Hypatia of Alexandria

Hypatia of Alexandria was one of the last pagan philosophers of antiquity.  Daughter of the mathematician Theon, she was active in Alexandria, Egypt, in the late 4th and early 5th Centuries AD  Her father, though not a major mathematician in his own right, edited and corrected the mathematical works of Euclid, and his edition was so accurate that it supplanted all other editions for centuries.  His daughter was talented in mathematics as well, and also was renowned as an astronomer.  Her main claim to fame, though was as a teacher of Neoplatonism.

A fair amount of background is necessary.  Alexandria, Egypt–founded, shockingly, by Alexander the Great in the 4th Century BC–had become one of the Mediterranean world’s great metropolises, second in size only to Rome itself, and second to none in its cultural influence.  Alexander, conqueror though he was, was also an idealist.  He had a dream of spreading Greek culture worldwide, taking the best of the cultures it encountered and blending it with Greek learning and culture.  Though he died young and his empire dissolved into several states led by his generals, Alexander’s dream lived on.  The various successor states to Alexander’s empire indeed spread Greek–that is, Hellenistic–culture throughout the ancient world.

Alexandria was one of the most important centers of Hellenistic culture, which it spread through art, philosophy, and education in the Greek tradition.  It was also home to the largest population of urban Jews in the world and the seat of the Patriarch of Alexandria, one of the largest Christian churches and ancestor of the Coptic Orthodox Church of today.  Among the schools of Greek philosophy to be found in Alexandria was Neoplatonism.  The great Greek philosopher Plato had founded a school in Athens, the Academy–named after the Grove of Akademos, where Plato and his students met–which continued in existence for the next eight hundred years.  Meanwhile, the doctrines of Plato, which were taught at the Academy, spread across the Greek (and later Roman) world.  By the time of Hypatia, various Neoplatonic schools flourished in her hometown of Alexandria.

We moderns tend to equate “philosophy” with what should properly be called “metaphysics”–that is, questions on the nature of reality, how we know what we know, and things such as that.  We also often disparage philosophy, caricaturing it as meaningless arguments in obscure language and even more obscure semantics about intractable or irrelevant matters.  This is unfair to philosophy in general, and particularly to philosophy as it was understood in antiquity.  Philosophy–“love of wisdom”–was seen then as not just speculation about abstract issues, but a vital searching for answers to the most concrete questions of human life.  Philosophy was, in fact, a way of life.  Speculations as to the nature of reality were indulged in only with the goal of determining how people should live their lives.  As I discussed in detail here, worship of the gods–what we think of as “religion”–was mainly a civic affair, like saluting the flag or saying the Pledge of Allegiance is to us.  People turned to philosophy to give meaning to their lives and to teach them how to live.  Philosophy, in short, fulfilled the function that we tend to associate with religion in modern times.

The doctrines of Plato, passed down over the centuries, had gradually developed into what we moderns refer to as Middle Platonism (from about the 1st Century BC to the 3rd Century AD) and then Neoplatonism (from the 3rd Century AD onward).  To give a horrendously and inadequately brief summary of Neoplatonist belief, they taught that there is one transcendent unity behind all, the One (το Ἕν–to Hen–in Greek).  The One is perfect, incomprehensible, self-contained, and infinite.  In fact, it is essentially God as conceived in classical theism.  The One emanates the Nous or Logos (Mind or Reason); then the Nous emanates the World Soul.  The World Soul emanates the cosmos, from highest to lowest levels, including human souls.  Human souls, being contained in bodies of matter, the lowest of the emanations of the World Soul, live in the material world but strive beyond it.  True human happiness consists of contemplation of and eventual reunion with the One.

