Category Archives: great individuals
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.
With the possible exception of Bodhidharma himself, the greatest of all Zen masters is usually considered to have been 趙州從諗, or, as it is pronounced in Modern Mandarin, Zhàozhōu Cōngshěn. In Japan, he is known as Jōshū Jūshin. Most commonly, he is known merely as Zhaozhou or Joshu (henceforth I drop the diacritics). The tendency in writing about the Chinese Zen masters these days is to use the original Chinese forms of their names. Since Zen came to the English-speaking world mostly via Japan, older books typically use the Japanese forms of the name. Thus, for example the noted Zen scholar and popularizer D. T. Suzuki, in his seminal works on Zen, always refers to the worthy we are considering here as “Joshu”. For the rest of this post, I’ll follow his lead. Yes, it’s less accurate; but then again, the Chinese of the Tang dynasty, during which Joshu lived, was pronounced significantly differently from modern Mandarin; and Joshu probably didn’t pronounce his own name as “Zhaozhou”. Certainly, with Western religious figures, it doesn’t bother us that we don’t use the original forms of names–that we call the carpenter of Nazareth “Jesus” instead of Yēšūă‘ and his disciple “Peter” instead of Kêphā. I certainly first encountered and developed an admiration for Joshu under his Japanese name; so Joshu it will be for the rest of this post.
Appropriately, I begin this series with the patron of this blog, غیاث الدین ابوالفتح عمر بن ابراهیم خیام نیشابورﻯ, in proper Persian transcription, Ghiyāth ad-Din Abu’l-Fatḥ ‘Umar ibn Ibrāhīm al-Khayyām Nīshāpūrī. In the West, though, he’s most commonly known as Omar Khayyám (in the Victorian era, when Edward FitzGerald’s famous translation of Omar’s poetry became wildly popular, the custom for indicating long vowels in Persian transcription was to use the acute accent; nowadays, the macron is preferred; hence, “Khayyám” vs “Khayyām”).
Omar is best known in the west as the author of the Rubáʿiyát. This is the plural of rubáʿi, which simply means “quatrain” (a verse of four lines). The rubáʿi was a very popular genre of verse in Persia, and hundreds of rubáʿiyát are attributed to Omar. Beginning in 1859, the English poet Edward FitzGerald translated a number of the rubáʿiyát attributed to Omar, publishing them under the title The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (for keen-sighted readers, I’m not being inconsistent. The apostrophe, representing the glottal stop, should properly be between the first “a” and the “i” in rubáʿiyát–thus, it’s pronounced “roo-BAH-ee-yaht”, not “roo-BYE-yaht”. However, FitzGerald left it out, for whatever reason. Thus, when I print the title as he gave it, I’m following suit; but when discussing the genre as such, I’m leaving the glottal stop in). Over the remainder of his life, FitzGerald produced five editions of the Rubáiyát. This book became immensely popular in the Victorian age, and while less well-known now, it is still moderately popular, and has never been out of print.
This index is not actually for religious-oriented stuff, at least not specifically. I have an ongoing series, Your Own Personal Canon, in which I look at various books, both religious and secular, that have been a big influence in my life. In a related vein, here I want to look at individuals–men and women–who have been influential to me, or who are personal heroes, or whom I hold in great respect. I debated what title to give this series. I thought about something to do with saints; but there will be non-religiously oriented individuals here, and certainly many who are not “official” saints. I thought about “Hall of Fame”, but that sounds crass. Finally, I thought of the shrine tables of many cultures on which the images not only of saints, bodhisattvas, deities, and such are placed, but also the images of illustrious ancestors and culture heroes. Such tables are most accurately described as “shrines”, but they’re often referred to in contemporary discourse as “altars”. That’s not really correct, since an altar implies a sacrifice; but I decided just to go with it. Thus, here I will give links to articles on the various worthies about whom I will write in future posts.