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Philosopher of the month: Hypatia

This July, the OUP Philosophy team honours Hypatia (c. 355—415)  as their Philosopher of the Month. An astronomer, mathematician, philosopher, and active public figure, Hypatia played a leading role in Alexandrian civic affairs. Her public lectures were popular, and her technical contributions to geometry, astronomy, number theory, and philosophy made Hypatia a highly regarded teacher and scholar. She was at one time the world’s foremost mathematician.

Hypatia was the daughter of the mathematician Theon, and taught both mathematics and philosophy in what was then the Greek city of Alexandria. She was widely acclaimed during her lifetime, and achieved recognition in several fields of mathematics including algebra, geometry, and astronomy. It is known that she wrote commentaries on the Conics of Apollonius of Perga, an early work of higher geometry, and the Arithmetic of Diophantus, treating what today would be called number theory. In astronomy, she published a table of some sort—opinions differ on its precise nature—and collaborated in the design of an astrolabe.

Her philosophy is known to have been Neoplatonist. This somewhat imprecise term covers many variant doctrines, but all derive from Plato’s theory of forms and endow it with a religious dimension. Neoplatonism aspired to a spiritual world and saw material reality as a poor shadow of that world. In the context of fourth- and fifth-century Alexandria, where the prevailing religion was by then Christianity, it was seen as a form of paganism.

Hypatia’s Neoplatonism led her to a life dedicated to the service of knowledge and learning, with mathematics being an important key to the life of higher contemplation. Neoplatonism envisages the use of abstraction from individual instances to the Platonic forms (such as truth, beauty, etc.). Further abstraction leads the adept to the One, an underlying principle of all nature. Mathematics thus held a special place for many Neoplatonists. Hypatia’s technical mathematical activity is best seen as a continuation of that of her father, who was concerned with conserving the classic works of Ptolemy and Euclid. Hypatia collaborated with him in his work on Ptolemy but also sought to extend the program by producing commentaries on the subsequent work of Apollonius and Diophantus.

Hypatia_portrait
Portrait of Hypatia by Jules Maurice Gaspard. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

A respected, charismatic teacher beloved of her pupils, Hypatia taught the intricacies of technical mathematics and astronomy to her students—among them Synesius of Cyrene, whose letters to Hypatia inform our knowledge of her today. Unlike other professors, Hypatia was not content to live quietly, doing her research and teaching her classes. Instead she chose to play an active role in Alexandrian public life, undergoing administrative and political training, and establishing relationships in the government of Alexandria and beyond.

Prior to Hypatia’s death, Alexandria was shaken by a series of civic disturbances involving three principal groups: Christians, pagans, and Jews. The city was beset by interfactional rivalry among them, and this rivalry often took violent form. The Christians of the time were headed by their archbishop, Cyril (St. Cyril of Alexandria), a towering intellectual figure but a man of violent and quarrelsome personal disposition. Cyril was certainly fully involved in earlier episodes of civil disorder, especially an attempt to expel the Jews from the city. What part, if any, he played in Hypatia’s murder has been hotly but quite inconclusively debated.

Today, Hypatia remains a widely accepted feminist symbol, and has inspired countless works of literature, visual art, and film.

Featured image: aerial photo of the Nile River Delta. Public domain via Pixabay.

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