Hypatia c. 370-415
Greek mathematician and philosopher.
Widely regarded as the first female mathematician, Hypatia was famous during her lifetime as a scholar and educator. She taught astronomy and philosophy as well as algebra and geometry, and composed treatises on the writings of other mathematicians. Endowed with uncommon intellect and strength of character, she achieved a degree of academic eminence that was rare for women of her day. Hypatia's written works are no longer extant, but over the centuries she has inspired her own literary tradition, as poets, dramatists, historians, and novelists have adapted and reformulated the story of her life—and particularly her violent death.
Contemporary sources provide only a bare sketch of Hypatia's biography, and scholars have pointed out that even these are a mixture of fact, bias, and conjecture. A birth date of c. 370 has been accepted by many commentators, though some have suggested it was several years earlier. Hypatia was born and spent most of her life in Alexandria, a center—with Athens—of late fourth-century Greek intellectual activity. Her father, Theon, was a noteworthy mathematician, astronomer, and teacher in the city's institution of higher education, known as the Museum. He supervised her early education and training, and exerted a major influence on her life. Some scholars believe that Hypatia also studied philosophy in Athens. She began her teaching career while still a young woman, instructing a privileged circle of students in private classes at her home and later adding public lectures as her fame increased. She was reputed to be a woman of modesty and dignity, who wore her mantle of celebrity with grace. Despite the widespread respect she enjoyed in Alexandria—or perhaps because of it—Hypatia apparently became the object of factional hatred in a city troubled by conflicts between Christians, Jews, and pagans. In 415 she was attacked by a mob in the streets of Alexandria and brutally murdered.
Twentieth-century scholars have noted how the legend of Hypatia grew out of early accounts of her life and career. Substantial evidence of her significance as an educator appears in the letters of Synesius of Cyrene (c. 370-413), a philosopher and churchman who studied with Hypatia for many years and was devoted to her. Synesius's correspondence shows that many of her students, who were the sons of wealthy and noble families, later became important ecclesiastical and imperial figures. Synesius also refers to Hypatia's mechanical abilities and credits her with several inventions, including astronomical instruments and an apparatus that measured the density of liquids. Socrates Scholasticus, a near contemporary (c. 379-450), documented Hypatia's life in his Ecclesiastical History; his narrative is based at least in part on eyewitness accounts. He reported that she attracted students from throughout Egypt and beyond, and that she had considerable influence in Alexandria's political and social life. Socrates also provided a detailed account of her death: he implicated the Alexandrian church, named a monk called Peter as the chief assassin, and claimed that Hypatia was killed because of her close association with Orestes, the city Prefect. A third important source of information about Hypatia comes from the Suda, an anonymous tenth-century historical and literary collection.
According to the Suda, she was much admired for both her beauty and her intellect, and was awarded an official appointment as public lecturer in philosophy, drawing audiences from the highest ranks of society as well as from the academy. The Suda also relays the accusation contained in Damascius's Life of Isidore (c. 526) that Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria, envied Hypatia's eminence and induced some of his monks to kill her. The testimony of Socrates and the Suda against the Alexandrian Christians eventually became an integral part of her story—generally accepted as truth by writers who embellished her personal narrative and focused on her savage murder. Few of these authors paid much attention to her principal writings.
Commentators usually attribute three major works to Hypatia: a commentary on the Arithmetica, Diophantus's great treatise on algebra; an edition, with commentary, of the geometrician Apollonius of Perga's Conic Sections; and the Astronomical Canon. This last work deals with the movement of the planets, and some critics regard it as more of a commentary on Ptolemy's theories than an original essay on astronomy. These writings have all been lost, though a few scholars have identified fragmentary revisions of Hypatia's work embedded in the mathematical treatises of later writers. There are also reports that she composed philosophical essays, but no titles have survived. In addition, she assisted her father in his magnum opus, a multi-volume edition of Ptolemy's Almagest; while it is generally believed that Hypatia helped Theon prepare book three of this edition, scholars disagree about the extent of her contribution.
