Hypatia of Alexandria: A brilliant scientific mind and the first known female mathematician in history

Hypatia_Great_Female_Philosopher_Alexandria

Was not Hypatia the greatest philosopher of Alexandria, and a true martyr to the old values of learning? She was torn to pieces by a mob of incensed Christians not because she was a woman, but because her learning was so profound, her skills at dialectic so extensive that she reduced all who queried her to embarrassed silence. They could not argue with her, so they murdered her.

Taken from English art historian and journalist Iain Pears’ novel The Dream of Scipio, the lines aptly sum up who Hypatia was. Quite possibly one of the greatest philosophers of her age (4th century AD), her eminence doesn’t really stem from her being a woman in a “man’s world”. Rather it takes a more intrinsic route, transcending gender characterizations to account for what can be regarded as the best of ‘humanity’. In essence, she was an intelligent, smart and most importantly courageous human being who stood up for her ideals even when faced with the greatest of all adversities – death. Such laudable facades of personality certainly makes her stand out in the realm of history, with bravehearted heroism taking the center stage in the life of a female philosopher and mathematician who lived in the antediluvian times of the ancient world.

Life in Alexandria –
Hypatia-the-great-library-of-Alexandria

The Great Library of Alexandria

Hypatia (or Ὑπατίᾱ) was a Greek mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher who was born circa 4th century AD (probably between 350-370 AD) in Egypt, a region which was then under the control of the Eastern Roman Empire. Her earlier inclination towards the classical fields of study was fueled by her father, the noted mathematician Theon Alexandricus (335 – 405 AD). According to some sources, Hypatia was in fact educated in Athens in her younger days. But all the more impressive is the fact the Hypatia went on to become the head of the Platonist school at Alexandria in around 400 AD. There are also hypotheses that allude to how the philosopher remained celibate all her life, not due to any religious inclination, but rather because of her belief in Plato’s philosophical ideas on the abolition of the family system.

Now to put things into historical perspective, the city of Alexandria (originally founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC), was the bastion of cultural and intellectual advancements at a time when the Roman Empire was undergoing various political upheavals (after 4th century AD). Scholars from across the globe flocked to the Great Library of Alexandria, an incredibly impressive establishment of the ancient world that was said to house over half-a-million scrolls, in spite of its accidental destruction and rebuilding in the preceding centuries.

Simply put, Alexandria was the cultural successor to the great classical cities of Athens and Rome; and as such its varied population of different faiths and factions, mirrored its status as an academic hub. In such mercurial times when the Roman world was ironically gravitating towards Christianity, credit must be given to Hypatia, who emerged among many of her intellectual peers, to take an active leading role in the philosophical output of the period. Furthermore, as she grew older and mature, she also took a keen interest in mathematics and science (including astronomical pursuits), thus lending credence to the entire ‘package’ of classical studies. And it is interesting to know that in spite of seemingly opposing views, Hypatia as a teacher also had followers among the eminent Christians of her time. As her contemporary, Socrates Scholasticus, describes her in his Ecclesiastical History

There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.

A bitter fate –
Hypatia-murder

Death of Hypatia in Alexandria

In his Ecclesiastical History, Socrates Scholasticus also offered a detailed overview of the unfortunate circumstances that eventually led to the murder of Hypatia in her beloved city. As we mentioned before, Alexandria by this time had become a hotbed of different religions, including both Christianity and Judaism. And beyond just competing faiths, the religious overtones of the time also had their profound effects on the political system of the metropolis. Such a potentially ‘explosive’ scenario was mirrored by clash between Orestes, the Roman governor of Alexandria, and Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria, leading to the brutal murder of Hypatia.

Orestes through one his edicts concerning Jewish dancing exhibitions paved the way (quite unintentionally) for religious violence that basically incited the Christians against the Jews. In the ensuing riots and its aftermath, many people of Jewish faith were unceremoniously banished from the city. Remorseful over such an action, Orestes stubbornly resisted the peace overtures supposedly made by Cyril, thus (by principle) supporting the Jewish population. Such views of the Roman governor further angered many orthodox sections of the Christians, and one such angry monk named Ammonius apparently struck Orestes in the head with a rock, causing him to be grievously injured. Ammonius was immediately tortured and put to death – which raised ardent calls for his martyrdom from Cyril and his powerful followers.

