Hypatia Introduction - Essay


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."