If it occurs to you that the idea of emanations from the Divine and matter as the lowest level of creation sounds suspiciously Gnostic, then you’re right.  Gnostic thought seems to have cribbed a lot from Neoplatonic thought.  The sharp difference is that the Gnostics thought the material world to be a tragic mistake, whereas the Neoplatonists held that, while it was inferior, matter was ultimately good, as it ultimately came from the Divine.  If it occurs to you that the One, the Nous, and the World Soul sound suspiciously like the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and “return to the One” sounds like “union with God”, well, you’re also right.  Many Neoplatonic philosophical concepts entered early Christian thought through such theologians as Origin, Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, the Cappadocian Fathers, and others.  The Church found Neoplatonic concepts to mesh well with Christian teachings and freely made use of them.

There were two basic approaches to Neoplatonism.  One, represented by the great Plotinus, taught that the way to reunion with the One was through study of philosophy, asceticism with regard to food and material things, and what we would probably now describe as forms of meditation.  Though these practices, one could draw closer to the Divine, and at death experience liberation from the body and final return to the One.  This school of Neoplatonism was opposed to Gnosticism (Plotinus specifically wrote in opposition to it) and skeptical of Christianity.  However, individual Neoplatonists generally got along with Christians cordially enough, perhaps seeing in each other kindred spirits.

The other approach is represented by Iamblichus, who died about two decades before the birth of Hypatia.  This school pursued union with the One via theurgy.  “Theurgy” is a ritual evocation of a god.  In Iamblichus’s view, the various gods, demigods, and spirits of Greek mythology are emanations of the One higher than us, but lower than the ultimate Divine.  For Iamblichus, one could, though complex rituals, invoke the lesser deities and gradually work one’s way up, so to speak, until one attained union with the One.  In essence, Iamblichus practiced what we would call high ceremonial magic as a route to the Divine.  The theurgy school of Neoplatonism was scorned both by Plotinus and his followers, who viewed it as vulgar and lacking in asceticism, and by the Christians, who viewed it as pagan worship of false gods, at best, and outright demonic at worst.  Hypatia, it should be pointed out, belonged in the tradition of Plotinus.

Finally, it needs to be noted that Christian monasticism had begun in the 3rd Century when such luminaries as  Anthony of Egypt left what they considered a decadent society to live in the deserts in prayer and contemplation of God.  Gradually, Christian hermits banded together into groups living a common life in monasteries, and many of these men–the Desert Fathers–became important in the development of later Christian thought and ascetic practice.  Egypt, in particular, had become a stronghold of monasticism by the 4th Century.  Unfortunately, the monks–often holy, but also often very isolated from society at large and not always well-educated–were often in conflict with the institutional church represented by the urban bishops, who were often highly educated and often had good relations with the Jews and pagans in the cosmopolitan urban milieu.  These tensions sometimes boiled over into outright violence.

All right–we’ve spent a considerable time setting the stage.  Let’s return to Hypatia.  Hypatia spent most of her career as a Neoplatonic teacher.  Remember, in the context of her culture, that would be equivalent to a spiritual teacher in modern times.  She taught in the tradition of Plotinus, which emphasized a life of virtue and asceticism, and eschewed the elaborate and mystical rites of theurgy.  Hypatia, though pagan herself, got on well with Christians–in fact, many of them were students of hers.  One such student, Synesius of Cyrene, later became bishop of Ptolemais in what is now Libya.  Many of his letters to Hypatia survive, in fact (though none of her side of the correspondence).  This is not as odd as it may seem to us.  Though pagan persecution of Christians had long since ended, and the Roman Empire had officially legalized Christianity a few decades before Hypatia’s birth, pagans were still a large minority of the population, especially in Alexandria.  The Neoplatonists and Christians shared common views on asceticism and moral life; and no doubt both saw the similarities between the Platonic One and the Christian God.  Just as many Christians today may study meditation or yoga without taking on the religious practices of Buddhism or Hinduism, many Christians of that day were comfortable learning ethics and contemplative practices (and perhaps mathematics and astronomy, as well) from pagan teachers.

