Hypatia & The Coming of the DARK AGES


The massive destruction of the contents of the Library of Alexandria by Christians during the reign of Christian Emperor Theodosius in 391 C.E. is only a small part of the suppression and elimination of scientific and historical truth. During these years the writings and works of many remarkable women were destroyed, allowed to be lost, or deliberately eradicated; only hints remain, a verse here, a few sentences there. Most of the works of Hypatia were ravaged as well, but her story lives on. How it must have pained her, 21 years old, watching the destruction of the Great Library, a half million tomes representing the finest minds in the ancient world. Hand written, these documents were irreplaceable; the knowledge lost, the history destroyed and eliminated, was a devastating setback. It was also precursor to the dark ages, a time when only the church fathers retained knowledge. What audacity the church had, claiming the role of preserver of ancient knowledge when the only knowledge they preserved was that which they chose not to destroy.

And each loss to the world was a personal tragedy...

One such story, a woman whose formidable genius was not entirely wiped from the pages of history, was Hypatia. Hypatia was legendary for her talent, intellect, and yes, her beauty as well. Theon, her father, was a distinguished professor of mathematics at the University of Alexandria, later becoming director. Theon was determined to produce a perfect human being and composed charts, theorems and formulas concerning the laws of eugenics. Whether his calculations were correct, or the Mystery acted serendipitously, he may have succeeded. After Hypatia's birth she was immersed in an atmosphere of scholarship,questioning and investigation at the greatest seat of knowledge in the world, Alexandria. Her friends and teachers, later to be her colleagues, were the greatest intellectuals of perhaps the most highly academically charged environment in the history of humankind. It was there that Hypatia became versed in science, math, philosophy, poetry, the arts, and religion.

Theon was his daughter's teacher and friend. His love of logic and beauty were infectious and he had a rare talent for teaching. Hypatia not only accumulated knowledge, soaking it up like a sponge, but with creativity and imagination formulated new ideas and theorems. Concerning religion her father is reported to have said, "All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final. Reserve your right to think, for even to think and be wrong is better than not to think at all." Hypatia returned home from her studies a celebrity. Her talent at teaching geometry, astronomy, philosophy, and math drew admiring students from all quarters of the Roman Empire, Pagan and Christian.

Her physical prowess and physical health were not neglected. Her father developed a series of exercises and gentle calisthenics to train her body, forming it into the perfect vessel to carry her imposing, well-trained mind. Swimming, horseback riding, and mountain climbing were a regular part of her regimen. Hypatia was also given formal training in speech, rhetoric, and the power of words. Her tones and speech were gentle, as pleasing to the ear as her appearance was comely. The focus of her perfection was toward becoming a gifted, eloquent teacher, and this is never more evident than in her writings.

Hypatia wrote:

"Fable should be taught as fable, myth as myth, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truth is horrifying. The mind of a child accepts them and only through great pain, perhaps tragedy, can the child be relieved of them. Men will fight for superstition as quickly as for the living truth -- even more so, since a superstition is intangible, you can't get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable."

Part of Hypatia's education involved travelling abroad and, her reputation preceding her, she was treated as royalty wherever she went. Studying in Athens at a school founded by Plutarch, her skill as a mathematician became firmly established. On her return to Alexandria she was invited to teach mathematics and philosophy at the university. She was a popular teacher. Socrates (a later Socrates) wrote that her home and her lecture room were frequented by the most dedicated scholars of the time, and along with the library and the museum, were the most compelling intellectual centers in that city of great learning.

Young enthusiastic students from Europe, Asia, and Africa came to study and learn from her. She was considered an oracle, her lectures sparkling with her own mathematical ingenuity. Mathematics was an exquisite delight to her inquisitive mind, and she loved it for its own sake. Hypatia authored several treatises on mathematics, but unfortunately they were not retained intact. A portion of her original writing On the Astronomical Canon of Diophantus, was found in the fifteenth century hidden in the Vatican library. Hypatia included some commentaries, alternative solutions to problems, and composed new problems concerning first degree and quadratic equations. On the Conics of Apollonius was another of her works, a discipline that, after Hypatia, would be largely neglected until the seventeenth century.

She invented the astrolabe and the planesphere, devices used for studying the stars and planets. She also invented a device to distill water, another to measure the level of water, and a third to determine specific gravity of liquids. The latter was called a hydroscope.

Hypatia was the single most brilliant mind of her time and none other would ascend to her level until the works of Descartes, Newton, and Leibniz many centuries later. Socrates (not the original Socrates), Nicephorus, and Philostorgius, church historians of a persuasion at odds with that of Hypatia, nevertheless praised her characteristics and scholarship.

Never having married, she is said to have had a number of love affairs. Various imaginary romances have been suggested. She affirmed that she had never married because she was wedded to the truth. Distinguished as a mathematician, her fame as a philosopher was no less. Letters addressed simply to "TheMuse" or "The Philosopher" never failed to be delivered to her. Belonging to a school of Neo-platonic thought, her doctrine was in opposition to the prevailing Christian dogma, a dogma which, unfortunately, had become compulsory in 390 C.E. Her friendship with Orestes, a prefect of Egypt, was perhaps the strongest counterforce against Cyril, the Christian patriarch and Bishop of Alexandria in 412 C.E. The turbulent mood of Cyril and his followers, their zeal to stamp out pagan religions, to destroy their temples, and their monuments, in combination with Paul's command that women should be subservient to men and silent in public meetings, came together. In 415 C.E., his political avarice driving him, Cyril became convinced that Hypatia's death would serve his own best interest and he inflamed the passions of an unwashed, mindless, classless band of Egyptian monks, entreating with them to kill her.

At the height of her beauty, and the apex of her intellectual wisdom, having refused marriage in favor of educating her disciples, Hypatia was torn from her chariot by a hungry mob of screaming Christians. Stripping her naked, dragging her to their church, she was inhumanely butchered. Led by Peter the reader, the savage fanatics ripped her living flesh from her bones with pottery shards; the still quivering limbs then delivered to the flames. One can almost hear the bitter hateful words of the mob and their subsequent laughter, "Paul tells us women should be silent, now this one obeys."  

Based on an account recorded in Women in Mathematics by Oser, Lynn M. and published by Cambridge in 1974.



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