Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Hypatia the Philosopher – Tragic Victim of Male Jealousy

Unknown Actress in the Role of Hypatia, circa 1900
Public Domain

Hypatia was the daughter of the philosopher Theon Alexandricus (335-405) and he was a thoughtful and progressive father, instructing his daughter in the same way as he would have educated a son. Hypatia proved a diligent student, achieving excellence in literature and science and surpassing others of her time. She is known as the first notable female mathematician.

She was an adherent of Plato and also of the third century philosopher Plotinos who favoured logic rather than empirical enquiry. (Empiricism claims that knowledge is attained primarily through the senses rather than through rational thinking.)

Hypatia, the Teacher

Many people came to listen to Hypatia explaining the principles of her philosophy. Socrates Scholasticus, a writer of that time, says that she was a distinguished lady, easy in her manner, refined and cultivated in her mind, always dignified but at ease in the company of men. As a result, she was generally respected and admired, that is, until her genius attracted the unwelcome attention of her rivals.

She devoted her learning mainly to mathematics, astronomy and logic.

The Evil of Political Jealousy

Frequently, Hypatia had interviews with a man named Orestes. It appeared Orestes had fallen out with
St. Cyril, the zealous and fanatical patriarch of Alexandria. The Christian populous falsely accused Hypatia of having influenced Orestes against Cyril, thereby preventing a reconciliation between the two men. Most of the gossip was engendered by the ringleader of the conspirators, another angry fanatic called Peter the Reader.

Butchered for her Intellect and Learning

One day in March, during Lent, as Hypatia was travelling home in her carriage, the group of jealous men dragged her from her seat and bore her away to a church. This was the Caesareum and here they stripped the young woman naked and murdered her, using sharp oyster shells to tear and scrape away the strips of flesh. Then they took her limbs to a place known as Cinaron, and burnt them.

Gifts were offered by the perpetrators of this savage massacre to prevent subsequent enquiry and punishment.

Please note: The Greek word for oystershells "ostrakois" can also mean brick tiles as applied to house roofs.

  • Feminine Singular, Roxane Arnold & Olive Chandler, Femina Books Ltd. London, 1975.
  • History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell, Routledge Classics, London, 2004, first published by George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., London, 1946.
  • "The Life of Hypatia," Ecclesiastical History, Socrates Scholasticus, 305

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