Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Philosopher of Alexandria

Hypatia (355?370-415 CE)

Why Hypatia? The answer is simply because I wanted to know what her philosophy was. Nobody can convincingly deny that women have a different perspective than men, and so for there to be any philosophy at all it stands to reason that both men and women must contribute to the understanding. As it happens, I had investigated her many years ago after reading a fiction novel based on her life. What I re-discovered was a long-neglected origin of a branch of my own current personal philosophy, such as it is.

History does not have much to share with us about Hypatia. What little history does give us, though, is enough to make us wonder.

The daughter of Theon, a renowned scholar and mathematician, Hypatia was also a mathematician, as well as astronomer, of famous reputation. We know Hypatia wrote evolutionary commentaries on the Arithmetica of Diophantus of Alexandria, on the Conics of Apollonius of Perga, and on the astronomical canon of Ptolemy. Philosophically her specialties were gnosiology, ontology-metaphysics and axiology (aka, insight of life, definition of life, and values of life). Her expertise was undeniable. Many other learned and influential persons sought her out as a teacher. She was so respected that she participated in the governance of Alexandria and the surrounding region as an advisor. Her morality and ethics were exemplary. If we can believe half of what the romanticists have made of her legend, then Hypatia lived the Platonic Life as no other had before her. Regardless of the exaggerations in the fictional accounts of her life, it is definite that she was held in very high regard by a majority of her peer contemporaries.

It is known that she argued for discourse over violence, tolerance over bigotry, secular authority over religious authority. In any age these views will brand a person dangerous to authority, but here against the newly tyrannical Church that was about to plunge Europe into the Dark Ages, her views could not be tolerated. That she was a woman was even more proof of the dangerous devil within her. She was assassinated in the most brutal fashion, very probably at the command of the so-called Saint Cyril I, The Pillar of the Faith. This particular pillar is unable to hold its own weight, and may expose the fundamental flaw of what it attempts to uphold.

Her murder was never investigated. The memory of her has been expunged from almost all historical and scientific texts except Church documents that revile her. We have precious little trustworthy information of her. I find it difficult to believe that a male of her import would have been so thoroughly eradicated from the annals of humankind's achievements. True, some of her scientific work is known, but none of her esoteric philosophical work has yet survived -- not even her letters. However, we do have extensive writing of one of her students, a person named Synesius of Cyrene, the Bishop of Ptolemais. Hypatia was his only teacher, and so we can probably hear an echo of Hypatia in his works. I use the following passages as examples that he never forsook his teacher, and it should be noted that he died before Hypatia came into overt conflict with Cyril and the Church over her profound influence on the citizens of Alexandria and her students from all lands. The first quote is taken from a letter to The Elders upon his appointment as bishop. The second quote is taken from Synesius' address to a council of bishops, and titled "Against Andronicus." The third quote is from a letter to Hypatia. There are a number of other examples such as these in his Letters:

"If I am not forsaken by God, I shall then know that this office of Priesthood is not a decline from the realms of philosophy, but, on the contrary, a step upwards to them."

"I call to witness the God who rules over all, and whose hidden mysteries I have espoused for your sakes, that away from human preoccupations and ambitions I have come alone to Him in many places and at many times. Prostrate and upon my knees, I have in suppliant guise prayed for death rather than the priesthood. For a certain reverence and love for the leisure I had found in philosophy held me to her, in whose behalf I thought I ought to do and say all things."

"I seemed destined to play the part of an echo. Whatever sounds I catch, these I repeat."

There is much to say about Synesius, but this is not about him. I will, however, read all his letters in order to try to catch a glimpse of Hypatia for myself. So far I find Synesius full of wit, insight, honesty and courage. No doubt he learned, at least, to hone these traits at the feet of his teacher.

Below are quotes that some attribute to Hypatia. I must be very wary though, these are without doubt fictional, being brash attempts to vocalize what is perceived to be her teachings. But then, how much of the body of work attributed to Kung Fu-tze is actually his? Very little, if any, but that does not prevent us from accepting them as "his." What is good for man is good for woman in this regard. If these are only accurate as summations of her thought, that is enough reason to study them as hers. However, even if these words are entirely the work of fiction, they still deserve their day in the sun -- and if we must attribute them to someone there is no better choice, I think, than the Philosopher of Alexandria, Hypatia.

"All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final. Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all." (also attributed to Theon speaking to Hypatia)

"Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing. The child-mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after-years relieved of them. In fact, men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth - often more so, since a superstition is so intangible you can not get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable."

"Neo-Platonism is a progressive philosophy, and does not expect to state final conditions to men whose minds are finite. Life is an unfoldment, and the further we travel the more truth we can comprehend. To understand the things that are at our door is the best preparation for understanding those that lie beyond."

"To know but one religion is not to know that one. In fact, superstition consists in this one thing - faith in one religion, to the exclusion of all others."

"To know one philosophy is to know none. They are all comparative, and each serves as a small arc of the circle. A man living in a certain environment, with a certain outlook, describes the things he sees; and out of these, plus what he imagines, is shaped his philosophy of life. If he is repressed, suppressed, frightened, he will not see very much, and what he does see will be out of focus."

"Spiritual strabismus and mental myopia are the results of vicarious peeps at the universe. All formal religions have taught that to look for yourself was bad."

"Had there been no Plato, there would have been no Plotinus (i.e. Hypatia's immediate prototype); although Plotinus surpassed Plato, yet it is plain that Plato, the inspirer of Plotinus and so many more, is the one man whom philosophy cannot spare. Hail, Plato!"

"To rule by fettering the mind through fear of punishment in another world is just as base as to use force."

If these are truly the thoughts of Hypatia, if not the actual words, I can understand why the Church Elders wanted this woman dead.

If only they had failed . . .

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