Ancient History & Civilisation

Hypatia of Alexandria:
Taught the truth, loved it to death

There aren’t very many sixteen-hundred-year-old fan letters still in existence, much less ones from grateful students of esoteric philosophy to a female teacher.

The recipient in this case? The exceptional Hypatia, daughter of Theon, thinker and teacher par excellence. Although misconceptions muddle her story, and some accounts of her are romanticized, substantial evidence of her genuine life and works remains, beginning with her fan mail.

Born around A.D. 355 in Alexandria, Egypt, Hypatia was the apple of her father’s eye, and his intellectual protégé as well. As a leading professor at the Great Museum and Library of Alexandria, Theon taught his classes— and his daughter—a wide range of subjects, from the latest advances in astronomy to the deepest investigations into Greek philosophy, including Neoplatonism.

The words “museum and library” don’t fully describe the place where Theon taught and Hypatia learned, and later lectured professionally. Funded by generations of Ptolemies—the Macedonian leaders who ran Egypt from Alexander the Great’s demise through the Cleopatra VII period—the edifice and its resources comprised the first university of higher learning as well as the world’s biggest library of the time. Besides the schools of specific inquiry within the museum, this well-endowed entity also offered residential facilities for visiting scholars and scientists, enabling them to do fruitful long-term research.

In this milieu, alternatively pushed and encouraged by her parent mentor, Hypatia grew to maturity. Early on, she came to realize that the demands of a wife and mother would sorely inhibit the life of a scholar, and she chose celibacy. Later on, her status as an independent woman in an Alexandria roiling with religious and political controversy would have big implications.

But in the beginning, Hypatia saw knowledge as her personal playground. Her thirst for deeper meanings found in logic, mathematics, astronomy, and other sciences soon outstripped her father’s ability to teach her. Although numerous works are often attributed to Hypatia alone, it seems likely that she and her father collaborated on such projects as editing Ptolemy’s Almagest and writing learned commentaries on the Conics of Apollonius and the thirteen-volume Arithmetica by Diophantus. She also chalked up credits for editing her father’s commentary of Euclid’s Elements. A whiz at charting celestial bodies, she wrote an astronomical canon, the text of which may have been a new edition of Ptolemy’s Handy Tables.

She is also credited with perfecting the prototypes of the astrolabe and the hydrometer, which is used to determine specific gravity of liquids.

But these achievements pale when compared to her value as a teacher. From Theon, she’d learned the secrets of clarity as an orator and lecturer. Students loved her lectures, and as she took a more prominent role at the museum, she gained an enthusiastic following. Hypatia herself was neither a Christian nor a practicing pagan; her students, however, came from all walks of life. They were Christians, future converts, pagan sympathizers, and still others, like their teacher, who “declined to state.”

Her fan mail illuminates those inspired by her lucid insights and mode of teaching. One longtime student, Socrates Scholasticus, counted her as a dear friend as well as teacher. In one of his seven extant letters, he writes, “Your student feels the presence of your divine spirit.” At times, his letters were simply addressed to “Hypatia, the philosopher.” Synesius, another disciple who became a bishop, corresponded with her throughout his life. His collection of 156 letters, to Hypatia and to other members of their philosophical circle survived, along with other writings that include mention of her.

A third extant source is her student Damascius, who recounted this telling story about her. Hypatia always wore the classic long robes of a male scholar. Nevertheless, it was inevitable that male students would fall in love with her, and when a certain student dared to declare his adoration, Hypatia did not respond. Later, in front of the other students, she presented him with a wrapped gift. In it—to his shocked embarrassment—were bloody towels from her menstrual period. “This is what you really love, my young man, but you do not love beauty for its own sake.” Carnality had no place in her life.

That student was not one of her inner circle, Hypatia’s group of about six that began to coalesce when she was in her mid-twenties. This tightly knit group resembled that of Alexander the Great and his inner circle, who called each other hetairoi, “companions.” Hypatia’s circle, however, focused on wisdom and the philosophical life—and only to them did she impart the inner mysteries of such a discipline.

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A celebrity in Alexandria, Hypatia taught philosophy and science to devoted students from pagans to Christian bishops. Her forthright love of the truth made her the target of extremists in later life.

What she had to offer was more than knowledge. With her sexual abstinence, her levelheaded courage, and her love of the unvarnished truth, Hypatia represented moral authority. She lived by the sage advice inscribed at the oracle of Delphi: Nothing in excess, everything in moderation.

As time went on, unfortunately, the religious groups in Alexandria became more strident, more extreme. When Hypatia reached her fifties, the adolescent Christian faith had splintered into various rabid factions. She neither backed nor opposed any of them. City officials, such as Orestes, the governor of Alexandria, and Cyril, the top religious official, quarreled bitterly. Periodically torn by riots, the whole city polarized, developing a “which side are you on” mentality.

Hypatia continued her normal life—teaching, driving her chariot, making her opinions known, being a friend to Orestes, and backing him politically. Meanwhile, Cyril inflamed his followers by insisting that Hypatia taught “sorcery,” claiming that she “beguiled many people through her satanic wiles.” This female philosopher made a point of being prudent and discreet—qualities that the Greeks called sophrosyne. Nevertheless, as an independent women, a non-Christian, and an intellectual, she made a tempting target.

In March of A.D. 415, this sixtyish, still vigorous woman was attacked by a mob of black-robed parabalani while driving her chariot. Often described as monks, most parabalani were male fanatics who acted as a quasi-military strike force for Cyril. They dragged her from her vehicle into the church that had once been the Serapeum, the temple of Serapis. Stripping her naked, they tore Hypatia to pieces, at length quartering and burning what remained of her ruined body in a place called Kinaron.

There was no criminal investigation, no trial, and no blame assessed, although Cyril, who would become a bishop in the aftermath, clearly had a hand in her assassination. The companions in Hypatia’s inner circle spoke out; some wrote accounts, still around today, describing the savagery that Pure Passions took the life of Hypatia, philosopher and lover of truth.

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