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

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Friday, February 13, 2015

Hypatia Part VII: The Aftermath

Continued from Part VI: Murder Most Foul
AND SO, WITH THE MURDER OF HYPATIA, all learning in Alexandria shut down under the aegis of the learning-hating Christian learning haters, and the Dark Age descended, preventing us from reaching Mars because Hypatia was on the verge of discovering the Copernican system. 
Ho ho! TOF jests. Although he never ceases to marvel at the wacky fables modern skeptics will swallow wholesale. Especially when it comes to the history of their bĂȘte noire.  

"At the time of her death," writes one source at a site calling itself RationalWiki, "[Hypatia] was a lonely remnant of a philosophical school¹ that had been heavily persecuted for over 25 years; her death is listed among the events that ended antiquity and began the Dark Ages²."
1. "...a lonely remnant..."  No she wasn't. Her school, the Neoplatonism of Plotinus, was the most popular in Late Antiquity and Early Medieval times. You couldn't toss a rock in the agora of Old Alexandria without beaning a neoplatonic philosopher soundly in the noodle. Far from being persecuted, Neoplatonism was the philosophy of choice of the new civilization -- unfortunately so, in TOF's view, since it was heavily into woo-woo and mysticism. Go, Aristotle!
2. "...ended antiquity..."  Rationalists need a better grasp of historical processes.  Antiquity does not end on a dime.  Peter Brown's The World of Late Antiquity is a good account of the gradual shading over of the ancient world-view into the medieval-byzantine-muslim world-views. The rationalists do not explain how the murder of a math teacher and spirit guide in Alexandria led to the collapse of civil administration and town life in Gaul, Britain, Spain, and North Africa. (However, this second sentence has now been removed from the RationalWiki! The paragraph now ends at "25 years". Hence, the link to the Wayback Machine. TOF could find no record of the removal that the wiki site; so it is a stealth amendment.)

What Happened Afterward

Socrates Scholasticus, writing in Constantinople two or three decades after the murder, tells us that Cyril and the whole Alexandrian church came under opprobrium because of this.  Whose opprobrium?  Well, that of the opposing party of Orestes, for one – and that included most of the better classes in Alexandria.  Outside of Alexandria, there was Antioch, always butting theological heads with Alexandria.  And Constantinople, where Socrates was writing, so probably the imperial court as well.  (The news probably never made it to the Latin West and the Roman Patriarch.  In the aftermath of the Sack-o-Rome, the West had other worries than yet another Alexandrian riot.) 

"Opprobrium" does not mean that Cyril was blamed for planning the murder; only that what Peter and his followers did disgraced the whole Alexandrian church.  Hypatia was popular and important, and these prole 99-percenters had killed her.  Well, that was life in Old Alexandria.  Ask George of Cappadocia or the Christians ambushed around St. Alexander’s church.  Socrates does not say that Cyril even knew of the murder, although as a Novatian he had motive to blame the Orthodox¹ bishop.  But the buck stops here.  Cyril was supposed to be in charge, and whether by word or deed, he helped create a climate in the City that turned it into a tinder box.  But then so did Orestes.  Not that that was hard to do on the mean streets of old Alexandria. 

Damascius does blame Cyril, at least by strong implication.  He goes on to tell us  
The Emperor was angry, and he would have avenged her had not Aedesius been bribed.  Thus the Emperor remitted the punishment onto his own head and family, for his descendant paid the price.  The memory of these events is still vivid among the Alexandrians.”  
Damascius had been in Alexandria, studying philosophy under Ammonius about two generations after the events.  Aedesius, a friend of Hypatia’s student, Synesius, may or may not have been bribed.  Theodosius Jr. may have taken the formal responsibility simply to break the escalating cycle of violence.  That was a common imperial practice.  The earlier Theodosius had done so after the pagan riots and murders in the Serapeum affair, when he granted the killers amnesty. 

John of Nikiu is not thinking “blame” but “credit.”  Yet he does not say that Cyril was responsible, only that the people hailed him afterward.  These were surely the people of the Lower City, not the Upper City. 

It is likely that no one planned the murder.  Moderns find it difficult to believe that such things can happen unless someone official plans it and gives the order.  But in the tinderbox atmosphere of Old Alexandria, spontaneous combustion was all too likely.  
1. Orthodox. Most moderns cite this as an example of Catholic intolerance. ("How exactly is her death not a perfect example of Catholic (read: Christian) intolerance?" asks a contributor to RationalWiki.) It would be more accurate to specify the Orthodox Church, or even the Coptic Church, which regards Cyril with especial devotion. But this is largely because skeptics, being intellectual descendants of protesting fundamentalism, are mostly unaware of the non-Roman Catholic churches.

