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Hypatia from the "The School of Athens" by Raphael

Hypatia from the “The School of Athens” by Raphael

It’s Women’s History Month and I’m back with the latest installment on my favorite Lady Philosopher, Hypatia of Alexandria. This year I’m tackling Hypatia’s sister philosophers. Hypatia didn’t spring from her father’s forehead fully girded and ready for combat in the primarily male world of Late Antiquity. There is a long history of women philosophers—”lovers of wisdom”— down through the ages, and Hypatia is just one link in that chain. More than thirty-five women are attested to in the records leading up to, and contemporary with, Hypatia—and those are just the women whose heads (and intellect) rose above the crowd enough to be noticed by the decidedly biased ancient historians. One, ARETE of Cyrene (c 400/300 BCE )  ran a school of philosophy seven hundred years before Hypatia. Nine of those women studied (what early nineteenth century scholars later called) Neoplatonism. Two (that we know of) taught both men and women.

Since thirty-five is far too many women to profile, I’ll concentrate on the Neoplatonists and leave the rest for another post. (Please go to Women-philosophers.com, maintained by Kate Lindemann Ph.D., professor emerita at Mount Saint Mary College – Newburgh, New York, for overviews on more than 110 remarkable women philosophers.) When telling the stories of women scholars in history, it is impossible to separate them from their male relatives and teachers. A little context: the vast majority of people—men and women—until recent times, were illiterate, uneducated, and labored in agriculture and resource extraction. Only a small elite could afford education and that generally was reserved for the sons.

But not always.

History is filled with fathers who educated their daughters (including Theon and Hypatia). Because of genuine affection, they had no sons, or the girls were too brilliant to ignore—it didn’t matter. It happened. (Even today, research shows that a father’s encouragement distinctly improves the chances a girl will do well, and chose a career, in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and math.) Because the educated elite was such a small circle, these women tended to marry inside it (if they married) and have children that followed in their footsteps. If they didn’t teach directly, they educated their children, who did teach. So let’s take a look at the Neoplatonists and the extraordinary women who contributed to this philosophy’s development and dissemination.

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Hypatia: Hher Life and Times coverMy writing is drawing some attention. This time it’s my non-fiction collection of essays about Hypatia. A couple of months ago I received an intriguing email from a science radio show. Someone there had heard about my book and thought Hypatia would be a good subject for an interview. Ever eager to promote greater knowledge about this neglected woman scholar, I said yes and sent off a copy of my book. They loved it! Last month I had a lovely conversation with the producer and interviewer. This month the interview is up for your listening pleasure at Science for the People as “Hypatia and Women in STEM” (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Enjoy!

I had no idea when I pulled these essays and articles together a year and half ago, Hypatia: Her Life and Times would become so popular. I’ve sold copies around the world and it ranks in the top twenty of books on ancient history sold on iTunes (right after Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). Hypatia has quite a fan club in cyber space. If you want more information about the book, check out the this page on my web site. Thanks to everyone to who has supported indie publishing by buying and reviewing this book!

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Normally, I restrict this blog to historical notes and book reviews, but this is a special occasion. My book Selene of Alexandria is a featured read this Saturday, October 26, at The Fussy Librarian, a website that offers personalized ebook recommendations. You choose from thirty genres and indicate preferences about content and the computer works its magic. I’ve signed up for the service and get a personalized list of ebook recommendations every day. All the recommended books cost $5.99 or less and have rankings of 4 stars or better. Check it out at TheFussyLibrarian.com

Selene of Alexandria CoverFor those not familiar with my novel, here’s the back cover blurb:

“…readers will be captivated” – Historical Novel Society

“…an entertaining and enlightening novel….a fine read through and through.” – Midwest Book Reviews

“… does what historical fiction does best—weave historical fact, real-life historical figures, and attention to detail with page-turning, plot-driven fiction.” – The Copperfield Review

This story of ambition, love and political intrigue brings to life colorful characters and an exotic time and place. In A.D. 412 Alexandria, against the backdrop of a city torn by religious and political strife, Selene struggles to achieve her dream of becoming a physician–an unlikely goal for an upper class Christian girl. Hypatia, the famed Lady Philosopher of Alexandria and the Augustal Prefect Orestes offer their patronage and protection. But will it be enough to save Selene from murderous riots, the machinations of a charismatic Bishop and–most dangerous of all–her own impulsive nature?

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WWII PosterReaders of this blog know I like to highlight fiction and non-fiction that present capable women with strong personalities. I read a post in a forum recently that intrigued me. The person was looking for historical fiction recommendations, but “none of those anachronistic modern women dressed up in historical costumes crap.” I don’t think he was disparaging time travel fiction and, yes, I’ve read a few stories where the women seem to have more modern sensibilities than might be warranted. But not all strong females in historical fiction are anachronistic. I’ve read other blog posts by historical fiction writers also deploring recent criticism about strong women described by readers as “too modern” in spite of ample historical evidence that women did and thought as the writers wrote them. Where does the dissonance come from? Why would a reader think a woman couldn’t be a doctor in Late Antiquity, captain a whaling ship, or teach men to fly planes during WWII — all documented events?

