Hypatia Essay - Critical Essays



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."

*Principal Works

Arithmetica (commentary)

Conic Sections (edition and commentary)

Astronomical Canon (essay)

Almagest (editor, with her father, Theon)

* AII of Hypatia's works have been lost and their dates of composition are not known.


Edward Gibbon (essay date 1788)

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...

(The entire section is 441 words.)

Elbert Hubbard (essay date 1908)

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....

(The entire section is 5072 words.)

John A. Zahm [pseudonym of H. J. Mozens] (essay date 1913)

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....

(The entire section is 1721 words.)

J. M. Rist (essay date 1965)

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...

(The entire section is 5252 words.)

Lynn M. Osen (essay date 1974)

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...

(The entire section is 2592 words.)

Margaret Alic (essay date 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 1941 words.)

Ursule Molinaro (essay date 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 1089 words.)

Maria Dzielska (essay date 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 9619 words.)

Mary Ellen Waithe (essay date 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 4883 words.)

Further Reading

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...

(The entire section is 252 words.)