The times were changing, though.  In the 380’s and 390’s–Hypatia’s 30’s and 40’s–emperor Theodosius I began not only to de-legitimize all forms of Christianity he thought to be non-orthodox, but also to end Roman support of pagan institutions and ban certain pagan practices.  He also had a tendency to look the other way when Christians, whipped up by zealous preachers, attacked pagan shrines and temples.  Thus a tragic irony:  The Christians, who not much more than a century prior, had been brutally oppressed and persecuted by the Empire, despite their pleas for clemency, now, with the table turned, were starting to do to the pagans what the pagans had once done to them.  Turn the other cheek, indeed!  This was the beginning of a tawdry period of Christian history in which, rather than choosing to display the mercy and tolerance taught by Christ towards their erstwhile oppressors, the Church instead chose to turn oppressor itself.  Who knows how different Christian history might otherwise have been?

From 382 to 412 AD, Theophilus was bishop of Alexandria.*  During this time, he had destroyed centers of the theurgical school of Neoplatonism, as well as the famed Egyptian temple, the Serapeum.  Despite this, he maintained good relations with Hypatia, whom he seems to have admired.  His relationship with his own flock was more tenuous.  Having written a letter teaching the incorporeality of God, he was confronted with zealous (if you want to put it nicely–or “fanatical”, if you don’t) monks rioting over the Pope’s rejection of the Bible–after all, doesn’t it indicate that God has a body?  Doesn’t it speak of God’s “outstretched hand”, His “footstool”, His throne, and so on?  Theophilus quickly spouted a bit of double-talk–“In seeing you, I behold the face of God”–walked back (or ran back) his earlier statements, and showed his good faith by, at their request, anathematizing Origen–long dead, by this time–who had also taught the bodilessness of God.  Trouble had been averted–for now.

Theophilus died suddenly in 412, and after a vicious power struggle, was succeeded by his nephew, Cyril.  Cyril was not as–ah, tolerant as Theophilus–and–well, the politics gets complicated at this point, so I’ll summarize with this paragraph from the Wikipedia article on Hypatia:

In 414, Cyril closed all the synagogues in Alexandria, confiscated all the property belonging to the Jews, and expelled all the Jews from the city. Orestes, the Roman prefect of Alexandria, who was also a close friend of Hypatia and a recent convert to Christianity, was outraged by Cyril’s actions and sent a scathing report to the emperor.  The conflict escalated and a riot broke out in which the parabalani, a group of monks under Cyril’s authority, nearly killed Orestes. As punishment, Orestes had Ammonius, the monk who had started the riot, publicly tortured to death.  Cyril tried to proclaim Ammonius a martyr, but Christians in Alexandria were disgusted, since Ammonius had been killed for inciting a riot and attempting to murder the governor, not for his faith.  Prominent Alexandrian Christians intervened and forced Orestes and Cyril to come to an uneasy truce.  During the negotiations, Orestes frequently consulted Hypatia for advice because she was well-liked among both pagans and Christians alike, she had not been involved in any previous stages of the conflict, and she had an impeccable reputation as a wise counselor.

Cyril and his allies tried to undermine Hypatia’s reputation, claiming she had a hold on Orestes via sorcery.  Cyril’s party kept the rumor mill running and continued agitating the more excitable segment of the populace, until finally, in March of 415, a group of parabalani attacked Hypatia’s carriage as she was traveling through the city, dragged her into a nearby building, ripped her to death using roof shingles or oyster shells (depending on the account), dragged her mangled corpse though town, and set it afire.  Thus was the death of Hypatia, and one of the most unutterably shameful episodes of Christian history. Equally shamefully, Cyril is to this day honored as a saint.  Back here I said that it’s Christ that keeps me in the Church, not Christians or the institution.  The murder of Hypatia is the kind of thing I have in mind when I say this.

