A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

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Friday, February 13, 2015

Hypatia Part IV: The Teachings of Hypatia

Continued from Part III: The Deconstruction of the Serapeum

AD 392-395.  SYNESIUS AND HIS FRIENDS study with Hypatia.  Synesius’ oldest surviving letter is dated to AD 394, two years after the riot and the consequent imperial edict. 

So what did Hypatia teach?  Shh.  It’s a secret.  No, seriously.  It is.  Synesius and the inner circle were privy to it, but not the vulgar masses, not even those who attended the public lectures.  It was hermetic knowledge, to be sealed away from dreary proles who could not possibly understand it.  "It is an old tradition, I think," Synesius writes, "and quite in the manner of Plato, to conceal the profound thoughts of philosophy behind the mask of some lighter treatment, that thereby whatsoever has been acquired with difficulty shall not be again lost to men, nor shall such matters be contaminated by lying exposed to the approach of the profane." (Synesius, On dreams, pref.)

In several letters, Synesius urges his fellow students to maintain secrecy regarding what they had learned in the private sessions with their “spirit guide.”  He later remonstrates with his BFF, Herculian:
You have not kept your promise, my dear friend, the promise which you made that you would not reveal those things which ought to remain hidden. I have just listened to people who have come from you. They remembered some of your expressions, and they begged me to reveal the meaning of them. But according to my custom I did not pretend to them that I understood the writings in question, nor did I say that I knew them.

You no longer need any warning from me, my dear Herculian, for it would not be enough to convince you.  Rather look up the letter which Lysis the Pythagorean addressed to Hipparchus, and when you have found it, oblige me by reading it frequently.  Perhaps you will then experience a complete change of mind in regard to your uncalled-for revelation.  "To explain philosophy to the mob," as Lysis says in his somewhat Dorian dialect, "is only to awaken amongst men a great contempt for things divine."  How often have I met, time and time again, people who, because they had rashly listened to some stately little phrases, refused to believe themselves the laymen that they really were!  (Letter 143)
Plotinus: "a soul trapped in a
material body"
BUT WE CAN GET SOME NOTION of Hypatia’s teaching.  She “succeeded to the school of Plotinus” (Socrates Scholasticus, VII:15) and we have Plotinus’ student Porphyry, who wrote up his master’s teachings.  We can assume that she taught what Porphyry says that Plotinus taught.¹ And Synesius’ letters and books informs us what he learned.
1. What Plotinus taught. Plotinus never took a bath -- the body was icky matter and so of no account to be bothered with -- so he was perhaps not in good odor. We may hope that Hypatia did not follow this precept.

Modern myths to the contrary, it was not science.  Hypatia did not study physics, did not prepare and test hypotheses about the natural world, or conduct experiments.  She did even not teach “astronomy” as we conceive it today: viz., as a study of the natural world.  Like all Neoplatonists, she held the natural world in contempt.  Plotinus' Neoplatonic philosophy included “divine geometry” because contemplation of the pure Platonic forms of mathematics led the mind closer to God.  She taught astrology (and perhaps other forms of divination) as a means of discerning the will of God.  (Astronomy was not the study of stars and planets as physical objects; it was a specialized branch of geometry applied to divination and calendar-making.)  And Mathematics, Synesius tells us, “opens the way to ineffable theology.”

So when John of Nikiu wrote two centuries later that “Hypatia… was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music,”¹ it did not fall as ludicrously on the ears as it does today.  Music was likewise a branch of mathematics. Its ratios and harmonies brought one closer to God, and could be used to induce trance-like states.  This was not the primitive theurgy of Old Time Paganism but a sort of higher level “scientific magic” of divination.  Hypatia's father, Theon, had practiced theurgy: the rites, magicks, and sacrifices of the old paganism, but there is no evidence in Synesius’ correspondence that Hypatia did.  The distinction may have been lost on "the 99%."

Hypatia wrote commentaries on Diophantus's Arithmetica, on Apollonius's Conics and on Ptolemy's astronomical works, and helped her father prepare a new edition of Euclid’s Geometry.²  But we have only the titles, not the works themselves, unless the version of Euclid we have today is the one she prepared with her father.  However, “writing a commentary” is what today we would call “writing a student’s guide” to a more difficult text.  It would not be fair to say she wrote Diophantus for Dummies, but neither is she said to have done anything original in mathematics.  Remember, her central interest was in Neoplatonist philosophy, not in math.  Math was simply a means of lifting the mind out of the crass physical and toward the divine.
1.  devoted at all times to magic. cf. John of Nikiu, Chronicle 84.87-103
2. Diophantus, et al. The titles reported in John Malalas, Chronographia.

