Universal Brotherhood – April 1898

HYPATIA: A TRAGEDY OF LENT — Alexander Wilder

"This was done during Lent," says the historian Sokrates.

"There was a woman in Alexandreia named Hypatia, a daughter of Theon the philosopher, so learned that she surpassed all the savants of the time. She therefore succeeded to the Chair of Philosophy in that branch of the Platonic School which follows Plotinos, and gave public lectures on all the doctrines of that school. Students resorted to her from all parts, for her deep learning made her both serious and fearless in speech, while she bore herself composedly, even before the magistrates, and mixed among men in public without misgiving. Her exceeding modesty was extolled and praised by all. So, then, wrath and envy were kindled against this woman."

Little record has been preserved of Hypatia beyond the mention by her contemporaries of her learning, her personal beauty and her tragic fate. That little, however, possesses a peculiar significance, setting forth as it does, the history of the period, and the great changes which the world was then undergoing.

 Since the time of Augustus Caesar, Alexandreia had ranked as one of the Imperial cities of the Roman world. It excelled other capitals in the magnificence of its buildings, and in its wealth, created and sustained by an extensive commerce. Its former rulers had been liberal and even lavish in every expenditure that might add to its greatness. The advantages of the place had been noted by the Macedonian Conqueror, when on his way to the Oasis of Amun and afterward, acting under the direction of a dream, he fixed upon it for the site of a new city to perpetuate his own name. He personally planned the circuit of the walls and the directions of the principal streets, and selected sites for temples to the gods of Egypt and Greece. The architect Deinokrates was then commissioned to superintend the work. He had already distinguished himself as the builder of the temple of the Great Goddess of Ephesus, whom "all Asia and the world worshipped," and had actually offered to carve Mount Athos into a statue of his royal master, holding a city in its right hand. Under Ptolemy, the royal scholar, the new Capital had been completed by him, and became the chief city of a new Egypt, the seat of commerce between India and the West, and the intellectual metropolis of the occidental world.

Its celebrity, however, was due, not so much to its grand buildings or even to its magnificent lighthouse, the Pharos, justly considered as one of the Seven Wonders of the Earth, as to its famous School of Learning, and to its library of seven hundred thousand scrolls, the destruction of which is still deplored by lovers of knowledge. The temples Memphis, Sais and Heliopolis had been so many universities, depositories of religious, philosophic and scientific literature, and distinguished foreigners like Solon, Thales, Plato, Eudoxos and Pythagoras had been admitted to them; but now they were cast into the shade by the new metropolis with its cosmopolitan liberality. The Alexandreian School included among its teachers and lecturers, not only Egyptian priests and learned Greeks, but sages and philosophers from other countries.

The wall of exclusiveness that had before separated individuals of different race and nation, was in a great measure, broken down. Religious worship heretofore circumscribed in isolated forms to distinctive peoples, tribes and family groups, became correspondingly catholic and its rites accessible to all. The mystery-god of Egypt, bearing the ineffable name of Osiris or Hyasir, was now Serapis, in whom the personality and attributes of the other divinities of the pantheons were merged. (1)

 "There is but one sole God for them all," the Emperor Hadrian wrote to his friend Servianus: "him do the Christians, him do the Jews, him do all the Gentiles also worship."

Philosophy likewise appeared in new phases. Missionaries from Buddhistic India, (2) Jaina (3) sages, Magian and Chaldaean teachers and Hebrew Rabbis came to Alexandreia and discoursed acceptably with philosophers from Asia, Greece and Italy. From these sources there came into existence an Eclectic philosophy, in which were combined the metaphysic of the West and the recondite speculation of the East. The various religious beliefs took other shapes accordingly, and expounders of the Gnosis, or profounder esoteric knowledge abounded alike with native Egyptians, Jews and Christians.

