Would Hypatia of Alexandria, a brilliant mathematician, and philosopher-scientist, be celebrated if she were alive today?
The sad truth is I’m not so sure.
Hypatia’s brilliance might well be lost all over again when you consider what writer Yara Zgheib shared in Hypatia of Alexandria, A Woman in a Man’s World. As a teacher of philosophy, science, and religion, Hypatia didn’t discriminate among her students but believed they should aspire to a higher purpose by mastering their moral virtues.
Rachel Weisz in the movie, Agora (Photo credit: Digitaljournal.com)
Records from Hypatia’s existence in the late 4th century and early 5th century A.D., indicate that both Christians and pagans alike were enthralled with Hypatia’s very public and spiritual teachings. But the political tide turned in the City of Alexandria when a new Bishop named Cyril took control. A power struggle ensued, pitting political and religious ideologies and tensions escalated.
Jews and Christians distrusted one another and this was manipulated for political gain. Pagan believers came under attack for their beliefs which differed from Cyril’s, and fighting broke out after 414 A.D. Suddenly, Hypatia’s teachings were in question as was her political influence as the member of the elite ruling class. Hypatia carried an important voice that may have made her a political target. Brutally beaten to death by an angry mob, Hypatia’s accomplishments faded from the spotlight.
Perhaps it was Hypatia’s gender and not her horrific death that explains why she seems to be forgotten in history.
Scholars continue to debate the circumstances of her death but one thing is sure: Hypatia was labeled a witch. Like many powerful women in history, Hypatia was silenced even though she was anything but a pagan or a witch. Her teachings clearly demonstrate how she embraced the notion of a unifying central being and science and learning were paths to enlightenment.
The admirable quality that makes Hypatia heroic is her singular refusal to be swayed by religious zealots or politicians. In 2010, when writer Jennifer Vineyard interviewed Rachel Weisz who played Hypatia in a then newly released movie Agora, Jennifer asked Rachel why we should remember Hypatia.
In Jennifer’s Ms. Blog article, Rachel argued that too many of the world’s most brilliant women in history have gone unrecognized when they think, say and act according to their own conscience.
This holds water when you consider the story of Malala Yousafzai. Now one of the most famous education advocates for women and girls, Malala will tell you her violent attack on a bus in Pakistan in 2012 supports Rachel’s assertion. Malala was brutally shot by a Taliban gunman while riding in a school bus. Her crime? She had the audacity to believe women and girls deserved to be treated equally and had a right to an education. What’s worse, Malala wrote about it.
Circling back, I do believe all is not lost and positive signs suggest Hypatia might stand a chance in our world. On the one hand, increasingly nationalistic political interests have made it difficult for all men and women to think for themselves. We live in an age where going to the left or the right on any issue can draw quick condemnation and intolerance. It’s unfortunate. Diverse thought and ideas are drivers of progress.
On the other hand, women are collectively joining hands and demanding change. Young Malala has become influential in the global fight to eradicate violence against women. Tomorrow’s WomanScape article points to Donna Strickand, the third woman to become a Nobel Physics laureate.
In the end, protecting religious and political freedoms might foster room for new Hypatias of the world, if we can hold our breath long enough to push aside our anger or disagreement to see our way past the dark ages.