What Happened to Everyone Else

Orestes.  Nothing more is heard about him in the Ecclesiastical Histories, and other sources are scanty.  Did he resign and leave town in fear of his life?  But terms of office were usually short anyway.  No one was allowed to run wealthy Egypt for very long.  Orestes may have simply have served out his office and nothing else newsworthy happened in that time.  One thing we do know is that the city council cut down the number of parabolani and shifted them from the patriarch’s control to the prefect’s control.  This shift of authority may be one indication of the opprobrium Cyril came under.  After a few years, a diminished parabolani will be returned to the Patriarch.

Cyril I, Patriarch of Alexandria
Pope Cyril appears to have learned prudence and restraint.  A little.  There are no more disturbances in Alexandria during his tenure.  As a young hothead, Cyril had been excommunicated by the Pope of Rome for his role in deposing St. John Chrysostom from the See of Constantinople, and Synesius had scolded him over his impetuosity [cf. Letter 12].  His spiritual mentor, Isidore, had also urged him to greater prudence.  As Cyril matures in office, he becomes a skilled theologian and argues the case for orthodoxy against Nestorius.  He runs the Council of Ephesus, but his intemperance leads him to convene the council before the delegates from Rome and Antioch have arrived, resulting in charges that he was railroading Nestorius.  Consequently, much of the Patriarchate of Antioch-and-All-Asia eventually goes over to Nestorianism and becomes the Assyrian Church and its various relatives.  Had the council been better managed, who knows?  The usual practice had been to find a middle course, a compromise formula suitable to both parties.  Cyril’s own writings are so much opposite to the Nestorian heresy that they later form the basis of the Monophysite heresy!  The irony is that Nestorius himself denied that he was a Nestorian, and the whole hoo-hoo may have been just a debate over Greek grammar.... The same goes for Monophysitism and the Oriental Orthodox churches.

Alexandria keeps up her traditions. 

AD 422.  An Alexandrian mob riots and kills the prefect Callistus.  Who knows why? 

AD 430.  Augustine of Hippo dies while the Vandals are outside the gates of Carthage.  The collapse of the West is nearly final. 

AD 457.  Alexandrian Pope Proterius is killed by Monophysites.  Evagrius Scholasticus writes of this incident:

Proterius is appointed to the see of Alexandria by a general vote of the synod. On his taking possession of his see, a very great and intolerable tumult arose among the people, who were roused into a storm against conflicting opinions; for some, as is likely in such cases, desired the restoration of Dioscorus, while others resolutely upheld Proterius, so as to give rise to many irremediable mischiefs.  Thus Priscus, the rhetorician, recounts, that he arrived at Alexandria from the Thebaid, and that he saw the populace advancing in a mass against the magistrates: that when the troops attempted to repress the tumult, they proceeded to assail them with stones, and put them [the troops] to flight, and on their taking refuge in the old temple of Serapis, carried the place by assault, and committed them alive to the flames: that the emperor, when informed of these events, dispatched two thousand newly levied troops, who made so favorable a passage, as to reach Alexandria on the sixth day; and that thence resulted still more alarming consequences, from the license of the soldiery towards the wives and daughters of the Alexandrians: that, subsequently, the people, being assembled in the hippodrome, entreated Floras, who was the military commandant, as well as the civil governor, with such urgency as to procure terms for themselves, in the distribution of provisions, of which he had deprived them, as well as the privileges of the baths and spectacles, and all others from which, on account of their turbulence, they had been debarred: that, at his suggestion, Floras presented himself to the people, and pledged himself to that effect, and by this means stopped the sedition for a time. (Ecclesiastical History, Book 2 ch. V)

Nice to see the old Serapeum was still around sixty-seven years after it was destroyed, and still serving its old function as refuge.  The Dioscorus mentioned above is invoked in the canon of the Coptic Mass, a sign that Alexandria is in communion with neither Constantinople nor Rome.  Somewhat later, we find:

while Proterius, beloved of God, was occupying, as usual, the episcopal residence, Timotheus, taking with him the two bishops who had been justly deposed, and the clergy who, as we have said, were condemned to banishment with them, as if he had received rightful ordination at the hands of the two, though not one of the orthodox bishops of the whole Egyptian diocese was present, as is customary on occasion of the ordinations of the bishop of the church of Alexandria—he possesses himself, as he presumed, of the archiepiscopal see, though manifestly guilty of an adulterous outrage on the church, as already having her rightful spouse in one who was performing the divine offices in her, and canonically occupied his proper throne." And further on: "The blessed man could do nothing else than give place to wrath, according to what is written, and take refuge in the venerable baptistery from the assault of those who were pursuing him to death, a place which especially inspires awe even into barbarians and savages, though ignorant of its dignity, and the grace which flows from it. Notwithstanding, however, those who were eager to carry into execution the design which Timotheus had from the first conceived, and who could not endure that his life should be protected by those undefiled precincts, neither reverenced the dignity of the place, nor yet the season (for it was the solemnity of the saving paschal feast), nor were awe-struck at the priestly office which mediates between God and man; but put the blameless man to death, cruelly butchering him with six others. They then drew forth his body, covered with wounds, and having dragged it in horrid procession with unfeeling mockery through almost every part of the city, ruthlessly loaded the senseless corpse with indignity, so far as to tear it limb from limb, and not even abstain from tasting, like beasts of prey, the flesh of him whom but just before they were supposed to have as a mediator between God and man. They then committed what remained of the body to the flames, and scattered the ashes to the winds, exceeding the utmost ferocity of wild beasts. Of all these transactions Timotheus was the guilty cause, and the skilful builder of the scheme of mischief.  (Ecclesiastical History Book 2 ch. VIII)