Hypatia left no philosophical writings.  (Neither did Plotinus.  His student Porphyry wrote up his class notes only when Plotinus himself was near death.)  This has had the odd effect of making Hypatia better known to us as a mere mathematician than as a philosopher.  Her mathematical works were still known in the sixth century.  Yet among mathematicians of Late Antiquity, her father had the bigger rep.  It was as a philosopher that she inspired others as their “spirit guide.”¹

She was famous for her cultivation of justice and sophrosyne.  The Greek term is translated as “balance” or “self-control” or perhaps “keeping your cool.”  It includes such notions as prudence, temperance, or self-restraint, and that the Will must be ruled by the Intellect.  So basically, she was famous for practicing the Christian virtues of the intellect and will.  She also believed in chastity – she remained a holy virgin all her life.  Heck, she may as well have been a nun.

Neoplatonism was curiously congruent with Christianity.  Plotinus taught that God has three hypostases: the One, the Intellect, and the Soul, so we may suppose Hypatia also taught a triune God.  Augustine, out in the West, was using Neoplatonisam to explicate Christian theology.² She certainly had more in common with today’s traditionalist Christians than with the post-Nietzschean triumph-of-the-will-over-the-intellect, where self-indulgence is the norm and no material thirst goes unslaked.  If she was not herself a Christian, she was much more like a Christian than any of those moderns who celebrate her for various mistaken reasons.  There is a great deal of irony here.
1. Terms like "spirit guide" lead one's thoughts irresistibly to seances.
2. using Neoplatonism. Which makes the modern myth that she was killed because of her teachings ludicrous.

Where Neoplatonism and Christianity did diverge was in the Neoplatonic contempt for the material world.  Plotinus, we are told, was "ashamed of being in the body." Christians were more likely to regard the world favorably because they believed that “God so loved the world” and “saw that it was good.”  Hypatia’s attitude is revealed in a story told by Damascius.
 She was so beautiful and shapely that one of her students fell in love with her and was unable to control himself and openly showed her a sign of his infatuation. Uninformed reports had Hypatia curing him of his affliction with the help of music. The truth is that the story about music is corrupt. Actually, she gathered rags that had been stained during her period and showed them to him as a sign of her unclean descent and said, "This is what you love, young man, and it isn't beautiful!" He was so affected by shame and amazement at the ugly sight that he experienced a change of heart and went away a better man.
(Damascius, Life of Isidore, excerpted in the Suda Lexicon)
Damascius, who followed the Neoplatonism of Iamblichus, belittled Hypatia, who “succeeded to the school of Plotinus.” He wrote that Hypatia would don the philosopher’s cloak [tribon] and “walk through the middle of town [exegeito deimosia] and publicly interpret Plato, Aristotle, or the works of any other philosopher to those who wished to hear her.”  The Cynic philosophers, who hung around the marketplace yacking philosophy with passers-by, were held in low esteem by the pros.

Why the dig?  Professional jealousy?  Hypatia’s student Synesius compared Athens unfavorable to Alexandria. Athens was now famous now only for her beekeepers. (Letter 136).  Damascius, who will have headed an Academy in Athens, may have taken offense.  Athens was so yesterday.

A kinder interpretation is that two different sentences have been mashed together by a copyist.  The first part about walking through town may refer to her public prominence; the part about teaching philosophy to all comers may refer to her public lectures.

Learned Women of Late Antiquity.  Hypatia was by no means unique.  This was a period of several well-known woman philosophers.
  • Gemina had been a student of the divine Plotinus himself.
  • So were Amphiclea and Marcella, the wife of Porphyry.
  • Sosipatra of Pergamon was the most original and influential woman in philosophy.  She lived in the early fourth century, maybe two or three generations before Hypatia.  Eunapius included her in his Lives of the Philosophers.  She had been initiated in the Chaldean mysteries and had the power of divination and communication with divine beings.
  • The daughter of Olympiodorus taught in Alexandria;
  • as did the renowned Aedesia in the generation after Hypatia.
  • Other learned and public women included St. Theodora, St. Eugenia, and St. Maria the Egyptian, as well as another Hypatia who lived a generation after the philosopher.
  • Most of all, St. Catherine of Alexandria, the city’s iconic martyr, was famed for her learning, and is depicted in her Acta as confounding philosophers brought in to refute her.

Now some of these were what we call today “cougars” – older women with a socially acceptable way to meet studs – or even just eager to get out of the house.  But some – esp. Sosipatra, Hypatia, and Aedesia – were the true quill.  To put it another way: there was nothing unusual in Late Antiquity about learned women, both pagan and Christian, in the public square.

Continued in Part V: The Great Oresto-Cyrillic Flame War


  1. Damascius, Life of Isidore, excerpted in the Suda Lexicon
  2. John of Nikiu, Chronicle 84.87-103
  3. Porphyry, Life of Plotinus
  4. Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiatical History, VII:15
  5. Synesius, On dreams.
  6. Synesius, Letters.

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