From reasoning to obscurantism: this was the life of Hypatia of Alexandria

hipatia 1021x580.jpg
hipatia 1021x580.jpg

One of the first scientists in history that we have reference to is Hypatia of Alexandria. This woman was a Neoplatonic philosopher and teacher who excelled in the areas of mathematics and astronomy, and despite being one of the most important Greek figures, the truth is that almost everything about her is a mystery.

We do not know the exact date of her birth, nor is the exact date of her death certain, although it is presumed that she was born in the year 355 and was murdered in March of the year 415. Her father was the mathematician and astronomer Theon, who he was a professor at the Library of Alexandria and, in addition, he studied and rewritten the most important volumes.

In his review on the work ‘The Elements’ by Euclid, he spoke about Hypatia as his daughter and his associate disciple, so we could conclude that they worked together. In fact, Hypatia made the comments on Diophantus’ ‘Arithmetic’ work, which helped make its foundations known.

Theon also analyzed the thirteen books of ‘Commentaries on the Almagest’ by Ptolemy, who was in charge of explaining all the celestial movements in ancient astronomy. For this he worked together with his daughter, although it has not been determined if she only did the review or also wrote the comments with her father.

Hypatia of Alexandria according to the painter Charles William Mitchell (1885)

The rest of Hypatia’s life we ​​know him thanks to the comments of her father and those left by her own disciples. One of them, Sinesio de Cirene, is the main source of information about the life of the philosopher, and it is thanks to him that we know that this scientist made a celestial planisphere and a hydroscope to weigh liquids.

After the death of Theon, Hypatia continued her scientific research and hard work without the help of collaborators. According to the testimony of the chroniclers Philostorgio, Hesiquio and Damascio, the philosopher and mathematician surpassed her father in talent and scientific achievements.

Hypatia was a member and head of the Neoplatonic School of Alexandria at the beginning of the 5th century. The ideas of this School were based on the foundations of Pythagoras and on the contemplation of the ‘cosmos’, a term imposed by these thinkers who defined the universe ordered by knowable laws. They were based on thought rather than observation, and believed that numbers were the basis for the harmony of the world.

This community did not establish hierarchies and admitted men and women under the same conditions, since they firmly believed that all people had the same soul. Therefore, there was also cultural, religious and ethnic diversity, which attracted other thinkers from different parts of the world to discuss ideas and postulates. During Hypatia’s life, the Alexandrian school functioned on these ideals.

The end of the Alexandrian dream

Much is unknown about Hypatia’s personal life, but what little we can conclude is that she was kept out of the discussions between pagans and Christians, which were quite common at the time. However, he did influence political decisions and the Greek aristocracy, so he shared with thinkers of different religions.

Problems began to arise after a major political change occurred: in October 412, Cyril was elected as bishop of Alexandria. His ideals were far from the religious openness defended by the School, and in fact many Christians opposed his appointment.

In view of this, violence took over the region. Many murders occurred between people of different religions and chaos reigned in Alexandria.

Cyril then began a smear campaign against Hypatia, as he envied her influence among high political and aristocratic positions. She assured her followers that she was a witch who caused discord between Orestes and the Christians with her black magic.

Illustration from the 19th century book "Lives of Illustrious Scientists" on the death of Hypatia of Alexandria
Illustration from the 19th century book “Lives of Illustrious Scientists” on the death of Hypatia of Alexandria

Thus, in the year 415, while Lent was occurring, a mob of religious fanatics of Cyril led by a man named Peter pounced on the philosopher as she returned home by carriage. They brutally beat her and dragged her through the city until they reached Cesáreo, the cathedral of Alexandria. There, they stripped her naked in front of the crowd, beat her with stones and tiles until she was dismembered. After this, his remains were again paraded throughout the city until they reached the Cinareo, where they were burned.

Although this is the most accepted account, there are still several disputes among historians about this event. The closest to the facts was Socrates Scholastic, who blamed Cyril for the murder of Hypatia. However, there are other authors who blame other religious groups, such as Philostorgius with the Homousians, and John of Ephesus, who assures that the murderers were a horde of barbarians who were later reprimanded by Cyril. Others, unlike the previous ones, defend that the brutal murder was justified to the provocations of Hypatia, who was “a dangerous witch”, as expressed by the 8th century Coptic bishop, Juan de Nikiû.

In a Women with Science article, include two quotes that describe the event, one from Socrates Scholastic and the other from Juan de Nikiû, with the aim of comparing the two positions held on the event:

“He fell victim to the political intrigues that prevailed at that time. As she had frequent interviews with Orestes (the Prefect of Alexandria), it was slanderously proclaimed among the Christian populace that it was she who prevented Orestes from reconciling with the bishop (Cyril). Some of them, being part of a fierce and fanatical mob, whose leader was a certain Pedro (Peter the Reader), apprehended her on the way home, and dragging her from their car, they took her to a church called Cesareo, where they undressed her completely, and they killed her with tiles (the original Greek word ostrakoi makes it unclear whether it was tiles or oysters). After dismembering his body, they took his remains to a place called Cinaron, where they burned them. This affair dropped the greatest of reproaches, not only on Cyril, but on the entire church of Alexandria. And surely nothing could be further from the Christian spirit than to allow massacres, struggles and acts of this kind. 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 ”

Scholastic Socrates (5th century AD). Ecclesiastical History. Book VI, Chapter 15

“… A multitude of believers in God rose up led by Peter the Magistrate, and proceeded to search for the pagan woman who had deceived the people of the city and the prefect (Orestes) with her incantations. And when they discovered the place where she was, they went to look for her and found her comfortably seated; having brought her down, they dragged her all the way to the main church, called Cesareo. This happened in the days of Lent. Her clothes were ripped off and dragged through the city streets until she was killed. They took her to a place called Cinaron and burned her body. The whole world surrounded the patriarch Cyril and hailed him as “the new Theophilus”, since he had finished with the last remnants of idolatry in the city .. ”

Juan, Bishop of Nikiu. Chronicle 84.87-103

Definitely the lack of information about Hypatia’s private life does not help to clarify the facts, but what he definitely does not overlook is that her murder marked a before and after between classical reasoning and the terrible medieval obscurantism that hit the world.