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Hypatia of Alexandria
Circa A.D. 375 - 415
Who was Hypatia?
In the estimation of some, Hypatia was history’s greatest woman. By all accounts stunningly beautiful, dazzlingly brilliant, yet always modest and kind, in an age when women were but chattel, she was history’s first female mathematician, as well as the first female astronomer, inventor, and natural philosopher.
She was the last keeper of the flame of knowledge in that great Alexandrian University — the Museum — the center of all the world’s learning. As the daughter of the last head professor of the Museum, she practically grew up in the Great Alexandrian Library, where all the world’s knowledge was kept, for in addition to being a child prodigy, she was a voracious reader. Already, by the age of womanhood in those days (i.e., twelve), she was considered to have assimilated the sum total of all significant human knowledge.
Books in those days, before the advent of printing, were in the form of hand-written scrolls, each one a priceless original, and when what was left of the Great Alexandrian Library was burned down by the Christians at the command of Christian emperor Theodosius “The Great” in the year 391, the books were all gone.
But Hypatia’s mind still contained the best of what was lost in the flames, and so, throughout the rest of her life, whenever someone was stumped by a problem, there were no more books to turn to — to see if some brilliant ancient Greek hadn’t already solved it — there was only Hypatia to turn to.
By the time her career as lecturing natural philosopher culminated, she was considered an oracle, and citizens and heads of state streamed in from all over the two empires to consult with her on important matters. Indeed, so great was her renown, that letters from all over the far-flung empires addressed simply “to the Philosopher” would unerringly find their way to her. Her life’s mission was to preserve the ancient knowledge of the brilliant Greeks, and to preserve their tradition of free-thinking rational thought, but the world around her was in upheaval, and the Christians were consolidating their power, turning the mind of man away from reason, to faith.
Hypatia was the last obstacle to the Church’s goal of world domination, and when the Christian mob under Saint Cyril came to make of her history’s greatest martyr for science — in the most gruesome way imaginable — the scholars left Alexandria in disgust, Alexandria ceased to be the world’s center of learning, the Dark Ages descended upon the world, and the mind of man stagnated for a thousand years.
Her life has all the heroic elements of a Greek tragedy, and if this were all that we knew, her place in history would already be assured, as a great tragic soul, standing alone against the coming darkness. But this is not all we know. Recent research suggests that the Christians did not succeed in destroying her life’s works, as was previously believed. Hypatia did not live in vain. It is now believed, by those competent to judge such matters, that the very primers of rational thought, Euclid’s the Elements, Ptolemy’s Almagest, and Diophantus’ Arithmetica have come down to us only through the Hypatian recension — that is, through copies made of Hypatia’s own hand-written notes on these masterpieces.
These books bear the very seed of the ancient Greek genius, and when these books were rediscovered, at the end of the Middle Ages, that seed sprouted and a New Age of secularism and rational thought dawned upon the world, a period in history which we today know as The Renaissance, meaning, quite literally, The Re-Birth — of the Classical Age of Greek wisdom.
Today, we are in effect, the children of the wise and rational Greeks, not of the ignorant superstitious medievals, in large part because Hypatia preserved and disseminated the seed of Greek wisdom. Although that seed lay dormant for a thousand years, eventually it sprouted and bore the fruits which produced the Modern Age, and in the end, the great woman triumphed, after all.
The waning of pagan Roman secular power coïncided precisely with the waxing of Christian theocracy. The pagans who were being stamped out felt that this was no random coïncidence, but that, once in power, Christianity caused the fall of the Roman world which it predicted.
This was also essentially the view of Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) as presented in his monumental work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — a work which has widely been regarded as the greatest historical work in the English language. Rome “fell” when it became a Christian theocracy — when all those in power trembled before the cross, believing that the divinely-decreed end of the world was near. When the Roman Empire “fell,” everyone at the helm was a Christian who felt that it was not this world, but the next, which mattered.
As we have seen, Hypatia’s life mission was simply to preserve the ancient knowledge of the brilliant Greeks, and to preserve their tradition of free-thinking rational thought. Surely, such a pursuit would not be a threat to anyone, you might think. But, surely, you would be wrong. The world in Hypatia’s time was in upheaval, and the Christians were consolidating their power, turning the mind of man away from reason, to faith.
Though she was highly revered in her time, Hypatia was not a Christian, and she stood at the epicenter of momentous earth-shaking events. The non-Christian Greek tradition of free-thinking which Hypatia strove to preserve and disseminate was perceived to be a political threat to the mind-controlling power of the Christian theocrats, and Hypatia came to be regarded as the last obstacle to the Church’s goal of world domination.
Everything not in line with Christian dogma was at the time being systematically eliminated by the Christians in power. First the Christians destroyed the full collection of books of the Great Library of Alexandria (housed in the Serapeum at the time), then they eliminated publicly-funded secular education, by shutting down the Museum for good, and finally the mob of monks under Saint Cyril came for Hypatia herself, and made of her history’s greatest martyr for science and Reason — in the most gruesome way imaginable.
The conflict which was occurring in Alexandria in Hypatia’s time was clearly the conflict between Church and State — a conflict which the Christians correctly assumed would be resolved when the separation between Church and State was removed. When an example was made of Hypatia, no non-Christian dared to challenge the authority of the Church (even in secular matters) and the separation between Church and State crumbled and fell, and the Church ruled the world. The result, of course, was that the mind of man stagnated for a thousand years, for, as history has shown, time and again, Religion stops a thinking mind.
When Hypatia — an eminent and beloved woman renowned for her un-Christian wisdom — was publicly assassinated for standing in the way of Christian political power, this sent a chilling message to anyone who had not yet converted. The prefect Orestes (even though he was baptized a Christian) disappeared after Hypatia's murder and was never heard from again, leaving the Churchmen fully in control of even secular matters, and for the millennium that followed no one ever again dared to say, or write, or even think anything that was not in line with the views of the Churchmen in power.
Hypatia’s assassination was very public, as it was intended to send a message, and this butchery — carried out in a church — evidently achieved its goal, for the scholars fled Alexandria in shock and disgust, Alexandria ceased to be the world’s center of learning, the Dark Ages descended upon the world, and — with the Church finally in control of all — the mind of man stagnated for a thousand years.
Hypatia stood alone between the Age of Classical Greek Wisdom and the Dark Ages, and when she was snuffed out, so was the light of Reason, and the darkness of ignorance fell at last across the world. It was as if she was the very pivot upon which history turned. That is why Hypatia is regarded by some to be history’s greatest woman….
History does not record the year of Hypatia’s birth, and all estimates are nothing more than guesses — guesses which invariably reflect the bias of the person making the guess.
Most estimates — with the notable exception of Maria Dzielska’s — have placed the year of Hypatia’s birth in the range from A.D. 370 to 380. That is to say, most historians before Ms. Dzielska have regarded this to be a plausible range of years for Hypatia’s birth to have fallen in.
In fact, Charles Singer, in his book, A History of Scientific Ideas, specifies with a greater implied precision than any other, the year of Hypatia’s birth. He gives the year of her birth as A.D. 379 — a figure which was adopted for Khan Amore’s Hypatia, for it best suited the needs of his fiction.