Category: Persons

The Case of Hypatia

Philosopher, mathematician and astronomer who flourished in the late years of the 4th and early 5th century CE at Alexandria.

Life and work

Hypatia was born in ca.355 at Alexandria. She was the daughter of the mathematician, astronomer and philosopher Theon who was teaching around the middle of the 4th century at Alexandria. The few things we know aboutHypatia’s life may be summarized in that she was a well educated woman enjoying a wide social respect by the rulers of the city. It is certain that Hypatia was taught philosophy at the school where her father instructed. But we cannot be sure whether Hypatia was taught by her father or by another Alexandrian philosopher.

Hypatia was murdered in 415. Her assassination should be seen in the framework of the general social and religious conflicts between pagans and Christians in the 4th and 5th centuries. It seems that Hypatia’s social connections brought her in the middle of the dispute between Orestes, the Roman prefectof Alexandria, and the Christian bishop Cyrillus. We possess different versions of Hypatia’s murder but all of them assert that Hypatia was forcibly dragged in the city streets by a mob of raging Christians.

The work of Hypatia is completely lost. Theon provides us with a reference to Hypatia’sliterary activity, and that is a comment to be found in his own commentary on Ptolemy’s Almagest denoting that his commentary was either edited or publicly read by Hypatia. This note allows us to assume that Hypatia commented on Ptolemy’s Almagest and perhaps on other works of Ptolemy. In addition, we know (Suda, 166,1-71) that Hypatia commented on Apollonius’ Conics and on some works of the mathematician Diophantus; she also wrote a work of astronomical interest entitled Canon, perhaps influenced by the Ptolemaic tradition.

Hypatia’s teaching

In all likelihood Hypatia studied under the direction of her father Theon. Despite the fact that she studied mathematics, geometry and astronomy, the character of her philosophical studies remains uncertain. Hypatia is usually considered a Neoplatonic philosopher; nevertheless, we know little about her philosophical education and its origins. The absence of sources regarding the philosophers of Alexandria in the 4th century muddles the conditions of Hypatia’s philosophical training. It is widely accepted that Platonism used to be the major philosophical tradition at Alexandria during late antiquity. Socrates Scholasticus reports that Hypatia followed the Platonism introduced by Plotinus. Damascius records that Hypatia publicly commented on works of Aristotle, Plato and other philosophers (Vita Isidori, 43A, Athanassiadi, Synesius, Letters, 154). Our fragmentary knowledge of the philosophical scene of Alexandria (4th century) attests thata rather influential figure was the Platonist Antoninus whose father was a companion of Aidesius, Iamblichus’ pupil.Antoninus is considered one of the early philosophers who introduced Iamblichus’ teachings to Alexandria. It is also attested that another philosopher called Olympus was a follower of Iamblichus and that he flourished around the end of the 4th century. However, we cannot connect the circle of Theon and Hypatia with the philosophical circles of Antoninus and Olympus respectively.

We tend to believe that Hypatia was a Platonist because of her systematic engagement inmathematics and geometry, subjects highly regarded by all late Platonists. The fact that Hypatia thoroughly occupied herself with mathematics and astronomy is well illustrated by the surviving titles of her works and is also reported by her Christian disciple Synesius, who was later to become, and also known as, bishop of Cyrene.Damascius emphasizes Hypatia’s masterful mathematical skills and distinguishes her from Isidore who was, rather, a pure philosopher (Vita Isidori, 106A, Athanassiadi). We owe much to Synesius, the Christian pupil of Hypatia, who left us some information regarding Hypatia’s circle of students, which apparently consisted of both pagans and Christians. Synesius testifies that in the circle of Hypatia there were prominent individuals and city magistrates who followed her teachings. He also gives us their names: they were, among others,Nicaeus, Philolaus, Olympius, Troilus and Pylaemenes (Synesius, Letters, 81, 98, 118, 129, 131).

Author: Ioannis Papachristou
  • Bernard, AGerson, L.P. ed. . The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity 2. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Évrard, É. Revue des Études Grecques. 1977.
  • Saffrey, H.D. "Hypatie d’Alexandrie." Goulet, R. ed. Dictionnaire des philosophes antiques 3. Paris, 2000.
  • Watts, E. City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria. Berkeley, 2006.
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