Hypatia: Or, New Foes with an Old Face Essay - Critical Essays

Charles Kingsley

Critical Evaluation

Charles Kingsley, the son of a clergyman of the Church of England and himself a clergyman, studied at Cambridge University and was the parish priest for the Anglican parish in Eversley, Hampshire, from 1842 until his death. He read widely, especially on historical subjects, and was Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University from 1860 to 1869. He wrote pamphlets in support of progressive reforms and was known as a Christian Socialist because of his interest in improving the social and economic life of the working classes. He also wrote poetry, and some of his novels were best sellers. His first two novels, Yeast (1848) and Alton Locke (1850), dealt with contemporary social problems; Hypatia represented a shift in his literary interests away from social problems and toward more specifically religious themes.

Kingsley was concerned about two major cultural trends that were strong during the 1840’s and 1850’s: the spread of rationalist and Transcendentalist ideas, especially through the works of Edward Gibbon and the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the growing strength of Catholicism, in the forms of both Roman Catholicism and the Oxford Movement, which sought to increase the ceremonial aspects of worship in the Church of England. Gibbon, the historian of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788), challenged Christianity by arguing that the new religion was partially responsible for weakening the bonds of the Roman Empire. Emerson taught that humans possessed the innate and intuitive capacity to know the truth; social customs, organized religion, and orthodox doctrines interfered with the search for truth and the relationship between individuals and God. Simultaneously, Catholicism was growing strong. The Roman Catholic Church was increasing in numbers, in part due to the conversions of several prominent Anglicans, most notably John Henry Newman. These conversions, along with the church’s confident assertions of papal authority, seemed to foreshadow the reconversion of England itself. Within the Church of England, the Oxford Movement, or Anglo-Catholicism—which denied that Anglicanism was Protestant—was making headway; it emphasized the medieval elements in Anglican doctrine and worship. By the middle of the century, many Anglicans were afraid that English Protestantism was about to be overwhelmed from the left by rationalism and from the right by Catholicism.

Hypatia is part of a four-way debate in fictional form on these...

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