Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Real Wonder Woman: Hypatia of Alexandria

I was waiting to see this film Agora, based on the life and death of Hypatia of Alexandria, but it never seemed to get a theatrical release. It's also very hard to find on DVD. Why is that? Well, it seems to have kicked up a controversy over its alleged anti-Christian bias and had a hard time finding an American distributor. Why?

Well, Hypatia was horrifically tortured and murdered by a Christian mob at a time when such events were business as usual. That's not a question of any kind of bias, it's simply a fact. Some apologists try to spin her murder as a result of political intrigue, but it's clear to any rational individual her death was a religious crime. Again, simply a fact.

The fact is that the Fifth Century was not a very enlightened time for the Church, especially in Egypt with its marauding monks wiping out what was left of the pagan world. Not only the temples and the statues, but also education, science, medicine, philosophy and the arts, all of which were seen as afronts to God.

To its credit, the Vatican has asked for forgiveness for many of these kinds of abuses in the past. But the lay groups that condemn movies like Agora are usually made of the kinds of people who are secretly nostalgic for heretic-cleansing. And that's where the trouble begins.

Here's an account of her death in the words of an early Church father (John, Bishop of Nikiu), who speaks quite glowingly of the event:
“And thereafter a multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the magistrate -- now this Peter was a perfect believer in all respects in Jesus Christ -- and they proceeded to seek for the pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the prefect through her enchantments. And when they learnt the place where she was, they proceeded to her and found her seated on a chair; and having made her descend they dragged her along till they brought her to the great church, named Caesarion. Now this was in the days of the fast.

And they tore off her clothing and dragged her through the streets of the city till she died. And they carried her to a place named Cinaron, and they burned her body with fire. And all the people surrounded the patriarch Cyril and named him ‘the new Theophilus’; for he had destroyed the last remains of idolatry in the city.”
In fact, a Fifth Century historian recorded that Hypatia's murder took place in a newly-built church, like some psychotic consecration:
(I)t was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her by scraping her skin off with tiles and bits of shell. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them.
As brutal as that sounds, it wasn't unusual at all- it was policy. Not only pagans but Gnostics and other heterodox Christians were treated in a similar fashion as Hypatia from the time of Constantine on. And as was always the case in the ancient world- particularly in the absolute theocracy of the Roman Empire in the Fifth Century, those "political machinations" the apologists point to were religious at their core. Professor Michael Deakins:

This is the background to Hypatia's murder. In the year 412 Archbishop Theophilus died and was succeeded by his nephew Cyril. Although Theophilus had razed the temple of Serapis, he had never, in over 30 years, moved against Hypatia. In part this may very well have been a result of his friendship with Hypatia's influential and adoring pupil, Synesius of Cyrene. Synesius himself died in 413 or thereabouts, and so Hypatia was suddenly left without her powerful protectors.

Cyril, making use of a 500-strong private militia, began to exert his authority in the temporal as well as in the spiritual sphere, and thus he came into conflict with the civil governor, Orestes, in the course of a series of increasingly violent confrontations between the various factions in the city.

"Militia." Yeah, that's comforting, given current events. You see, that's the thing about history- it has lessons for us.

So who was Hypatia? Deakins again:

Imagine a time when the world's greatest living mathematician was a woman, indeed a physically beautiful woman, and a woman who was simultaneously the world's leading astronomer.
From another biography:

Throughout her childhood, Theon raised Hypatia in an environment of thought. Historians believe that Theon tried to raise the perfect human. Theon himself was a well known scholar and a professor of mathematics at the University of Alexandria. Theon and Hypatia formed a strong bond as he taught Hypatia his own knowledge and shared his passion in the search for answers to the unknown. As Hypatia grew older, she began to develop an enthusiasm for mathematics and the sciences (astronomy and astrology).

Most historians believe that Hypatia surpassed her father's knowledge at a young age. However, while Hypatia was still under her father's discipline, he also developed for her a physical routine to ensure for her a healthy body as well as a highly functional mind....

Hypatia's studies included astronomy, astrology, and mathematics. References in letters by Synesius, one of Hypatia's students, credit Hypatia with the invention of the astrolabe, a device used in studying astronomy. However, other sources date this instrument back at least a century earlier.

Here are some of the teachings of Hypatia, more relevant today than ever:

“Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing. The mind of a child accepts them, and only through great pain, perhaps even tragedy, can the child be relieved of them.”

“Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.”

“To rule by fettering the mind through fear of punishment in another world is just as base as to use force.”

“All formal dogmatic religions are delusive and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final.”

“Men will fight for superstition as quickly as for the living truth – even more so, since superstition is intangible, you can't get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.”