Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Hypatia in the Agora

More outrageously false anti-Christian trash in the movie theaters. What a shame. The true history is so much more interesting. According to First Things:
[Hypatia] was, all the evidence suggests, a brilliant lecturer in Platonic thought, a trained scientist, and the author of a few mathematical commentaries. Despite the extravagant claims often made on her behalf, however, there is no reason to believe she made any particularly significant contributions to any of her fields of expertise.

She was not, for instance—as she has often been said to have been—the inventor of either the astrolabe or the hydrometer. It is true that the first extant mention of a hydrometer appears in a letter written to Hypatia by her devoted friend, Synesius of Cyrene, the Christian Platonist and bishop of Ptolemais; but that is because Synesius, in that letter, is explaining to her how the device is made, so that she can arrange to have one assembled for him.

At the time of her death, she was probably not even the beautiful young woman of lore; she was in all likelihood over sixty.

She was, however, brutally murdered—and then dismembered—by a gang of Christian parabalani (a fraternity originally founded to care for the city’s poor); that much is true. This was not, however, because she was a woman (female intellectuals were not at all uncommon in the Eastern Empire, among either pagans or Christians), or because she was a scientist and philosopher (the scientific and philosophical class of Alexandria comprised pagans, Jews, and Christians, and there was no popular Christian prejudice against science or philosophy).

And it was certainly not because she was perceived as an enemy of the Christian faith; she got on quite well with the educated Christians of Alexandria, numbered many among her friends and students, and was intellectually far closer to them than to the temple cultists of the lower city; and the frankest account of her murder was written by the Christian historian Socrates, who obviously admired her immensely. It seems likely that she died simply because she became inadvertently involved in a vicious political squabble between the city’s imperial prefect and the city’s patriarch, and some of the savages of the lower city decided to take matters into their own hands.

In the end, the true story of Hypatia—which no one will ever make into a film—tells us very little about ancient religion, or about the relation between ancient Christianity and the sciences, and absolutely nothing about some alleged perennial conflict between Christianity and science; but it does tell us a great deal about social class in the late Hellenistic world.


Unknown said...

First Things got it mostly right. I'd recommend "Hypatia of Alexandria" by Maria Dzielska (Harvard University Press, 1995,) a very readable biography, for anyone who wants to know more about the historical Hypatia.

I also agree that Amenabar distorted a lot of history in service to his art, but that's what artists do to put forward what they consider a greater truth. In this case I believe Amenabar's movie was a critique of fanaticism in all its various forms, both in history and modern society. I've posted a "history behind the film" on my blog (http://faithljustice.wordpress.com/) for those who want to know what really happened during this time period--not a movie review, but a "reel" vs. "real" analysis of the events characters in the film.

elena maria vidal said...

Many thanks for the book recommendation and the link to your article!