Monday, 15 September 2014

HYPATIA OF ALEXANDRIA: 4 BOOKS & A FILM


"We should read to give our souls a chance to luxuriate." – Henry Miller

Occasionally on Tuesdays I review some books I’ve read. Today, I give you two novels (and two more books!) about Hypatia of Alexandria. Who was Hypatia? By all accounts she was stunningly beautiful, dazzlingly brilliant, yet always modest and kind, living in an age when women were mere chattels. She is history’s first female mathematician, as well as the first female astronomer, inventor, and natural philosopher. As the daughter of the last head professor of the Museum of Alexandria, she practically grew up in the Great Alexandrian Library, where all the world’s knowledge was kept, for in addition to being a child prodigy, she was a voracious reader. A little more about her life, before I review two novels that I have read, which are based on her life.

Hypatia of Alexandria (about 370 – 415 AD) was the daughter of Theon of Alexandria who was a teacher of mathematics at the Museum of Alexandria, Egypt. The famous museum was a centre of Greek intellectual and cultural life, and it included many independent schools and the great library of Alexandria. Hypatia studied with her father, and with many others including Plutarch the Younger. She herself taught at the school of philosophy, whose slant was Neoplatonist. She became the salaried director of this school in 400 AD. She probably wrote on mathematics, astronomy and philosophy, including about the motions of the planets, about number theory and about conic sections.

Hypatia corresponded with and hosted scholars from others cities. Synesius, Bishop of Ptolemais, was one of her correspondents and he visited her frequently. Hypatia was a popular lecturer, drawing students from many parts of the empire. From the little historical information about Hypatia that survives, it appears that she invented the plane astrolabe, the graduated brass hydrometer and the hydroscope, with Synesius of Greece, who was her student and later colleague.

Orestes, the governor of Alexandria, like Hypatia, was a pagan (non-Christian). Orestes was an adversary of the new Christian bishop, Cyril (later canonised). Orestes, according to the contemporary accounts, objected to Cyril expelling the Jews from the city, and was murdered by Christian monks for his opposition. Cyril was also opposed to Hypatia due to the following reasons: She represented heretical teachings, including experimental science and pagan religion. She was an associate of Orestes. And she was a woman who didn’t know her place. Cyril’s preaching against Hypatia is said to have been what incited a mob led by fanatical Christian monks in 415 to attack Hypatia as she drove her chariot through Alexandria. They dragged her from her chariot and, according to accounts from that time, tore her clothes off, killed her, stripped the flesh from her bones, scattered some body parts through the streets, and burned some remaining parts of her body in the library of Caesareum.

Hypatia’s students fled to Athens, where the study of mathematics flourished after that. The Neoplatonic school she headed continued in Alexandria until the Arabs invaded in 642 AD. When the library of Alexandria was burned by the Arab conquerors, books were used as fuel for baths, and the works of Hypatia were also destroyed. We know her writings today through the works of others who quoted her (even if unfavourably) and through a few letters written to her by contemporaries.

Charles Kingsley has written a novel based on the life of Hypatia, simply called ‘Hypatia’ (1853). This novel is set in fifth century Alexandria and portrays decadent Romans, effete Roman Catholics, sophisticated pagan philosophers and vital Germanic warriors struggling for mastery as the world around them collapses. By setting the novel in the 5th century he was able to attack 19th century attitudes, which he believed were rending the fabric of English life. Kingsley was criticising through his novel what he considered to be destructive ‘high-church’ tendencies in Victorian England. Kingsley’s novel is typically Victorian, but nevertheless replete with atmosphere, accurate in detail and with great characterisation. It reminded me somewhat of Bulwer-Lytton’s ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’ in style.

The second novel is by Brian Trent and is titled: ‘Remembering Hypatia’ (2005). This is essentially a historical novel about Hypatia, in the tradition of historical fictional epics. Obviously, Trent has studied Kingsley’s novel and uses some of the details of the earlier work in his novel, but Trent’s version is more likely to appeal to the modern reader, in that his style is more engaging in terms of writing and plot development. The web page for this novel includes a preview of the prologue and first chapter.

