Heroes of the Mind --  Hypatia of Alexandria


   One the greatest female mathematician of all time, Hypatia was the only daughter of Theon, the chief mathematician and professor at the Museum (also called The Library of Alexandria -- the burning of which helped set the stage for the Dark Ages as some of the most brilliant and irreplaceable intellectual works in science, philosophy, and literature were destroyed forever -- in the late Fourfh to early Fifth Century.)

After being taught math and astronomy by her father, she traveled to Athens as a teenager to study at the prerstigious Neoplatonist Academy with Plutarch to round out her higher education.  When Hypatia returned to Alexandria, she joined her father as one of the leading instructors at the Museum and its facilities.  Her knowledge and talent at teaching math, geometry, astronomy, and philosophy drew admiring students from all around the Roman Empire.  She wrote several commentaries on conic sections, quadratic equations, and other mathematical topics which received praise from other mathematicians.  She is also said to have utilized hydrometers and tinkered with other mechanical tools in her studies and in some of her demonstrations of mathematical principles.

It was not long before Hypatia became a woman of influence in intellectual and political circles, moving with ease among public officials and royalty as well as students and philosophers.  Unfortunately, her intellectual brilliance and passion for free inquiry attracted the ire of the most anti-rational factions of the new religion which had taken over the Empire, and as these forces of intolerance became increasingly powerful in Alexandria, Hypatia became a target of anti-Greek and anti-intellectual zealots.

Prior to her birth, Christianity had already been made the official religion of Rome and in the year 390 became compulsory.  When the infamous Cyril became the Bishop of Alexandria, he set out to destroy pagan (pre-Christian or non-Christian) writings and influence -- especially including Greek schools of thought and learning such as that represented by the still-single daughter of Theon.  An anti-intellectual mob of Egyptian monks, whose hatred of Hypatia was racial as well as religious, became Cyril's worldly tool for implementing his view of God's will on Earth.  This band of Politically Correct religious radicals had already destroyed the Serapeum, a non-Christian temple that contained one of the Museum's important library collections of pagan writings.

One fateful evening (in A.D. 415) Hypatia became the victim of an ugly mob of these frenzied monks, who pulled her from her chariot, dragged her into a church, and then used oyster shells to bludgeon her and tear her body to pieces.  With the same kind of fury and bigoted rage as an ANC mob in South Africa necklacing one of its political enemies, they then quartered her body and burned it in the plaza as an example to others who might dare to think about deviating from the Church or crossing Bishop Cyril.  The message to non-Christians, especially women, was clear.  Independent thought became far too risky and, therefore, far more rare.

Ironically, even though Augustinian Christianity itself had been highly influenced by Neoplatonism (Hypatia's philosophy) in its doctrinal evolution, it had become too intolerant to allow the continued existence of any possible competitor schools of thought or even deviant ("heretical") interpretations of Christianity.  A cold, dark cloud of anti-reason began to move across the Western world, stifling almost all innovative thought in its path.  It was not until a partial rediscovery of Aristotle and other seminal works from ancient Greek and Roman thinkers that Europe and the Western World finally emerged from the Dark Ages into the Renaissance.

Although in many key ways poles apart from the ideas of Aristotle, the original philosopher of logic and sensory evidence (man as "the rational animal"), Neoplatonism was still more rational than the religious fanatics it helped to spawn.  Hypatia herself stands out as a martyr for thinking individuals (male as well as female) and the pursuit of truth in a world undergoing a reactionary revolution against the human mind, free inquiry, invention, discovery, experimentation, and mechanical technology.


Michael Deakin, who lectures in mathematics at Monash University in Melbourne, gave a fascinating glimpse into the life and tragic murder of Hypatia of Alexandria for Okham's Razor, a program on Austrailian radio hosted by Robyn Williams, noted science broadcaster for Radio National.

Women in the Roman World: Hypatia

Web resources on Hypatia of Alexandria ssembed and maintained by Howard A. Landman

The Martyrdom of Hypatia (or The Death of the Classical World) by Mangasar Magurditch Mangasarian


For brief quotations from other heroes of the mind, check out The Dead Economists Society.


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