Hypatia of Alexandria was a scientist, mathematician, and philosopher who lived in the late fourth and early fifth centuries AD. Some date her birth around 370 AD, while others believe she was born around 355 AD. Regardless of the date, it is known that Hypatia was born in Alexandria, which was then a part of Greece, and is now part of Egypt.
She was the daughter of Theon, who was a well known mathematician and astronomer of his time. Under his tutelage, she learned about science, mathematics, and philosophy. Most of the literature suggests that she surpassed her father’s knowledge at a relatively young age. As an adult, she was a scholar to students of wealth and high social status. According to the letters that her students wrote to one-another, she was considered to be both beautiful and brilliant. The poet Charles Leconte de Lisle, in his 1874 poem “Hypatie,” refers to her as having “The spirit of Plato and the body of Aphrodite.”
Mathematics and Possible Inventions
Hypatia was best known for her work in mathematics, so much so that Descartes, Newton, and Leibniz later expanded on it. While none of her work has survived, other literature refers to it and its titles. It is generally believed that she and her father wrote at least three works together. The first was called “Arithmetica,” which was a commentary on the writings of Diophantus. Another was called “On the Conics of Appollonius, which was an explanation of the geometry works of Appollonius of Perga. This mathematical theory divided cones into different parts by planes, and the concept led to the ideas of hyperbolas, parabolas, and ellipses. The third was “Elements,” which is a work on Euclid’s geometry.
It is also believed that she developed an apparatus for distilling water, as well as a brass hydrometer for determining the specific gravity of a liquid. Some sources credit her with developing a plane astrolabe, which was used for measuring the positions of the stars, planets, and the sun, though others date this instrument back a century earlier. What is not disputed is that she did help Synesius, one of her students, build one. Regardless, it is clear that her knowledge of astronomy was quite extensive.
Philosophy and Lifestyle
Philosophically, Hypatia was a Neoplatonist, who based her teachings on those of Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism, and Iamblichus. Plotinus taught the idea of an Ultimate Reality, which is beyond the reaches of thought or language. It was a concept that humans could not completely understand, nor could they comprehend the consequences of its existence. Iamblichus took it a step further, saying that there were levels of reality in a hierarchy, with one level existing to correspond with every distinct thought of which the human mind was capable. Hypatia taught these ideas with an emphasis on science.
Hypatia, by example, sought to teach that one achieves freedom and higher intellectual capabilities by eschewing natural wants. As a result, she embraced a lifestyle that included chastity (a virgin until her death), modest dress, moderate living, and a dignified attitude. The goal was for the mind to be in a state of revelation and contemplation. She encouraged her students to be fastidious about form in speech and writing. In order to gain insight, which recognizes only beauty, they had to be beautiful themselves. She encouraged them to be beautiful not in appearance, which is transitory and confined to the physical world, but in terms of an ultimate beauty, which has no physical bounds.
Religion and Politics
Hypatia’s students came from places such as Cyrene, Syria, and Thebaid to study with her. Her closest and most loyal students held high imperial or ecclesiastical positions. Though it is widely thought that she was a pagan, some of her students were zealous Christians. Therefore, it is unlikely that her religious beliefs were integral to her lessons. Since Hypatia commanded the esteem of Alexandria’s chief politicians, and since politicians of the times frequently called on famous philosophers for advice on matters of state, it is likely that Hypatia held great influence on political and social life in Alexandria. Under the ecclisiastical authorities overseen by Theophilus, she enjoyed great independence and tolerance.
That was to change, though. In 412, Cyril was elected to succeed Theophilus in the bishopric of St. Mark’s. Hypatia’s influence generated considerable anxiety among Cyril’s followers. Furthermore, she supported one of Cyril’s political enemies, Orestes. Since her authority rested with influential members of the community and not with the masses, it was a relatively simple matter for Cyril’s followers to spread rumors, which painted Hypatia as a sorceress. At the time, it was not unusual for mathematicians to be lumped into the same category as astrologers, because mathematics was closely tied to the mapping of the stars. Thus, the distinction between scientist and charlatain was not readily made by the populace.
A Violent End
Hypatia was assassinated in Alexandria in 415. Accounts vary with regard to how she met her untimely demise. All of the descriptions of her death conclude that she was dragged from the streets of Alexandria by an angry mob of Cyril’s supporters, and taken to the church Caesarion, where she was stripped. From there, the stories vary. Some claim she was killed in the church with broken pieces of pottery, after which her body was taken to Kinaron and burned. Others say she was dragged through the streets until she died. Regardless of the method, it is clear that she met a politically motivated, violent end. Whether or not her assassination was meant as a warning to Orestes is unclear. Nevertheless, after her death, he left Alexandria and gave up his fight against Cyril.
Hypatia of Alexandria’s role as a woman in a male-dominated society, as a pagan in a world which was rapidly becoming dominated by Christianity, and as a philosopher and a scholar have earned her a position of status among many associations. Groups from feminists to pagans and scientists to mathematicians claim an alliance with this extraordinary woman. Some go so far as to assert that Hypatia’s death signaled the end of science and philosophy in Alexandria. A great deal of conjecture and mystery surrounds her memory. We know, though, from the literature that has survived about her, that she was an outstanding example of intellect, whose teachings and influence were pivotal in a time of political and religious turmoil. She will forever be remembered, in poetry and in historical works, for her intelligence, beauty, and bravery.