In the earlier years of the third century of the present era there arose a School of philosophic speculation which brought together in closer harmony the principal dogmas which were then current. Its founder, Ammonios Sakkas, was, according to his own profession, a lover and seeker for the truth. He was in no way a critic hunting for flaws in the teaching of others, but one who believed that the genuine knowledge might exist in a diffused form, partly here and partly there, among the various systems. He sought accordingly to bring the parts together by joining in harmonious union the doctrines of Plato and Pythagoras with the Ethics of Zeno and the reasonings of Aristotle, and perfecting it with what is sometimes termed the Wisdom of the East. His disciples were obligated to secrecy, but the restriction was afterward set aside. Plotinos and Porphyry extended the sphere of his teachings, giving them more completely the character of a religion. Iamblichos went further, adding the arcane doctrine and the mystic worship of Egypt and Assyria. (4)

The Alexandreian School of Philosophy, thus established, included within its purview the esoteric dogmas of all the Sacred Rites in the several countries.

A new Rome came into existence on the banks of the Bosphoros, and a new religion was proclaimed for the Roman world. The changes, however, were far from radical. The earlier Byzantine Emperors were too sagacious politicians to permit revolutionary innovations. Religion and civil administration were interwoven in the same web and the subversion of either would be fatal to the other. Constantine himself was a "soldier" or initiated worshipper of Mithras as well as a servant of Christ. (5)

His successors encouraged an extensive intermingling which should render Christianity more catholic and thus more acceptable to all classes of the population. Meanwhile there arose other diversities of religious belief, violent disputes in regard to ecclesiastical rank and verbal orthodoxy, often culminating in bloody conflicts. The older worship was finally prohibited under capital penalties.

Persecution became general. Nowhere, perhaps, was it more cruel and vindictive than at Alexandreia. The modern city of Paris horrified the world with its populace overawing the Government, destroying public buildings, desecrating cemeteries and religious shrines, and murdering without mercy or scruple. Similar scenes became common in the capital of the Ptolemies. The dissenters from the later orthodoxy, followers of Clement and Origen were driven from the city; the Catechetic School which they had maintained was closed, the occult worship of the Cave of Mithras was forcibly suspended, the temple of Serapis sacked, the statues broken to pieces, the Great Library, the glory of Alexandreia, scattered and destroyed.

With these violent procedures there came also a wonderful transformation. The temples were consecrated anew as churches, and the rites of the former worship were adopted, together with the symbols and legends, under other forms, as Christian, Catholic and orthodox. Even mummies were carried from Egypt as relics of martyrs.

Learning, however, was still in the hands of the adherents of the old religion. They continued their labors faithfully, giving as little offense as they were able. Theon, Pappos and Diophantos taught mathematical science at the Serapeion; and some of their writings are yet remaining to attest the extent of their studies and observations.

Hypatia, the daughter of Theon, was worthy of her name (6) and parentage. Her father had made her from early years his pupil and companion, and she profited richly from his teaching. She wrote several mathematical works of great merit, which have perished with the other literature of that period. She was also diligent in the study of law, and became an effective and successful pleader in the courts, for which she was admirably qualified by her learning and fascinating eloquence. She was not content, however, with these acquirements, but devoted herself likewise, with ardent enthusiasm, to the study of philosphy. She was her own preceptor, and set apart to these pursuits the entire daytime and a great part of the night. Though by no means ascetic in her notions, she adhered persistently to the celibate life, in order that there might be no hindrance to her purposes. It was an ancient fashion of philosophers to travel for a season for the sake of acquaintance with the greater world, and to become more thorough and practical in mental attainments. Hypatia accordingly followed this example. On coming to Athens, she remained there and attended the lectures of the ablest instructors. Thus she now gained a reputation for scholarship which extended as far as the Greek language was spoken.