I blame school history books. The protagonist in my novel, Selene of Alexandria is a young woman who wants to become a physician in fifth century Alexandria — not a “healer” or midwife — a trained and apprenticed physician. There is ample written and archaeological evidence of women physicians through the ages, including this period. But if you don’t look outside the traditional history texts, you wouldn’t know that. (more…)

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Hypatia: Hher Life and Times coverHypatia of Alexandria.
Who was she? A brilliant young mathematician and scientist, murdered by a religious mob? An aging academic taken out by a rival political party? A sorceress who kept the Prefect and people of Alexandria in thrall through satanic wiles? Did she discover that the earth circled the sun 1000 years before Copernicus or was she merely a gifted geometry teacher?

Hypatia has been the subject of much mythmaking through the centuries. She’s featured in poetry, plays, novels and movies. Many people “quote” her, including one of my favorites: “Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fantasies.” I’ve studied Hypatia and her times since 1980. No writing by her has survived. This oft-quoted statement and many others are fabrications—fables—created by modern authors. Ironically, many who champion truth perpetuate a mythical version of Hypatia’s life and words. This collection of essays pulls back the curtain and lets the reader see the real Hypatia, a remarkable woman in her own right. I’m sure, like me, you’ll find Hypatia needs no embellishment to be a heroine. (more…)

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It’s Women’s History Month, so here’s another Hypatia article! I’ve posted several in the past two years and put this one off, because it’s such a tricky one. As anyone who has studied Hypatia knows, there is little out there in the way of primary sources. Only a few pages come down to us from those times and almost none can be attributed to Hypatia, except a couple of technical works on mathematics and astronomy. (See my earlier post “Hypatia: Great Mathematician or Geometry Teacher?”) We don’t have much to go on; no diaries, no letters from her, nothing to tell us in her own words what her life was like. We have to rely on the witness of others. So who are these people and what ax did they have to grind (if any) in writing about Hypatia? For all those Hypatia fans out there, I’ve reviewed the four most extensive, and most quoted, primary sources and summarized what historians have generally come to believe about the motives of the authors. For organization’s sake, I’ll go chronologically, starting with one of my favorite characters from Hypatia’s story: Synesius of Cyrene.

The letters of Synesius, Bishop of Ptolemais

(c. 394 – 413)

Synesius (b. 370, d. 413) was the son of a wealthy family from the province of Cyrene (modern day Libya), who studied with Hypatia in the early 390’s. He remained devoted to her and corresponded regularly after he moved back to his family estate. In 409, the people of Ptolemais asked him to be their bishop. As a Neo-Platonist, he didn’t believe in the Christian dogma, including the resurrection, which he considered “nothing for me but a sacred and mysterious allegory, and I am far from sharing the views of the vulgar crowd thereon.” He dithered for over six months, before agreeing to take on the Bishopric, but only with several conditions, including keeping his beloved wife. Because he made that decision, his writing has come down to us through the voluminous Patrologiae Graecae (PG), a compendium of Greek writings important to the early Christian church. We have access to several of his speeches, essays, hymns, homilies, and 159 letters. Six of those letters and a fragment of a seventh are addressed to Hypatia, including the final one dictated from his deathbed. Another four letters mention her. In one she is described as “the most holy philosopher” and, in another, Synesius received “the fruitful wisdom of Hypatia.” (English translations can be found here.) (more…)

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Image of Hypatia

Hypatia, the Lady Philosopher of Alexandria, is best known for her gruesome murder at the hands of a mob in AD 415. Her martyrdom takes pride of place in the historical narrative of many groups including mathematicians and scientists. I’ve written extensively about my search for the “real” Hypatia and the politics surrounding her death. I’m still fascinated and set up a Google Alert on her name, so I can participate in online discussions. Mostly I get hits on her namesake philosophy magazine (they’re looking for a new editor), the digital archival materials software (recently released version 0.8.0) and the woman who blogs about her cat (Hypatia doesn’t like the new kittens.) About once or twice a month there will be a post from a student at some public Q&A site, “So I’m doing a paper on Hypatia. I heard she invented the hydroscope and helped her dad with his math book. What else did she do?”

I realized many people (not just students) are puzzled over Hypatia’s contributions to math and science. There’s a lot of magical thinking about her life and work. The movie Agora used a mythical search for heliocentrism (the sun as the center of the solar system vs. the Ptolemaic earth-centered view, held by most people at the time) as a metaphor for Hypatia’s scientific thinking. So what did she do? Did she discover any important scientific or mathematical principles? Was she merely a glorified teacher who would be lost to history except for her extraordinarily brutal death? Here’s my best take on Hypatia’s contributions…and students remember this is copyrighted material; no cutting and pasting for your papers, but feel free to check out the reference at the end, quote and attribute! (more…)

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