Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Hypatia of Alexandria


Hypatia of Alexandria’s (370/375 A.D.-415A.D.) history is riddled with varying accounts and half-truths. Two sources have different years for Hypatia’s birth, one sources dates her birth between 370-375 and another at 375 A.D. Hypatia lived during the time paganism was reaching its end and Christianity was gaining followers and power. Theon, her father, was a teacher of mathematics and astronomy at the Museum. The Museum was a school or more like a center of mathematics and science where Ptolemy’s successors merged physics, mathematics, and philosophy into an applied natural philosophy. Hypatia’s early education is still debated, as there is no record of it. It was assumed by many that Theon taught her but he had not trained in philosophy. Hypatia, however, was known to have taught philosophy in Alexandria, so an inference was made that her training was received from philosophers of the Neo-Platonic school at Alexandria. One of the sources, Hoche, assumed that Hypatia was educated by mathematicians at the Museum in Alexandria and by other scholars there too. She obtained the position of a teacher after her studies at the Museum.
Being a teacher allowed Hypatia to explore and to continue with her studies in philosophy, science, and mathematics. One of her students, Damascius, stated she taught geometry and mathematics. Another, Hesychius, stated she was a great astronomer like her father. One of her most significant pupils was Synesius who was almost exclusively educated by Hypatia. From Synesius’ letters, it has been determined that Hypatia taught the works of Plato and Aristotle, as well as Neo-Platonism, astronomy, mechanics, and mathematics. Hypatia taught and worked during a time where paganism and Christianity were struggling against each other for power. It took courage and strong intellect to teach these subjects in Alexandria.

By 404 A.D., Hyaptia was appointed head of the Neo-Platonic school at Alexandria. Her works included a commentary on Diophantus’ Arithmeticorum, an Astronomical Canon that formed part of her commentary on Ptolemy’s Syntaxis Mathematica, and a commentary on the Conic Sections of Apollonius Pergaeus. She focused more on the writings concerning metaphysics, cosmology, and epistemology. She used philosophy to form a foundation for her intellectual pursuit of astronomy. Through theorems and scientific theories, Hypatia worked to answer philosophical questions of “Who are we, what is our place in the order of things, what is the nature of god…” (Waithe, 176).

Personal Response

It is incredible to learn that a woman could be not just a teacher but also an influential and amazing one in a time of political, religious, and social upheaval. How much weight could be placed in the information provided remains to be seen. Waithe seems to favor one source above others, using Hoche’s assumptions as factual information about Hypatia. It is troubling that the information written could possibly be false or hold very little truth to it. Working with antiquity, it is by no means surprising that information is limited and often full of assumptions, rather than actual factual information. Hypatia did have students of her own and there seemed to be references to her as a teacher of mathematics and science, but still how much truth could be held in them? Waithe commented that some of the sources stated Hypatia’s work had not survived and are considered to be myths. Only for the last decade or so did Hypatia’s work come up in various searches but it was still inconclusive whether it was truly Hypatia’s work. It would have been amazing to know for sure whether the things described really did happen. If so, then why have views about the roles of women in education (especially philosophy and the “male subjects”) changed from Ancient Greece to the Middle Ages to now? How could women be heads of a school in one period of time only to be subjected to discrimination and put on the bottom rung a few hundred years later? 


Chapter 9. "Hypatia of Alexandria" of A History of Women Philosophers: Ancient Women Philosophers 600 B.C.-500 A.D. by Mary Ellen Waithe

1 comment:

  1. I do not think women were head of school at any time, at best most gain positions from their fathers fame and instruction. I think "head of school" should be a title given to someone who has made tremendous contribution to a field or school. (This is obviously subjective... In this case, how can no works of a "head of school" survive? Impossible. Women of the past are the same as today; they are "repositories" of knowledge. When men go off to fight in wars, the children and women are left behind. They are then seen as "teachers". Women are always seeking, but cannot of their own "generate". The truth remains that men are the generative creative force in body, soul, spirit and mind, while women are like the moon which reflects the light of the sun. Example: Will the next big frontier come out of woman's mind or Man's? Place your bets! Need help? Who do you see "tinkering" with "stuff" That is not to say that women do not have their place. They do, but I would certainly say they are not the teachers in this world, despite what the minority might think. The "pill" and "abortion" has encouraged many women to "study" since they can now remedy a situation that would have placed them in a difficult position otherwise. Indeed, many use the "profession" to pay for their education and others to get to the top. You are welcome :)