I had been told that the Encyclopaedia Britannica - assailed by the behemoth of Wikipedia and encroached upon by Microsoft Encarta – had gone downhill. Having perused it’s article on the Neo-Platonist mathematician Hypatia of Alexandria I can see the dismal evidence with my own eyes. It reads:
Theodosius I, Roman emperor in the East from 379 to 392 and then emperor in both the East and West until 395, initiated an official policy of intolerance to paganism and Arianismin 380. In 391, in reply to Theophilus, the bishop of Alexandria, he gave permission to destroy Egyptian religious institutions. Christian mobs obliged by destroying the Library of Alexandria, the Temple of Serapis, and other pagan monuments.
That old chestnut again. It continues, describing Hypatia's death at the hands of a Christian mob in 415.
The existence of any strictly philosophical works by her [Hypatia] is unknown. Indeed, her philosophy was more scholarly and scientific in its interest and less mystical and intransigently pagan than the Neoplatonism taught in other schools. Nevertheless, statements attributed to her, such as “Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all” and “To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing,” must have incensed Cyril, who in turn incensed the mob.
The quotes are indeed attributed to Hypatia. The problem is that these statements only appeared for the first time in a book published in 1908 by Elbert Hubbard (an eccentric author of fanciful legend) called 'Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Teachers'. Hubbard was a salesman and freelance newspaperman who reinvented himself as a publisher and author by founding his own press. Inspired by the Charles Kingsley epic on the same subject he penned a highly fictionalised essay on Hypatia which was interwoven with his own comment and satire. Hubbard also made up such details as her height, weight (five feet nine inches, one hundred thirty-five pounds) and invented several quotes which happen to be the ones above cited in the Britannica article. Hubbard has Hypatia saying:
Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing. The child-mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after-years relieved of them. In fact, men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth--often more so, since a superstition is so intangible you can not get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable."
Unbelievably when Lynn Osen's wrote her "Women in Mathematics" she accepted Hubbard's invented stories about Hypatia as fact and included them in her book. Hence one finds them sprinkled over the internet as primary source material.
So to recap, what the article written for the Encyclopaedia Britannica is trying to argue is this. Statements made up by Elbert Hubbard in the early 20th century and attributed to Hypatia must somehow have echoed back in time (presumably through some kind of quantum leap) and got through to Bishop Cyril in Alexandria, thus incensing him to whip up the mob that killed Hypatia. I have stood up for Britannica in the past but now I think I would sooner trust Wikipedia. At least there I can edit the mistakes out.
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