I would recommend either of these books to you if you wish to learn about this great human being whose murder by a fanatical mob can be taken to be a presage of the dark ages that followed in the West, where the quest for knowledge, active scientific enquiry, philosophical thinking and rationalism were suppressed by superstition and fanaticism.

A third novel, also called ‘Hypatia’ by Khan Amore (2001), I have not read. However it sounds intriguing… Here is a description:
“Khan Amore’s ‘Hypatia’ defies categorisation. It is even difficult to decide which genre it might fall into. The book is fictionalised, yet it is strictly based upon fact, so that it cannot rightly be called either fiction or non-fiction, but perhaps demands a separate category: ‘faction’. The novel could be called a controversial erotic historical science-fiction adventure, although it might also be called a self-help book, humor, or a synthesis of hedonistic and humanistic philosophy. Like George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, this is not just another robots-and-laser-battles-in-space science-fiction potboiler.”

If your tastes are more inclined to the strictly historical figure of Hypatia, then the biography by Michael AB Deakin, ‘Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr’ will be more useful. On Amazon.com, SkookumPete reviews this book:
“This is a difficult book to evaluate. Deakin is a mathematician, not a classical historian, and apart from his discussion of Hypatia’s place in Alexandrian mathematics, this biography contains little that is not already to be found elsewhere, most notably in Dzielska’s study. Deakin does a reasonable job of putting Hypatia in a cultural context, but his understanding of late antiquity is superficial and admittedly garnered largely from encyclopedias. On the other hand, he has closely studied the sources for Hypatia’s life (which he includes in an appendix) and the meagre evidence for her influence on philosophy and science. His introduction to astrolabes and conic sections is of some intrinsic interest and helps illuminate the state of knowledge in the fifth century, but since we have not one shred of writing that is inarguably Hypatia’s work, the connection is rather tenuous. Nonetheless Deakin’s conclusions give a valuable new perspective on this best-known of female Hellenists: one of a teacher with a wide range of interests, if not an original thinker.

If your tastes are more inclined to the seventh art, there is a relatively recent film about Hypatia, which I have seen and can recommend. This is the 2009 film “Agora”, directed by Alejandro Amenábar and starring Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac. It paints a realistic picture of Alexandria, the costumes look authentic, the performances are flawless, and the cinematography - always beautiful. Ultimately, however, what makes this film so great is the way in which it puts human beings into perspective (fundamentalists ransacking the agora are like swarming ants), and in one scene, Alexandria is viewed from high above, looking sublime and utterly insignificant all at once. The film demonstrates ably the contrasting duality of human beings:  Capable of reaching the heights of reason, while also plumbing the depths of blind unreason.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for your post. It's always great to see other people spreading the word about Hypatia. Another biography your readers might like to check out is Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska (a Polish classics scholar who has studied the time period extensively). I reviewed both her book and Deakin's on my blog (http://faithljustice.wordpress.com/2011/03/12/hypatia-two-books/). I've also posted on the historical accuracy of the movie Agora (http://faithljustice.wordpress.com/2010/06/01/agora-hypatia-part-i/) (gets it mostly right) on my site. One little correction to your narrative: Hypatia was not the first female philosopher. There are at least thirty-five named women attested as philosophers leading up to and contemporaneous with Hypatia. I profiled nine of those women who also learned and taught Neo-platonism, Hypatia's chosen field in a post titled "The Other Lady Philosophers" (http://faithljustice.wordpress.com/2014/03/21/the-other-lady-philosophers/). Thanks again for profiling this remarkable woman.

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  2. Thank you for this post. I shall try to find one of these novels to read and the film to see. It's remarkable how women in history have managed to overcome adversity and become great, only to be dragged down by the establishment, whether it is political or religious.

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