We sense a common theme in the pagan murder of George the Arian bishop, the Orthodox murder of Hypatia the Neoplatonist spirit guide, and the Monophysite murder of Proterius the Orthodox bishop. It’s like they have an official procedure for lynching.Maybe Hesychius of Miletus was right when he wrote that "others blame the Alexandrians' innate ferocity and violent tendencies."

The Continuity of Intellectual Life.   

Amateurs like Carl Sagan and others, following Gibbon, contend that events like the demolition of the Serapeum and the murder of Hypatia marked the end of intellectual life in Alexandria.  It is as if they believe there was only one library and only one philosopher in the whole City.  (That’s assuming contrary to the evidence that there actually were books in the Serapeum at the time the cult objects were destroyed.  The buildings themselves were apparently still there in AD 457.)  Furthermore, the Alexandrian mob showed clear impartiality in whom it turned its sights on: we find pagans killing Christians, Jews killing Christians, Christians driving Jews out of town, Christians killing a Neoplatonist philosopher, one faction of Christians killing the bishop of another faction.  In the Mean Streets of Old Alexandria, anyone could play the Game of Blood.  As one author writes: “In Alexandria it was dangerous to have an opinion – any opinion.”  The world had not yet been civilized even to the extent it is today.  The Christians had one disadvantage that was also their advantage: their own religion told them they had done horrible things.  To the pagans, killing your enemies was all in a day’s work. 

Despite all this, life went on, and the truly amazing thing is that for most of the time the “tribes of Alexandria” lived side-by-side in peaceful disagreement. (Dzielska)

Despite the modern myth, none of the violence had been directed against learning, per se.  For the most part, it concerned power, and to a lesser extent the fading of paganism.  The schools of philosophy continued to meet, and as was the Alexandrian custom, were not segregated into Christian and pagan.  It will not be until the Revolt of Illus (AD 484-488), when Illus allied himself with the pagan Pamprepius against the Emperor Zeno (and may have promised Pamprepius that pagan practice would be tolerated), that there was any large-scale repression of the pagan community of Alexandria. And even that is more political -- treason, rebellion, etc.

In the generation after Hypatia, the female philosopher Aedesia was prominent in Alexandria, and suffered no harm because of her sex, her philosophy, or her paganism.  But then she did not get involved in Alexandrian politics, either.  She took her sons to Athens to study under Proclus, but returned with them to Alexandria about AD 475 when her son Ammonius took his father’s chair.  The young Damascius was a student of Ammonius and eulogized Aedesia, although he later went with Isidore and despised Ammonius.  Another of Ammonius’ pupils was the Christian John Philoponus. Another was Simplicius, whose name would be later co-opted by Galileo for his Dialogue.

Thus, far from ending in AD 416, Alexandrian math, philosophy, astronomy attained a zenith in the late 400s and early 500s.  Hierocles, Ammonius, Damascius, Simplicius, Asclepius, Olympiodorus, Elias, and John Philoponus were all active.  Ammonius kick-started the Aristotelian tradition in Alexandria [hooray], and philosophy began to move away from Platonic woo-woo towards a more sensible Aristotelian empiricism.  John Philoponus, in particular, began to question Aristotle’s Physics and conducted Galileo’s experiment rolling balls down inclined planes.  He also developed the theory of impetus, which John Buridan of the Sorbonne would later take to the brink of Newton’s intertial theory.  Alas, Philoponus’ work fell into obscurity.  Seventy years after his death, a muslim army invaded Egypt and Alexandria ceased to be a center of learning and philosophy and (after the foundation of Cairo) a center of anything.¹
1. center of anything. The Egyptians (Copts) has originally welcomed the Arabs, whom they regarded as rescuers from the oppression of their Greek Orthodox (Melkite) rulers. However, when the dhimmi tax began forcing them to sell their children into slavery, they rose up in revolt. The Arabs put them down vigorously, and then built Cairo to deliberately take traffic and trade from the obstreperous city.