Hypatia made no new contributions to Neoplatonism in her life, but she was highly regarded as a teacher, and she was one of the last of the pagan philosophers to keep the classical tradition alive.  I respect her for this.  She also was a model of the virtuous pagan and an example of peaceful coexistence between Christians and non-Christians, in which each learns from the other in goodwill and friendship.  At least until the time of Cyril, anyway.  You will note in the material to the right of the page, I have an icon of St. Justin Martyr, captioned, “Christian philosopher martyred by pagans”; and a detail of Raphael’s famous fresco The School of Athens which is said to represent Hypatia (accounts differ, but I’m going with it), which I have captioned, “Pagan philosopher martyred by Christians”.  I hold both these martyrs in equal esteem; and I grieve for my faith that it was fellow Christians who committed the crime against Hypatia.

In fairness, many Christians in Alexandria were shocked by this barbarous murder.  Still, that didn’t help Hypatia, did it?  As antiquity ended and the Middle Ages began, Christians certainly didn’t do any better by pagans or other non-Christians.  How different the world might have been had Christians–well, acted like Christians.  Even today, as conservative Christians are developing a seige mentality and complaining about their supposed persecution by secularists, humanists and “SJW’s”; as the former cardinal archbishop of Chicago darkly mused that his successor would die in prison (gee–Cardinal Cupich seems still to be at large) and that his sucessor’s successor would die a martyr; and as murmurs of a return to the catacombs by believing Christians bounce around our culture, conservative Christian pastors call for expulsion of Muslims, death to gay people, and long to make America a “Christian nation” again.  I’m not linking any of that, by the way–too depressing.  Google it.  I’m also not saying that all, or even most, conservative Christians hold such views.  Still, those views are out there; and as we see with Hypatia, if you have just the right mix of high emotions and volatile politics, the outcome of such views can be extremely ugly.

In pop culture, the movie Agora tells the story of Hypatia.  I’ve not seen it, but it was well-reviewed.  I need to point out, however, that it errs in tying the destruction of the Library of Alexandria to the Christian mobs–it had been destroyed centuries before, no one is sure by whom–and in implying that Hypatia invented the astrolabe and taught a heliocentric model of the solar system (the astrolabe had been invented at least two centuries before, and there’s no evidence that Hypatia taught heliocentrism).  In Alan Moore’s epic graphic novel series Promethea, the title character first appears as a young girl, daughter of a pagan philosopher in Alexandria, and is clearly loosely inspired by Hypatia.

So, let Hypatia be a model for all of us, Christian and non-Christian, believer and infidel; and let us aspire to the kind of friendship and co-existence that she practiced, and strive to keep our society from descending into the madness of religious intolerance and violence.  If God has found fit to welcome Hypatia into the Kingdom–and I have confidence He has–may she intercede for our troubled world.  Sancta Hypatia, ora pro nobis!

Part of the series “Your Own Personal Altar


*The title of the Bishop of Alexandria is, like that of the Bishop of Rome, “Pope”–so Theophilus is sometimes referred to as “Pope Theophilus”, or sometimes, in the West, as “Patriarch Theophilus”.  The Church of Alexandria was responsible for all of Northeast Africa.  As an Eastern Church, its liturgy and customs were similar–but not identical–to those of the Churches of Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem.  The latter three churches and the churches that descended from them later became what we now call the Eastern Orthodox Church.  After the Council of Chalcedon, in 451 AD, the Church of Alexandria broke away from the Eastern Churches and from the Church of Rome, rejecting the Council.  Since then, the Church of Alexandria, which is still in existence, has been known in the West as the Coptic Orthodox Church.  Still later, in 1054, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Church of Rome split apart over various theological issues, with the Church of Rome taking the name “Catholic”.  To this day, the Catholic, Orthodox, and Coptic Churches are not in communion with each other, though the Catholic and Coptic Churches have had excellent relations.  In fact, the Catholic and Coptic Popes have met on many occasions.  At the time of Hypatia, though, all three churches were still united; and there was thus in theory (heretical groups aside) only one Church throughout the Empire.


Posted on 29/05/2018, in ancient civilizations, great individuals, Greco-Roman, philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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