She was a learned philosopher, a creative
mathematician, and a popular teacher. Those talents led to her being condemed
as a witch and murdered in 415 . Working
with her father Theon, a mathematician and keeper of the Great Library
of Alexandria, Hypatia contributed to a commentary on Ptolemy's astronomy
and a new version of Euclid's Elements (the basic text in the history
of geometry.) She is known to have been a neo-platonist following the
school of thought developed by Plotinus
and derived from Plato.
None of Hypatia's or Theon's works survived the burning of the Great Library.
Science writer Carl Sagan aptly summarized the significance
of the Great Library of Alexandria and the role of Hypatia in the following
passage his book Cosmos.
"Only once before
in our history was there the promise of a brilliant scientific civilization.
Beneficiary of the Ionian Awakening, it had its citadel at the Library
of Alexandria, where 2,000 years ago the best minds of antiquity
established the foundations for the systematic study of mathematics,
physics, biology, astronomy, literature, geography and medicine.
We build on those foundations still. The Library was constructed
and supported by the Ptolemys, the Greek kings who inherited the
Egyptian portion of the empire of Alexander the Great. From the
time of its creation in the third century B.C. until its destruction
seven centuries later, it was the brain and heart of the ancient
The last scientist who
worked in the Library was a mathematician, astronomer, physicist
and the head of the Neoplatonic school of philosophy -- an extraordinary
range of accomplishments for any individual in any age. Her name
was Hypatia. She was born in Alexandria in 370. At a time when women
had few options and were treated as property, Hypatia moved freely
and unselfconsciously through traditional male domains. By all accounts
she was a great beauty. She had many suitors but rejected all offers
of marriage. The Alexandria of Hypatia's time -- by then long under
Roman rule -- was a city under grave strain. Slavery had sapped
classical civilization of its vitality. The growing Christian Church
was consolidating its power and attempting to eradicate pagan influence
and culture. Hypatia stood at the epicenter of these mighty social
forces. Cyril, the Archbishop of Alexandria, despised her because
of her close friendship with the Roman governor, and because she
was a symbol of learning and science, which were largely identified
by the early Church with paganism In great personal danger, she
continued to teach and publish, until, in the year 415, on her way
to work she was set upon by a fanatical mob of Cyril's parishioners.
They dragged her from her chariot, tore off her clothes, and armed
with abalone shells, flayed her flesh from her bones. Her remains
were burned, her works obliterated, her name forgotten. Cyril was
made a saint.
The glory of the Alexandrian
Library is a dim memory. Its last remnants were destroyed soon after
Hypatia's death. It was as if the entire civilization had undergone
some self-inflicted brain surgery, and most of its memories, discoveries,
ideas and passions were extinguished irrevocably. The loss was incalculable.
In some cases, we know only the tantalizing titles of the works
that were destroyed. In most cases, we know neither the titles nor
the authors. We do know that of the 123 plays of Sophocles in the
Library, only seven survived. One of those seven is Oedipus Rex.
Similar numbers apply to the works of Aeschylus and Euripides. It
is a little as if the only surviving works of a man named William
Shakespeare were Coriolanus and A Winter's Tale, but we had heard
that he had written certain other plays, unknown to us but apparently
prized in his time, works entitled Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar,
King Lear, Romeo and Juliet." (From Cosmos
by Carl Sagan)
While ancient historians and
commentors noted Hypatia's genius, it is only in recent years that her
significance in philosophy is generally recognized. As Sagan makes clear
in the above passage, history is dependent upon what is recorded and what
records survive for the future. In western philosophy, women have been
almost entirely written out of the intellectual history until the twentieth
century. Some by neglect, some by purposeful ommission, and some like
Hypatia, by violence. Now that the change in historical balance is taking
place, interest in philosophical women of the past is growing. For those
of us with such an interest, Hypatia stands as a starting point in the
intellectual classical world.