Hypatia as moderns would like to
imagine her. She herself would have
been appalled as such a portrayal
The contemporary account makes clear that the issue in Hypatia’s murder was politics – not feminism, not paganism, not Hellenism, and not science or astronomy.  She was killed because she chose up sides in the blood sport of Alexandrian politics and, in the particular instance, both sides were orthodox Christians.  Because of this, some scholars think Hypatia herself was a Christian.  No one but John of Nikiu comes out and calls her a pagan.  Synesius does not.  Most of her known students were Christian, she practiced the Christian virtues, she remained a holy virgin, the mob burned her body after killing her, Neoplatonism was compatible with Christianity and used by the likes of Augustine of Hippo.  It even postulated a triune godhead.  So… 

On the other hand…  If nothing in Synesius’ letters calls her a pagan, neither does he hint that she was his co-religionist.  Damascius hated Christians and would hardly have praised a Christian martyr.  The Christian virtues were known to and practiced by the Neoplatonists – and the Aristotelians.  The Neoplatonists in particular despised the flesh, so perpetual virginity was likely not uncommon.  And if Neoplatonism was compatible with Christianity, it was also compatible with, well, Neoplatonism.  And burning the body may simply have become part of the regular procedure for Alexandrian mobs, and in any case, a public health measure in that climate.

So the consensus remains that she was a Neoplatonic pagan. She was not, however, an Old Time pagan, with all the magic and superstition. 

The single most astonishing thing about Hypatia are the many things that are known about her that are not known. One review of the movie Agora began with the following quote at Skepticblog:
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 cannot get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.
—Hypatia of Alexandria
Apparently a Skepticblogger is one who swallows fables credulously. We know that this is not a quotation from the works of Hypatia for two reasons. First, not a single scrap of Hypatia's works survive (unless it is the version of Euclid that has come down to us). Second, we actually know where the above quote comes from.

It was fabricated by the soap-salesman and eccentric Elbert Hubbard in a 1908 book entitled  Little Journeys to the Homes of the Great Teachers.  Hubbard chose Hypatia as one of his "great teachers" but was "stymied by the awkward fact that we have nothing of Hypatia's writings or teachings, making it a bit hard to present her as 'great'."  He solved this problem by simply making stuff up. (Armarium Magnum)

 Of course, in the Late Modern dispensation, such things are excused as being "true in a higher sense." But they are simply newer versions of the old tendency to see what one wishes in the evidence.

Concludes with Part VIII: The Sources


  1. "You couldn't toss a rock in the agora of Old Alexandria without beaning a neoplatonic philosopher soundly in the noodle."

    And why would you, you science-hating Christian hater of science, be trying to bean with rocks Neoplatonic philosophers who are only loitering peacefully in the agora? You bigoted learning-hating Christian hater of learning!

  2. "You couldn't toss a rock in the agora of Old Alexandria without beaning a neoplatonic philosopher soundly in the noodle."

    And why would you, you science-hating Christian hater of science, be trying to bean with rocks Neoplatonic philosophers who are only loitering peacefully in the agora? You bigoted learning-hating Christian hater of learning!

  3. Alexandrians probably burned the bodies of people they hated because...Egypt. Remember why they mummified their dead.

  4. In 642 the Library was still there. Gibbon quotes Caliph Omar:

    "If these writings of the Greeks agree with the book of Allah they are useless and need not be preserved: if they disagree, they are pernicious and should be destroyed."

    So the muslims committed the scrolls of the Library of Alexandria to the flames. What knowledge has gone from the world as a result?

    While some discount Gibbon in this, my reading is he was fairly well inclined towards the Mahometans, as he called them. He was more caustic about the various shenanigans of the early Church. So it seems likely the event took place.

    1. If you read further down the same page, you will observe that Gibbon himself doubts that any such incident took place. The ‘tell’ is that according to the legend, the papyri of the Library were distributed to the city’s baths to be used as fuel, and it took six months to burn them. Gibbon rightly recognizes that this is an impossibility (‘the conflagration would have speedily expired in the deficiency of materials’), and adds furthermore what every informed commentator on this subject knows: ‘But if we gradually descend from the age of the Antonines to that of Theodosius, we shall learn from a chain of co-temporary witnesses, that the royal palace and the temple of Serapis no longer contained the four, or the seven hundred thousand volumes, which had been assembled by the curiosity and magnificence of the Ptolemies.’

      In other words, Gibbon knew perfectly well that Ammianus said fuerunt, and that the Great Library had long ceased to exist before 642.

      I leave this comment at this late date because, while Gibbon was tendentious and frequently bigoted, at least he was not a booby, and he ought to be absolved of the accusation that he was ignorant of such elementary facts.

    2. Ammianus was writing of the Temple of Serapis, not the Royal Book-Chests in the Temple of the Muses.

      If he did know this as you said, he could have come right out and said it, instead of burying the lede.


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