This finally put Orestes in loggerheads with most of the Christian adherents of the city who were guided by their Bishop. Unfortunately for Hypatia, she was known to have connections with Orestes and also her penchant for ‘pagan’ classical avenues. Some voraciously fanatic Christians directly blamed the female philosopher and scientist for her teachings that they viewed as having an ‘evil’ influence on the Roman governor. So as the rumor spread like wild fire, a mob led by a reader (probably a minor cleric) named Peter, gathered in the streets. Finally the fanatics (possibly confused by the intellectual tendencies of the philosopher) kidnapped Hypatia on her way home and took her to the “church called Caesareum. They then completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles.”

A glowing star in the world of science –

Hypatia-mathematician

Regrettably, most history sources deal with Hypatia’s sensational death, thus sparking the age-old controversy between religion and science, while at the same time leaving out most of her actual achievements in fields of mathematics and philosophy. This is partly due to lack of available literary works that describe Hypatia’s contributions in their original details. However to fully comprehend the precious contributions of Hypatia, we have to understand that ancient mathematics was primarily divided into four branches: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. And Hypatia excelled in the first three of these avenues – as is evident from her teaching career that mainly dabbled with arithmetic, geometry and (possibly) astronomy. In fact, some ancient (surviving) letters written by Synesius, one of Hypatia’s students, talk about how Hypatia invented astrolabe, a device used in studying astronomy. But other sources place this invention at least a century later.

Now according to the Suda Lexicon, a massive 10th-century Byzantine encyclopedia, Hypatia primarily authored three written specimens – an entire work called the The Astronomical Canon, a commentary on The Conics of Apollonius (thus leading to the notions of hyperbolas, parabolas and ellipses) and a commentary on Diophantus. She had also probably written and edited a few mathematical texts that survive till present day. One example is the Book III of the Almagest, in which Theon himself alluded to the contribution (edits and improvements) made by his daughter. The subsequent chapters do showcase a far more efficient manner of doing long divisions (in Greek numericals), thus suggesting Hypatia’s crucial input. Furthermore, the female mathematician could have also authored other related books that are now ‘lost’ to history. Professor Michael Deakins summed up the contributions and gravitas of Hypatia, in quite a succinct manner –

Imagine a time when the world’s greatest living mathematician was a woman, indeed a physically beautiful woman, and a woman who was simultaneously the world’s leading astronomer.

Till now we talked about the mathematics side of affairs; but what about Hypatia, the female philosopher? According to Socrates Scholasticus, Hypatia donned the proverbial philosopher’s cloak in a quite literal way, and was known for taking walks through the town center, while eloquently delivering discourses on the works of Plato, Aristotle and other renowned philosophers. And as we mentioned before, in spite of the potential competition in the city of Alexandria, Hypatia went on to become the head of the Neoplatonist school (espousing rationalist thinking) in around 400 AD. It should also be noted that Synesius (the student who credited her with the invention of astrolabe) went on to become a bishop in the Christian church and was responsible for assimilating some Neoplatonic ideals into the doctrine of the Trinity. Hypatia’s teachings on life, truth and knowledge are best encapsulated as follows:

Life is an unfoldment, and the further we travel the more truth we can comprehend. To understand the things that are at our door is the best preparation for understanding those that lie beyond.

An inspiration to modern women –
Rachel Weisz-as-Hypatia

Rachel Weisz as Hypatia inthe 2009 movie, Agora

While centuries have gone by since her death, Hypatia remains an inspiration and a role model to women everywhere. Her life is a glowing exemplar of courage, fortitude and an undaunted passion for knowledge. At a time when women were mostly restricted to the household with every little exposure to the arts and sciences, Hypatia was brought up in the enlightened world of education. Theon, who believed that a fit body is imperative for a fit mind, ensured that his daughter received regular training in a variety of physical activities, including swimming, rowing, horseback riding and others. Her contributions to mathematics, astronomy and philosophy have made her a legend, whose brilliance and bravado continue to motivate young minds. In one of her lectures, she profoundly said:

Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.

She has been the muse of many an artist and poet. In recent times, there has been an increasing interest in this extraordinary woman, with the publication of a number of novels and works of literature that celebrate her outstanding scientific genius. Hypatia’s life has been fictionalized by writers in different languages across the world. In the 2009 movie Agora, for instance, actress Rachel Weisz portrays the Greek scholar in her final years.

              This article originally appeared on our sister site, Realm of History. 

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