The modern reception of Hypatia begins in the early eighteenth century. In 1720 John Toland, a British deist and self-described free-thinker, published an essay on Hypatia in which he charged Cyril and other Alexandrian clergy with direct responsibility for her death. More than a decade later, in an essay on religious fanaticism, the French poet and philosopher Voltaire characterized her as a martyr to Christian intolerance. In 1788 Edward Gibbon included a vivid account of Hypatia's death in a section of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in which he deprecates Cyril of Alexandria; Gibbon's representation of her murder is often quoted by critics and commentators. The English novelist Charles Kingsley published, in 1853, a novel entitled Hypatia, or, New Foes with an Old Face, loosely based on her life. This was frequently reprinted and translated into several languages, though Kingsley was also censured for his lurid treatment of sexual motifs and his anti-Catholic bias. In the second half of the nineteenth century, French Romantic poets and dramatists portrayed Hypatia as the last of the classical Greeks—a symbol of the lost world of harmonious relations between art and philosophy, science and religion. More recently, Hypatia has become an icon for feminists such as Ursule Molinaro (1989) who see her murder as ap act of vindictiveness against independent-minded women. While dramatists and novelists in Europe and North America continue to refashion her story, a few scholars have attempted to present an objective view of Hypatia's life and work. In 1965, for example, J. M. Rist assessed her philosophical teachings, determining that despite the tradition of associating her with Neoplatonism, she was actually a relatively conservative Platonist. Without concrete evidence of Hypatia's writings, it is difficult to assess her contribution to philosophical or mathematical scholarship. Yet Maria Dzielska, the author of a book-length study (1995) of Hypatia and the literary legend that has accrued to her, notes that all reliable sources attest that she was an inspired teacher as well as "a model of ethical courage, righteousness, veracity, civic devotion, and intellectual prowess."
SOURCE: "Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople" in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, John Murray, 1872, pp. 14-5.
[In the following excerpt from a work originally published in 1788, Gibbon fixes the responsibility for Hypatia's death on Cyril of Alexandria, charging that the bishop used her as a scapegoat to resolve a breach between church and state.]
… Hypatia, the daughter of Theon the mathematician,25 was initiated in her father's studies; her learned comments have elucidated the geometry of Apollonius and Diophantus; and she publicly taught, both at Athens and Alexandria, the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. In the bloom of beauty, and in the maturity of wisdom, the modest maid refused her lovers and instructed her disciples; the persons most illustrious for their rank or merit were impatient to visit the female philosopher; and Cyril beheld with a jealous eye the gorgeous train of horses and slaves who crowded the door of her academy. A rumour was spread among the Christians that the daughter of Theon was the only obstacle to the reconciliation of the prefect and the archbishop; and that obstacle was speedily removed. On a fatal day, in the holy season of Lent, Hypatia was torn from her chariot, stripped naked, dragged to the church, and inhumanly butchered by the hands of Peter the reader and a troop of savage and merciless fanatics: her flesh was...
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SOURCE: "Hypatia" in The Complete Writings of Elbert Hubbard, The Roycroft Shop, 1908, pp. 51-79.
[In the essay below, Hubbard offers an elaborate account of Hypatia's life and thought, stressing her independent mind and spirit as well as her indebtedness to Plato and Plotinus. Throughout, Hubbard uses details of her biography to express his personal antipathy to formal systems of religion.]
The father of Hypatia was Theon, a noted mathematician and astronomer of Alexandria.
He would have been regarded as a very great man had he not been cast into the shadow by his daughter. Let male parents beware! At that time, astronomy and astrology were one. Mathematics was useful, not for purposes of civil engineering, but principally in figuring out where a certain soul, born under a given planet, would be at a certain time in the future. No information comes to us about the mother of Hypatia—she was so busy with housework that her existence is a matter of assumption or a-priori reasoning; thus, given a daughter, we assume the existence of a mother.
Hypatia was certainly the daughter of her father. He was her tutor, teacher, playmate. All he knew he taught her, and before she was twenty she had been informed by him of a fact which she had previously guessed—that considerable of his so-called knowledge was conjecture. Theon taught his daughter that all systems of...
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SOURCE: "Women in Mathematics" in Woman in Science, University of Notre Dame, 1913, pp. 136-41.
[In the following excerpt from an essay describing the earliest female mathematicians, Zahm outlines what is known of Hypatia's life and works.]
"All abstract speculations, all knowledge which is dry, however useful it may be, must be abandoned to the laborious and solid mind of man.… For this reason women will never learn geometry."
In these words Immanuel Kant, more than a century ago, gave expression to an opinion that had obtained since the earliest times respecting the incapacity of the female mind for abstract science, and notably for mathematics. Women, it was averred, could readily assimilate what is concrete, but, like children, they have a natural repugnance for everything which is abstract. They are competent to discuss details and to deal with particulars, but become hopelessly lost when they attempt to generalize or deal with universals.
