The Life of Hypatia

Hypatia is considered to be one of the last great thinkers of ancient Alexandria who is primarily remembered for her violent death–a victim of religious fanaticism–but apart from her unfortunate death, her life is incredibly fascinating. She was one of the first women to study astronomy, math and philosophy. Her father Theon–a mathematician and astronomer–was the last known member of the famous library of Alexandria (a library and university that housed almost half a million scrolls).

Her father taught her math and astronomy and there is evidence that she even collaborated with him on various projects. It is believed by most scholars that book III of Theon’s version of Ptolemy’s treatise “Almagest” was the work of Hypatia. It is also thought that she assisted her father in producing a new version of Euclid’s “Elements” which went on to become the basis of all later editions.

In her time, she was the world’s leading mathematician and astronomer–she made profound contributions to the early thought in mathematics such as developing the concepts of hyperbolas, parabolas, and eclipses. Apart from being well educated she was also an educator, specifically, she established herself as an expert in the Neoplatonic school of thought. One of her student named Synesius went on to become a bishop even incorporating Neoplatonism into the doctrine of the trinity.

We know from surviving texts that she would often lecture in the town center to anyone that was willing to hear about Plato or Aristotle. She was well-respected and liked which eventually led to befriending Orestes, the governor of Alexandria. After archbishop Theophilus destroyed the library, he was succeeded by his nephew Cyril in 412. Following in his uncle’s footsteps, he continued the hostility towards non-Christian faiths. Eventually, a conflict began to arise between Cyril (the head of the main religious body) and Orestes over the control of Alexandria.

Orestes refused to cede control to Cyril and attempts at Orestes life were made by monks, but their attempts were unsuccessful. A rumor soon began to spread that Hypatia (it is thought that Cyril spread the rumors but it is debatable)–the easier target–a pagan that openly discussed non-Christian philosophy–was responsible for the strife between Orestes and Cyril. As a result, Peter the Lector led a group of Christian zealots to capture her, drag her into a church, violently beat her to death with roofing tiles, tore her body into pieces and then burned her body parts. Her crime? Her association with Orestes.

Hypatia was said to be a woman of beauty, grace and wisdom. She was way ahead of her time and one can only imagine what other accomplishments she would have made if only her life was not tragically cut short. Her death is often used as a symbol of repression while her life’s work is a symbol of wisdom, learning and science. She was one of the last intellectual giants of her era, but she paved the way for others to stand above her shoulders and see even further. Her life should be celebrated and admired, her accomplishments acknowledged, and her death to be mourned.

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