypatia’s educational training and life composed by Elbert Hubbard in 1908, who made up most of it to compensate for the lack of historical evidence. He even invented quotations that he attributed to Hypatia, and had a suitably ‘ancient’-looking picture of her in profile drawn to illustrate the piece.’, Cohen, ‘Philosophical Tales: being an alternative history revealing the characters, the plots, and the hidden scenes that make up the True Story of Philosophy’, p. 47 (2008); all quotations attributed to Hypatia or her father are the invention of Hubbard, who had no historical training. []
  32. ‘”All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final,” said Theon to Hypatia. “Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.”‘, Hubbard, ‘Little journeys to the Homes of Great Teachers: Hypatia’, pp. 82-83 (1908). []
  33. Said Hypatia, “Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing. The child-mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after-years relieved of them. In fact, men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth – often more so, since a superstition is so intangible you can not get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.”’, ibid., pp. 84-85. []
  34. ‘In his ability to see the good in all things Hypatia placed Plotinus ahead of Plato, but then she says, “Had there been no Plato there would have been no Plotinus, and although Plotinus surpassed Plato, yet it is plain that Plato, the inspirer of Plotinus and so many more, is the one man whom philosophy cannot spare. Hail Plato!!”‘, ibid., p. 93 []
  35. ‘”To rule by fettering the mind through fear of punishment in another world, is just as base as to use force,” said Hypatia in one of her lectures.’, ibid., p. 99. []

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