De Lamennais shares Kant's opinion concerning woman's intellectual inferiority and does not hesitate to express himself on the subject in the most unequivocal manner. "I have never," he writes, "met a woman who was competent to follow a course of reasoning the half of a quarter of an hour—un demi quart d'heure. She has qualities which are wanting in us, qualities of a particular, inexpressible charm; but, in the...
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SOURCE: "Hypatia," Phoenix, Vol. XIX, No. 3, Autumn, 1965, pp. 214-25.
[In the excerpt below, Rist focuses on Hypatia's philosophical position, but he also attempts to separate the legends surrounding her from the accounts given in Socrates's Ecclesiastical History and the Suda. She was more closely aligned with traditional Platonism than with advanced Neoplatonism, he asserts, and her achievements in the field of philosophy have been inflated because of the circumstances of her death.]
Presumably for English-speaking readers the trouble began with Gibbon,1 who knew the tragic end of Hypatia, daughter of Theon, and used his knowledge, as had some of his predecessors in antiquity, to vilify Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria. Gibbon's account should be quoted at length, so that its full force may be grasped and the problems of understanding the circumstances of the career and teachings of Hypatia may be clarified. After describing Cyril's various aberrancies as patriarch, Gibbon continues as follows:
He soon prompted, or accepted, the sacrifice of a virgin, who professed the religion of the Greeks and cultivated the friendship of Orestes [the prefect of Egypt; see below]. Hypatia, the daughter of Theon the mathematician, was initiated in her father's studies; her learned comments have elucidated the geometry of Apollonius and Diophantus; and she...
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SOURCE: "Hypatia 370-415" in Women in Mathematics, The MIT Press, 1974, pp. 21-32.
[In the following excerpt, Osen presents an overview of Hypatia's life, emphasizing her skill in mathematics.]
During the pre-Christian era, the philosophical schools of Plato and Pythagoras served to create a favorable social climate in which at least some women could pursue an academic career. Because the emphasis on and love of mathematics was so strong in these schools, this tradition persisted long after the Christian era began.
Athenaeus, a Greek writer (ca. A.D. 200), in his Deipnosophistoe, mentions a number of women who were superior mathematicians, but precise knowledge of their work in this field is lacking. It is probable that there were many women who were well educated in the general science of numbers at this time, judging from the pervasive interest in the subject and the rigor with which women sought an education.
A few Greek women enjoyed comparative freedom in these pursuits, although the class of women known as hetaerae attracted the most public notice. These slave women were usually paramours of the ruling class, although some were freed women or women of free birth; many of them, particularly those from Ionia and Aetolia, strongly impressed themselves on the Greek conscience with their intelligence, wit, and culture. They had keen intellects, and their work...
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SOURCE: "Hypatia of Alexandria" in Hypatia's Heritage, The Women's Press, 1986, pp. 35-49.
[In the following excerpt, Alic summarizes Hypatia's career within the context of the political and intellectual climate of early-fifth-century Alexandria.]
She was a person who divided society into two parts: those who regarded her as an oracle of light, and those who looked upon her as an emissary of darkness. (Elbert Hubbard, p. 280)
A slight scientific renaissance occurred in fourth-century Alexandria, illuminated by the most famous of all women scientists until Marie Curie. For fifteen centuries Hypatia was often considered to be the only female scientist in history. Even today, for reasons that have more to do with the romanticising of her life and death than with her accomplishments, she is frequently the only woman mentioned in histories of mathematics and astronomy.6
Hypatia is the earliest woman scientist whose life is well documented. Although most of her writings have been lost, numerous references to them exist. Furthermore, she died at a convenient time for historians. The last pagan scientist in the western world, her violent death coincided with the last years of the Roman Empire. Since there were to be no significant advances in mathematics, astronomy or physics anywhere in the West for another 1000...
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SOURCE: "A Christian Martyr in Reverse," Hypatia, Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 6-8.
[In the prose poem reprinted below, Molinaro recreates the life and death of Hypatia from the perspective of a feminist poet and novelist.]
The torture killing of the noted philosopher Hypatia by a mob of Christians in Alexandria in 415 A.D. marks the end of a time when women were still appreciated for the brain under their hair.
