Hypatia of Alexandria, the fourth century philosopher, lived during a period of religious and cultural transformation. Under Emperor Theodosius I, a slow but inexorable campaign had begun that was to replace the traditional pagan religion and culture of the Roman Empire with an Orthodox Christian authority.
The Emperor issued edicts that limited the public activities of pagans and stopped imperial subsidies to Rome’s main public cults. In Alexandria, a cosmopolitan city where daily cultural exchange among pagans and Christians was commonplace, the effects of this official marginalization of paganism sometimes resulted in violence. One flashpoint resulted in the murder of Hypatia in 415, the culmination of growing political tensions between rival Christian and pagan factions. (Pictured is a 1908 depiction of Hypatia by Elbert Hubbard).
The Life of Hypatia
Hypatia of Alexandria was born into an intellectual family. Her father, Theon, was a mathematician and connected with Alexandria’s famed Museum. She was educated by him, and progressed from mathematics to the study of philosophy. She ran her own philosophical school in Alexandria, attracting both pagan and Christian students. One of her most famous students was Synesius of Cyrene, later a bishop of Ptolemais, whose correspondence with Hypatia and his fellow students provides some insights into the activity within her classroom.
Later in her career, Hypatia became caught up in a political rivalry between Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria, and Orestes, the city prefect. Orestes had consulted with her on numerous occasions, and the faction in favour of Cyril opposed this connection with the pagan philosopher. The tension between the two factions reached such a pitch that a violent outcome was almost inevitable.
One day, while Hypatia was descending from her carriage before her own door, she was seized by group of the bishop’s supporters, who dragged her to the Caesareum, a former temple being transformed into a Christian church. They stripped her naked and mutilated her body with the tiles that lay around from the building’s renovation. They then took her body to a place called Cinaron, outside the city, and burned her remains.
In the fourth century, illiteracy was the norm for the majority of women and access to education at anything higher than basic levels was open only to women of the highest status. Female educators were not unusual, but they generally taught primary school-aged children in basic literacy and numeracy. While female philosophers were generally born into philosophical families, blessed with the privileges of wealth and the close relationship with their teachers, generally their fathers, none taught outside of the domestic setting.
Hypatia of Alexandria was exceptional. Privileged by her birth into an intellectual family, she was thus ensured a certain high degree of education. Her father Theon, a mathematician connected with the Museum of Alexandria, guided her education. Her father lacking any son, and her talents becoming evident, Hypatia was later allowed to teach in her father’s school, which she later inherited.
Hypatia, by many accounts, surpassed her father and other philosophers of her time in learning, and was a noted figure in Alexandria. She was remembered by historians not only for her grisly death, but also for her role as a prominent female teacher of philosophy. She frequently appeared in public, often before magistrates and other leading figures. These men, for their part, seemed to have admired rather than censured her for stepping out of the traditional female role.
Hypatia, like many traditional teachers of philosophy, gave public lectures on Plato and Aristotle. While some of these lectures were given in public lecture halls, most were probably given from her own house. Her fame became so great that many came from great distances to hear her speak.
Some have argued that Hypatia held an even more publicly acknowledged role and that she held, if not a publicly funded chair of philosophy in Alexandria, then at least a municipally-funded teaching position. It has also been suggested that Theon, since he had been connected with the Museum, received his teaching salary from public funds, and that this position and its salary were also inherited by Hypatia. Unfortunately, too little is known of the organization of the Museum in the fourth century to make such a claim.
In addition, Hypatia instructed an inner circle of students. As in other philosophical schools, where the teacher might aid former students in difficulty or in furthering their careers through his network of influential contacts and where the student would in return refer to his teacher as a parent, the relationship between Hypatia and her students became similarly protective. In a letter to Hypatia, long after his time of instruction under her had ended, Synesius of Cyrene called upon his former teacher to use her extensive and influential contacts, whether they were private individuals or magistrates, not on his own behalf, but on behalf of his friends, in the full expectation of her willingness to help a former student. In another letter, displaying their close protective relationship, he addressed her as “mother, sister, teacher, and benefactress, and whatever is honoured in name and deed.” Evidently, Hypatia was looked on, by Synesius at least, as a parental figure as well as a respected instructor.
Hypatia’s Rejection of a Suitor’s Advances
A young student had fallen in love with Hypatia on account of her beauty and wisdom and, unable to conceal his feelings, confessed his love to her. Appalled, Hypatia repelled the young man’s advances and no doubt the young man himself by showing him one of her sanitary napkins and remonstrated that that was what he loved, not beauty for its own sake. The lesson here, following on from Plato and Plotinus, was that beauty cannot be identified in the material world, but rather must be sought in the immaterial realm.
The death of Hypatia by no means marked the end of philosophical activity in Alexandria, although it did decline for a period. By mid-century, however, there was a resurgence of philosophers into Alexandria, returning from Athens. By the late fifth century, they came to dominate the philosophical community. These dogmatic pagan philosophers made no secret of their service to the old gods but their separation from the now-prevailing Christian culture led to a degree of isolation from it. There was no longer the same level of exchange of ideas between these philosophers and the Christian community as there had been during Hypatia’s lifetime.
See Jennifer’s blog at jenniferfalkner.blogspot.ca
See also article on Hipparchia the Cynic Philosopher