|Hypatia & The Coming of the DARK AGES|
And each loss to the world was a personal tragedy...
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.
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
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,
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.
"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
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
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.
turbulent mood of Cyril and his followers, their zeal to stamp out pagan religions,
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
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
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
Based on an account recorded in Women in Mathematics by Oser, Lynn M.
and published by Cambridge in 1974.