Paul P. Mealing

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Friday, 3 December 2010


Last week I saw a movie by Alejandro Amenabar called Agora, which is effectively the story of Hypatia and her death at the hands of Christian zealots in Alexandria towards the end of the Roman Empire in AD 414. So the film is based on a real event and a real person, though it is a fictional account.

Amenabar also made the excellent film, The Sea Inside, starring Javier Bardem, which was also based on a real person’s life. In this case, a fictionalised account of a quadriplegic’s battle with the Church and government in Spain to take his own life through euthanasia.

I first came across Hypatia in Clifford A. Pickover’s encyclopedic tome, The Math Book, subtitled, From Pythagoras to the 57th Dimension, 250 Milestones in the History of Mathematics.  He allots one double page (a page of brief exposition juxtaposed with a graphic or a photo) to each milestone he’s selected. He presents Hypatia as the first historically recognised woman mathematician. In fact she was a philosopher and teacher at the famous Library of Alexandria, even though she was a Greek, and like her father, practiced philosophy, science, mathematics and astronomy in the tradition of Plato and Aristotle. By accounts, she was attractive, but never married, and, according to Pickover, once said she was ‘wedded to the truth’. The film gives a plausible account of her celibacy, when her father explains to a suitor that, in order to marry, she would have to give up her pursuit of knowledge and that would be like a slow death for her.

The film stars Rachel Weisz in the role of Hypatia and it’s a convincing portrayal of an independent, highly intelligent woman, respected by men of political power and persuasion. The complex political scene is also well depicted with the rise of Christianity creating an escalating conflict with Jews that the waning Roman military government seems incapable of controlling.

It’s a time when the Christians are beginning to exert their newly-found political power, and their Biblical-derived authority justifies their intention to convert everyone to their cause or destroy those who oppose them. There is a scene where they drive all the Jews out of Alexandria, which they justify by citing Biblical text. The film, of course, resonates with 20th Century examples of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and the role of religious fundamentalism in justifying human atrocities. Hypatia’s own slave (a fictionalised character, no doubt) is persuaded to join the Christians where he can turn his built-up resentment into justified slaughter.

Hypatia would have been influenced by Pythagoras’s quadrivium, upon which Plato’s Academy was based: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. In the movie she is depicted as a ‘truth-seeker’, who questions Ptolemy’s version of the solar system and performs an experiment to prove to herself, if no one else, that the Earth could move without us being aware of its motion. I suspect this is poetic licence on the part of Amenabar, along with the inference that she may have foreseen that the Earth’s orbit is elliptical rather than circular. What matters, though, is that she took her philosophy very seriously, and she appreciated the role of mathematics in discerning truth in the natural world. There is a scene where she rejects Christianity on the basis that she can’t accept knowledge without questioning it. It would have gone against her very being.

There is also a scene in which the Church’s hierarchy reads the well-known text from Timothy: “I suffer not a woman to teach or to control a man”, which is directed at the Roman Prefect, who holds Hypatia in high regard. The priest claims this is the word of God, when, in fact, it’s the word of Paul. Paul, arguably, influenced the direction of Christianity even more than Jesus. After all, Jesus never wrote anything down, yet Paul’s ‘letters’ are predominant in the New Testament.

Hypatia’s death, in the film, is sanitised, but history records it as brutal in the extreme. One account is that she was dragged through the streets behind a chariot and the other is that she had her flesh scraped from her by shards of pottery or sharp shells. History also records that the Bishop, Cyril, held responsible for her death, was canonised as a saint. The film gives a credible political reason for her death: that she had too much influence over the Prefect, and while they couldn’t touch him in such a malicious way, they could her.

But I can’t help but wonder at the extent of their hatred, to so mutilate her body and exact such a brutal end to an educated woman. I can only conclude that she represented such a threat to their power for two reasons: one, she was a woman who refused to acknowledge their superiority both in terms of gender and in terms of religious authority; and two, she represented a search for knowledge beyond the scriptures that could ultimately challenge their authority. I think it was this last reason that motivated their hatred so strongly. As a philosopher, whose role it was to seek knowledge and question dogma, she represented a real threat, especially when she taught ‘disciples’, some of whom became political leaders. A woman who thinks was the most dangerous enemy they knew.

Addendum: I've since read a book called Hypatia of Alexandria by Michael Deakin, Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Mathematical Sciences of Monash University (Melbourne, Australia). In the appendix, Deakin includes letters written to Hypatia by another Bishop, Synesius of Cyrene, who clearly respected, even adored her, as a former student.


Eli said...

I'm always impressed at the creative methods that we humans have developed for killing one another. What kind of maniacal person could even perform that sort of act, let alone feel good about it afterwards? Even the Nazi soldiers who went around shooting civilians had psychological problems, for crying out loud.

Anonymous said...

I saw the film and thought it portrayed the story very well. You make two very important points in your comment. The first is that man did historically (and even continue to)misintepret the 'word'of God for their own gain, political or otherwise and oppress or ostracise those who disagree. The second is that women of knowledge or education have always seemed to pose a psychological threat to men. As in the case of Hypatia, man was quick to extinguish that threat and they used religion as their tool to do it. How sad and regrettable human behaviour can be... sometimes I dont know if we as a species have evolved intellectually at all.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Anonymous,

Well said. The problem with us having an intellect is that we can justify the worst of atrocities, and that's what evil really is.

Regards, Paul.