Hypatia (355 or 370 - 415/416 A.D.)

Hypatia Woman Philosopher of Alexandria

Elbert Hubbard, "Hypatia", in Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Teachers, v.23 #4, East Aurora, New York : The Roycrofters, 1908. PD Courtesy of Wikipedia.

You almost expect to hear: "she was a fine philosopher -- for a woman" when hearing about this ancient female prodigy. After all, our predecessors' opportunities, especially if they were "respectable" women, were nearly non-existent.
Hypatia, however, defies all such qualifiers.

Hypatia's Accomplishments

Hypatia was, simply, the last great Alexandrian mathematician and philosopher. By writing a commentary on The Conics of Apollonius of Perga, which divided cones into sections by a plane, Hypatia made geometry intelligible to her students and ultimately transmissible to the modern world.

Men thronged to hear her ideas on philosophy, so she taught neoplatonic ideas to pagans and Christians alike. The latter group included Synesius of Cyrene, who helped refine the doctrine of the Trinity.

Hypatia's Father

Hypatia's fame eclipsed her father, Theon (who, talking about eclipses, described eclipses dateable to 364) the last attested teacher to teach mathematics at the museum [source: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/GreekScience/Students/Ellen/Museum.htm (see Library of Alexandria)]. We know of Theon as the source for our text of Euclid's Elements. He also wrote commentaries on the works of Ptolemy. [Source: "Theon of Alexandria and Hypatia," by Michael Lambrou; Creative Mathematics. Vol.12 (2003)] Theon taught his daughter and may have sent her to Italy and Greece (Athens) for advanced instruction. Unfortunately, little of his daughter's writing survives. Since, unlike her father, she did not have a teaching position, we do not know where or when she taught.

Hypatia's Reputation

There may have been another eclipsed man in her life. He was a philosopher, too, as well as her husband, Isidorus. Despite this possible mate, Hypatia is known for her chastity, virtue, and beauty as much as for her ideas in an era of Belfast-style conflict between pagans and Christians.

These were formative years for Christian theology, but it still serves as a humbling reminder that it was the non-Christian, Platonic, rationalist Hypatia who convinced a would be paramour to maintain his celibacy in one of two much repeated anecdotes:

She was so beautiful and shapely that one of her students fell in love with her and was unable to control himself and openly showed her a sign of his infatuation. Uninformed reports had Hypatia curing him of his affliction with the help of music. The truth is that the story about music is corrupt. Actually, she gathered rags that had been stained during her period and showed them to him as a sign of her unclean descent and said, "This is what you love, young man, and it isn't beautiful!" He was so affected by shame and amazement at the ugly sight that he experienced a change of heart and went away a better man.
Source: (formerly http://www.cosmopolis.com/alexandria/hypatia-bio-suda.html) Damascius' Life of Hypatia

Hypatia's Demise

Unfortunately, Hypatia's popularity and career were cut short, either when she was in her mid-sixties or mid-forties. Until the election of Cyril (later, of the Nestorian controversy), bishop of Alexandria, in 412, Hypatia had enjoyed the support of community leaders.

It is said, in a popular anecdote, that the envious bishop, having seen the hordes waiting to greet her, ordered her death. Christian monks, at any rate, appear to have been responsible for a particularly vicious attack.

Some of them, therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles.* After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them.
Source: (formerly http://www.cosmopolis.com/alexandria/hypatia-bio-socrates.html) The Life of Hypatia, by Socrates Scholasticus
See Hypatia Resources

Edward Gibbon on the killing of Hypatia (Chapter XLVII)

(From The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire)

In the bloom of beauty, and in the maturity of wisdom, the modest maid [Hypatia] refused her lovers and instructed her disciples; the persons most illustrious for their rank or merit were impatient to visit the female philosopher; and Cyril beheld, with a jealous eye, the gorgeous train of horses and slaves who crowded the door of her academy. A rumor was spread among the Christians, that the daughter of Theon was the only obstacle to the reconciliation of the praefect and the archbishop; and that obstacle was speedily removed. On a fatal day, in the holy season of Lent, Hypatia was torn from her chariot, stripped naked, dragged to the church, and inhumanly butchered by the hands of Peter the reader, and a troop of savage and merciless fanatics: her flesh was scraped from her bones with sharp oyster shells, and her quivering limbs were delivered to the flames. The just progress of inquiry and punishment was stopped by seasonable gifts; but the murder of Hypatia has imprinted an indelible stain on the character and religion of Cyril of Alexandria.