The screams of a 45-year-old Greek philosopher being dismembered1 by early-5th-century Christians, in their early-5th-century church of Caesareum, in Alexandria, center of early-5th-century civilization, reverberated between the moon gate & the sun gate of that civilized Egyptian city.
Before the philosopher's broken body was thrown into the civilized Alexandrian gutter, for public burning.
& smoke signals rose from the disorderly chunks of her charring flesh, warning future centuries of reformers & healers that they must hush their knowledge if they wished to avoid burning as heretics, or witches. If they wished to stay alive.
In a world run by a new brand of Christians, politicians of faith, who out-lawed independent thought. Especially when thought by women. Whom they offered a new role model of depleasurized submission as they converted the great & lusty earthmother goddess into a...
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SOURCE: "The Literary Legend of Hypatia" in Hypatia of Alexandria, Harvard University Press, 1995, pp. 1-26.
[Below, Dzielska surveys the confusion of fact and fiction that constitutes Hypatia's posthumous fame, evaluating the literary works of European and North American writers from the mid-eighteenth century to 1989, as well as the ancient sources that gave rise to that literary tradition. Dzielska points out that over the centuries, Hypatia's legendary story has been used to support a diverse range of viewpoints and ideologies.]
The Modern Tradition
Long before the first scholarly attempts to reconstruct an accurate image of Hypatia, her life—marked by the dramatic circumstances of her death—had been imbued with legend. Artistically embellished, distorted by emotions and ideological biases, the legend has enjoyed wide popularity for centuries, obstructing scholarly endeavors to present Hypatia's life impartially, and it persists to this day. Ask who Hypatia was, and you will probably be told: "She was that beautiful young pagan philosopher who was torn to pieces by monks (or, more generally, by Christians) in Alexandria in 415." This pat answer would be based not on ancient sources, but on a mass of belletristic and historical literature, a representative sample of which is surveyed in this chapter. Most of these works present Hypatia as an innocent victim...
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SOURCE: "Finding Bits and Pieces of Hypatia" in Hypatia's Daughters, Indiana University Press, 1996, pp. 1-26.
[Here, Waithe focuses on Hypatia's accomplishments as a scholar and educator, emphasizing in particular her application of philosophic analysis and methodology to the exposition of mathematics and astronomy. Waithe also examines the texts of possible early editions or prototypes of Hypatia's writings that appear in the work of later authors.]
When Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy was founded in 1983 and the decision was made to name it after a famous ancient woman philosopher, the received wisdom was that none of Hypatia's writings survived. As it turned out, the conventional wisdom was false. In the present chapter I will describe what we can surmise about Hypatia's life, her students, her teaching and her writing.1
Hypatia was probably born circa 370-375, although some scholars claim (on questionable grounds) a much earlier date.2 Hypatia was already teaching in Alexandria and was sufficiently well known throughout northern Africa by the year 390, when Synesius came from Cyrene to become her student. Accounts of outrageous tactics that Hypatia used to counter a male student's sexual harassment by throwing the fifth-century equivalent of a used sanitary napkin at him may be apocryphal (Toland 1720; Lewis 1921). Nevertheless they...
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Cameron, Alan. "Isidore of Miletus and Hypatia: On the Editing of Mathematical Texts." Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 31, No. 1 (Spring 1990): 103-27.
Examines in detail conflicting theories about the extent of Hypatia's contribution to Theon's edition of Ptolemy's Almagest. Cameron hypothesizes that she was responsible for editing the text of Books III through XIII but that her father wrote all the commentary.
Dzielska, Maria. "Hypatia and Her Circle." In her Hypatia of Alexandria. Revealing Antiquity 8, G. W. Bowersock, general editor, pp. 27-65. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Focuses on Hypatia's coterie of students and her mode of instruction, citing many letters of Synecius of Cyrene, together with pertinent details from Socrates Scholasticus's Ecclesiastical History and Damasc-ius's Life of Isidore. Dzielska emphasizes the secret-iveness of Hypatia's community of philosophical protégés as well as the intellectual and moral elitism of her students.
Kingsley, Charles. Hypatia, or, New Foes with an Old Face. London: Oxford University Press, 1915, 459 p.
A historical novel noted for its lively and authentic descriptions of fifth-century Alexandria, its lurid account of Hypatia's death, and its rancorous portrayal of the early church. First published in serial form in 1851, the novel was issued in...
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