Thursday, May 21, 2009

Hypatia - Martyr for Science and Reason

Forced to flee the city's library, a storehouse of ancient knowledge and manuscripts, Hypatia rescues a handful of irreplaceable texts from a Christian ransacking and continues her theorising on the nature of the universe. Christian leaders eventually label her a witch and make her a martyr to scientific reason.

Plot Synopsis for Agora

As usual, bigots and anti-theistic zealots will ignore the evidence, the sources and rational analysis and believe Hollywood's appeal to their prejudices. It makes you wonder who the real enemies of reason actually are.

'Agora' and Hypatia - Hollywood Strikes Again - Tim O' Neil

According to tradition, Hypatia, who lived in the city of Alexandria from 355 – 415AD, was a brilliant, beautiful woman who wrote and compiled books on mathematics, lectured on a variety of subjects and invented mechanical devices. According to the most recent biography by Maria Dzielska, she became the victim of politically motivated street violence by Christians at the age of around 60-65.

A movie called Agora is due to be released based on her life and you can get all the historical analysis of it from Tim O’Neil’s article ‘Agora and Hypatia - Hollywood Strikes Again’ over at the Armarium Magnum blog. In the film Hypatia is depicted as one of the last lights of science and reason, doomed to be extinguished by the forces of dogma and superstition. Tim concludes that:

Unlike Giordano Bruno, Hypatia was a genuine scientist and, as a woman, was certainly remarkable for her time. But she was no martyr for science and science had zero to do with her murder. Exactly how much of the genuine, purely political background to her death Amenabar puts in his movie remains to be seen. It's hoped that, unlike Sagan and many others, the whole political background to the murder won't simply be ignored and her killing won't be painted as an act of ignorant rage against her science and scholarship. But what is clear from his interviews and the film's pre-publicity is that he has chosen to frame the story in Gibbonian terms straight from the "conflict thesis" textbook - the destruction of the "Great Library", Hypatia victimised for her learning and her death as a grim harbinger of the beginning of the "Dark Ages".

The movie is therefore only the latest incarnation of the Hypatia myth which has been evolving since her murder in the fifth century. Some of the first people to appropriate the life of Hypatia were the Christians in the Middle Ages who recast the tale with St Catherine, a fourth-century Christian murdered by pagans. This St. Catherine was fixed to a wheel and tortured because she cleverly confounded the pagan wise men sent to argue her out of her faith.

With the arrival of the Reformation and the later Enlightenment, the protestant/deist John Toland, wrote a historical essay entitled Hypatia, or the History of a Most Beautiful, Most Virtuous, Most Learned and in Every Way Accomplished Lady; Who was Torn to Pieces by the Clergy of Alexandria, to Gratify the Pride, Emulation and Cruelty of the Archbishop, Commonly but Undeservedly Titled St. Cyril. The Church fought back by publishing The History of Hypatia, a Most Impudent School-Mistress. In Defense of Saint Cyril and the Alexandrian Clergy from the Aspersions of Mr. Toland. Thanks to Toland’s tract, Hypatia was to become a favourite of the 18th-century Enlightenment. Figures such as Voltaire, Fielding, and Gibbon rushed to the defence of the ‘young lady of greatest beauty and merit’ and drew attention to her murder as a way of lambasting the Catholic Church. Voltaire portrayed her as a victim of superstition and ignorance who had been killed because she believed in rational thinking and trusted the capacities of the human mind over imposed dogma.

In the 19th century and with the rise of the Romantics the emphasis shifted to Hypatia's death as a symbol of the passing of a golden age of Greek civility, culture, and learning . Italian writers, French poets and English historians lined up to extol her beauty, intelligence, and the pureness of spirit she exemplified. They depicted her as a voluptuous pagan priestess, much younger than the ageing beauty of 60 she really was. The culmination of this movement was the famous and wildly popular version of her story written by Charles Kingsley in 1853. His romantic tale of the pagan, who converted to Christianity at the end, was contrasted with the world of deceit in which she lived. Meanwhile, the positivist movement found that Hypatia satisfied their needs for elevating science over superstitious religion.

In the 20th century feminist writers saw Hypatia’s murder as a misogynist act, she had been murdered because she was an intelligent, independent woman. Journals and institutions were founded and named after her. Bertrand Russell commented wryly after quoting Gibbon’s description of the murder of Hypatia that Alexandria was ‘ no longer troubled by philosophers’. This is the kind of bogus remark Russell was fond of making. In fact, philosophy flourished in Alexandria a full century after her death (most notably in the person of John Philoponus). Carl Sagan provided a vivid account of her death and an anachronistic account of the burning of the Library of Alexandria in his book Cosmos.

Now in the 21st century and the release of Agora, Hypatia has become the goddess of science and reason fighting to preserve learning against the forces of fundamentalist religion. Once again the present is recasting the past in its own image.

See Also

'Agora" and Hypatia' - Hollywood Strikes Again

Giordano Bruno - Martyr for Science and Reason

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Anonymous said...

whatever hollywoods version is the fundamental problem of religion is its hatredof reason monotheism is a no no!

Frankie said...

Please tell me you were being sarcastic, anon...