The Story of Hypatia

Provide data on treatments using other sources of stem cells or explain why Galileo was sentenced to house arrest and watch accusers simply hop to another issue unfazed even by a thoughtful defense. 

One of the less familiar criticisms is the charge that Christians destroyed priceless texts from the ancient Library of Alexandria, thus retarding scientific development to the lasting detriment of mankind. The accusation contends that besides burning books these rabid enemies of Greco-Roman culture also butchered Alexandria’s last pagan scholar, the brilliant female mathematician Hypatia. 

“Extinguisher of Thought”

The lurid story of Hypatia’s death initially proved more useful to anti-Catholic writers. Since the 18th century, Hypatia has been presented as “the incarnation of beauty and wisdom” put to death by barbarous Christians. Voltaire, Edward Gibbon and Cardinal John Henry Newman’s foe Charles Kingsley made her a symbol of Greek rationality destroyed by monkish superstition. To anti-religious scientists, Hypatia stood for the eclipse of science, for radical feminists, the crushing of female intelligence. Whatever the slant — reason strangled by dogma or beauty defiled by hate — Hypatia’s image remained the one 19th-century French poet Leconte de Lisle gave her, a woman with the “spirit of Plato and body of Aphrodite” struck down by the “vile Galilean.” 

The lady and the lost books have been linked by contemporary opponents of religion. Carl Sagan’s highly successful documentary series “Cosmos” (1980) blames the “darkness” of the Middle Ages on the murder of Hypatia and the destruction of the Alexandrian Library. The 2009 Spanish film “Agora,” co-written and directed by Oscar-winner Pedro Amenábar, dramatizes the same idea, resulting in a world culturally “paralyzed for 1,500 years.” As an admiring viewer posted on The New York Times website, Christianity “is a factor of ignorance and enslavement, and an extinguisher of thought.” 

Imbibing history from popular sources is riskier now than ever as basic historical knowledge fades and even many academics scorn objectivity. As a corrective, let us examine some of the issues that the Church’s enemies distort: sectarian strife in Alexandria, the fate of its fabled library, and the life of Hypatia.  

Hypatia and St. Cyril

The Hypatia of history (A.D. 355-415) was indeed brilliant and beautiful. She was the daughter of Theon, the last known member of the great Museum of Alexandria, a mathematician and astronomer who also practiced a form of magic. Hypatia helped her father edit astronomical tables, wrote her own commentaries on mathematics and gave public lectures. Her own chief interest was Neoplatonic philosophy, a system also favored by many Christian thinkers in Patristic times, including St. Augustine. 

Hypatia was neither irreligious nor a worshipper of the old Greek gods. Instead, she was actually a philosophical monotheist who led her favorite students in contemplative prayer. The pupils whom she taught in her home included two future Christian bishops. One of the latter, Synesius, wrote admiring letters to Hypatia even after being elected bishop of Ptolomais. Hypatia was a public intellectual, renowned for her formidable self-control and flesh-scorning chastity. Leading men of Alexandria sought her advice. Her friendship with Orestes, prefect of Egypt and a Christian, was emphatically not a romance. 

Their alliance, however, was bitterly resented by the Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria, because Orestes was his political enemy. Far from being an ignoramus, Cyril had received an excellent secular education before his election as Patriarch of Alexandria in 412. (He succeeded his uncle Theophilus, who had ravaged the Temple of Serapis.) Cyril attributed Hypatia’s influence to witchcraft, perhaps because of her father’s interest in magic, something she never shared. Cyril blamed her for church-state tensions that actually arose from Cyril’s harshness toward heretics and Jews. He had closed the churches of the former and ordered the expulsion of the latter in defiance of Orestes’ authority. Hypatia’s unusual scholarly life was not an issue, although Cyril seems to have been jealous of the prominence it gave her. 

In 415, a desert monk was tortured to death for trying to kill Orestes. The patriarch’s burly band of charity workers, the parabalanoi, seized Hypatia in revenge. Led by a cleric called Peter the Lector, they dragged her through the streets, slashed her to pieces with pottery shards and burned her remains. She was at least 60 years old, an advanced age for the time, not the still-youthful beauty pictured by romantics. Orestes resigned his post and left Egypt. 

The fact is that Cyril did not order her death. He went on to combat Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, who had attacked the divine maternity of Mary. In 431, Cyril led the Council of Ephesus to condemn Nestorius as a heretic and to proclaim Mary the Mother of God (Theotokos, or “God-bearer”). Patristic scholar Joannes Quasten calls him “one of the greatest figures of early Christian literature.” Honored as a saint in the East since his death in 444, St. Cyril was added to the Roman calendar in 1882. His later achievements ought to outweigh any guilt over Hypatia’s politically motivated fate.  

Light of Learning

Contrary to the anti-Christian party line, Hypatia’s murder did not extinguish learning nor end civilization. Scholars in Alexandria could not put the legions back on the Rhine — or anywhere else on Rome’s porous borders. Barbarians had already invaded the Roman Empire; the Goths had sacked Rome in 410, five years before Hypatia’s death. Some knowledge survived the Western Empire’s fall because the Church maintained it. More Greek learning survived in the Christian East and seeped westward over the next millennium to spark the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance. 

Ancient science was mostly theory, seldom experiment. But hands-on medieval Europeans put technology to work on an unprecedented scale. They harnessed wind and water power and made advances in agriculture, metallurgy, shipbuilding, optics, weaponry and machine design beyond what the ancients had known. Clerics such as Gerbert of Aurillac, St. Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon counted, observed and measured nature, for God’s universe invites human study. Above all, without the Christian view of an orderly cosmos passing through linear time, modern Western science never would have emerged. TCA  

Sandra Miesel is a frequent contributor to the Catholic press and media. With Carl Olson, she co-authored “The Da Vinci Hoax.”