Thursday, March 29, 2012

Agora, the Gift that Keeps on Giving

Catching up on tabs. 

A schlock movie
A scholarly source,
albeit secondary
Over at Armarium Magnum, an atheist blogger yclept Tim O'Neill, who often takes his fellow atheists to task for being, well, stupid and ignorant about history, returns to the movie Agora

Agora was a movie that purported to tell the life and death of Hypatia of Alexandria, and which hit all the expected tropes.  As Marie Dzielka pointed out in her seminal book (entitled, appropriately enough, Hypatia of Alexandria), the poor Neoplatonic philosopher has been roped in as a Symbol for whichever hobby horse the current age was riding.  To Gibbon's generation, she symbolized Classicism and the fine old Greco-Roman civilization.  To 19th centurians like Draper and White, she symbolized Science (vs. Religion).  More recently, she has symbolized Woman (hear her roar).  In each mythos, Hypatia was killed because she was a pagan, because she was a "scientist" [sic], or because she was a woman.  Better yet, because she was a scientific pagan woman! 
Now, anyone who confuses Neoplatonic philosophy with modern science is not playing with a full deck to begin with, but we have a contemporary source that tells us exactly why she was killed! 

Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed.

She chose up sides in the deadly game of Alexandrian politics and was offed in a tit-for-tat for the killing of a partisan of the other side -- and because she was believed, rightly or wrongly, to be actively preventing a reconciliation between the two principles, Orestes the prefect and Cyril the bishop.  In Alexandria, it was dangerous to have an opinion, any opinion; and there are accounts of mob violence of pagans against Christians, Jews against Christians, even Christians against Christians, as well as pagans against Jews, Christians against pagans, and Christians against Jews.  It was a game anyone could play.  In particular, dragging them through the street, dismembering them, burning them to ashes, and scattering the ashes was a frequent SOP.  That neither paganism, feminism, nor Neoplatonic philosophy figured in Hypatia's lynching is evidenced not only by the silence of the sources (for whom none of our modern categories meant anything) but by the presence of Adesia, a pagan woman Neoplatonist philosopher who held forth unmolested in Alexandria in the very next generation. 

We also know from the letters of Hypatia's student, the later bishop Synesius, the gist of her teachings, and they were not Copernican astronomy or anything else that the movie proposes.  She did not study astronomy as a physical science, but as a mathematical system that by its elegance and perfection brought her closer to God. 

The game of quoits,
apropos of nothing
Mr. O'Neill takes to task one Donald Prothero, a blogger at Skepticblog who has written a glowing review of the film, entitled "Hypatia, Agora and Religion vs Science".   Mr. Prothero is a geologist, who teaches at Occidental College.  As such he is undoubtably reliable as regards rock strata and the best place to drill for oil.  But wearing a white lab coat does not necessarily confer expertise in barbecuing, the game of quoits, or Late Imperial history, which latter point he proceeds to demonstrate. 

Mr. Prothero makes a number of embarrassing blunders, which Mr. O'Neill obligingly points out.  Read his commentary, linked above.  But one or two items stand out as worthy of further remark. 

In one of his own comments, Mr. Prothero refers to the "scholarly sources" he consulted in writing his review; but nowhere does he mention what those sources were.  Were a creationist to post nonsense about rock strata as evidence of the Flood and cited anonymous "scholarly sources", would Mr. Prothero regard that as sufficient?  But wait, there's more. 

Later, in response to a comment that Agora took liberties with history, Mr. Prothero wrote that "so little is known about 'facts' back in 400 AD that scholars have very little that is well documented and non-controversial."  (Presumably, "facts" differ in some manner from facts.) 

So if very little was known, what were the "scholarly sources" that Mr. Prothero consulted?  Apparently, when little is known, you can make stuff up, then wear a white lab coat and pronounce it good.  Either that or the self-contradiction of consulting sources that are not well documented is common practice on skeptic blogs. 

There is passing mention of libraries and the burning of books, an event featured in the movie as dark-skinned, lower-class Christians swarm over the Serapeum, overwhelming its light-skinned, upper-class defenders.  Here's the joke: the deconstruction of the Serapeum is one of the best-documented events of that era!  Mr. O'Neill tells us that there are no less than five separate independent accounts of it, and none of them mention any library or any destruction of books, not Eunapius, a hostile, anti-Christian pagan. 

One senses the utter credulity, the blind faith at work among skeptics.  They have heard a story that reaffirms them in their beliefs and therefore accept that story without question.  One commenter said that the movie made him "proud to be a freethinker."  That's what it's all about: feeling good about yourself.  But I am reminded of the adage: "Freethinking!  You get what you pay for."  It never occurs to them to turn their skepticism on their own myths.  There will be no Abelard among the skeptics, no Aquinas.  As Thucydides noted:
[T]he usual thing among men is that when they want something they will, without any reflection, leave that to hope, while they will employ the full force of reason in rejecting what they find unpalatable. 
-- History of the Pelopponesian War IV, 108
Mr. O'Neill kindly references my own sequence on Hypatia, which was based on Ms. Dzielkas' book and on various primary sources located on the web.  You can find the on-line sources linked here if you scroll down. 


  1. A little knowledge is better than none, yet too little knowledge is not.

  2. With the exception of one sentence, this was a very well-wrtieen post that I enjoyed greatly.

    It never occurs to them to turn their skepticism on their own myths.

    I agree this describes many individual skeptics, and probably the occasional blog/forum. However, it is hardly a characeristic of the skeptical community as a whole. I have only participated in five forums overs the years, but in all of them prominent members that reminded us skeptics are as prone to confirmation bias as anyone else, and whenever something reads exactly like we think it should, that's the time to dig deeper and see what you're missing. Very few things look exactly like you think they should.

  3. One commenter said that the movie made him "proud to be a freethinker." That's what it's all about: feeling good about yourself.

    That does seem to be the whole point, doesn't it? Which brings to mind something else: rather than calling things like Agora "myths", a more accurate term might be "war propaganda."

    Both religious fundamentalists and neo-atheists who lap up this stuff often characterize themselves as being in a "war" with each other. The former group may talk about a "war on creationism/intelligent design", while the latter group will talk about a "war on reason/science."

    Agora (along with the whole "Conflict Thesis") is important for the latter group in boosting morale in their war in defense of Science and Reason. It doesn't matter if the propaganda is accurate or true; all that matters is that it inspires them to "keep up the fight."

    That commenter is simply admitting that the propaganda has worked (he is "proud"), and is thus rejuvenated to keep on fighting against his enemies.

  4. There will be no Abelard among the skeptics, no Aquinas.

    Sure there is! Lots of 'em! Mr. Wright comes to mind....

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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