Upon her return to Alexandreia, the magistrates invited her to become a lecturer on philosophy. The teachers who had preceded her had made the school celebrated throughout the world, but their glory was exceeded by the discourses of the daughter of Theon. She was ambitious to reinstate the Platonic doctrines in their ancient form, in preference to the Aristotelian dogma and the looser methods which had become common. She was the first to introduce a rigorous procedure into philosophic teaching. She made the exact sciences the basis of her instructions, and applied their demonstration to the principles of speculative knowledge. Thus she became the recognized head of the Platonic School.

Among her disciples were many persons of distinction. Of this number was Synesios, of Cyrene, to whom we are indebted for the principal memorials of her that we now possess. He was of Spartan descent, a little younger than his teacher, and deeply imbued with her sentiments. He remained more than a year at Alexandreia, attending her lectures on philosophy, mathematics and the art of oratory. He afterward visited Athens, but formed a low estimate of what was to be learned there. "I shall no longer be abashed at the erudition of those who have been there," he writes. "It is not because they seem to know much more than the rest of us mortals about Plato and Aristotle, but because they have seen the places, the Akademeia, and the Lykeion, and the Stoa where Zeno used to lecture, they behave themselves among us like demigods among donkeys."

He could find nothing worthy of notice in Athens, except the names of her famous localities. "It is Egypt in our day," he declares, "that cultivates the seeds of wisdom gathered by Hypatia. Athens was once the very hearth and home of learning; but now it is the emporium of the trade in honey!"

Mr. Kingsley has set forth in his usual impressive style, the teaching and character of this incomparable woman. (7) He depicts her cruel fate in vivid colors. He represents her as being some twenty-five years of age; she must have been some years older at the period which he has indicated.

Synesios, her friend, had now been for some years the bishop of Ptolemais in Cyrenaica. This dignity, however, he had accepted only after much persuasion. He was of amiable disposition, versatile, and of changeable moods. He had consented to profess the Christian religion, and the prelate, Theophilus, persuaded him to wed a Christian wife, perhaps to divert him from his devoted regard for his former teacher, he refused, however, to discard his philosophic beliefs. He had been living in retirement at his country home, when he was chosen by acclamation, by the church in Ptolemais, to the episcopal office. He was barely persuaded to accept upon his own terms. He pleaded his fondness for diversion and amusement, and refused inflexibly to put away his wife or play the part of a hypocrite in the matter. He explained his position in a letter to his brother.

"It is difficult, I may say that it is impossible, that a truth which has been scientifically demonstrated and once accepted by the understanding, should ever be eradicated from the mind. Much of what is held by the mass of men is utterly repugnant to philosophy. It is absolutely impossible for me to believe either that the soul is created subsequently to the body, or that this material universe will ever perish. As for that doctrine of the Resurrection which they bruit about, it is to me a sacred mystery, but I am far enough from sharing the popular view. . . As to preaching doctrines which I do not hold, I call God and man to witness that this I will not do. Truth is of the essence of God, before whom I desire to stand blameless, and the one thing that I can not undertake is to dissimulate."

Singular and incredible as it may appear, this disavowal of doctrines generally regarded as essential and distinctive, was not considered an obstacle that might not be surmounted. The patriarch of Alexandreia had been extreme and unrelenting in his violent procedures against the ancient religion. He was, however, politic in his action, and knew well the character of the man whose case he had in hand, Synesios had as a layman, exhibited his ability in diplomatic service, his efficiency in the transacting of public business, and his utter unselfishness in matters relating to personal advantage. Such a man in a province like Cyrenaica, was invaluable.

It would be more difficult, therefore, for a person who had been reared and schooled in the ways of modern times to apprehend intelligently the motives of Synesios himself. He certainly found it almost impossible to overcome his reluctance. Seven months of preparation were allotted to him previous to engaging in the new duties. He prayed often for death and even thought seriously of leaving the country. He was permitted to retain his family circle, and to hold his philosophic beliefs, but only required to give a formal acquiescence to what he considered mythologic fables. Under these conditions he consented to receive baptism and consecration to the episcopal office. Yet in an address to his new associates he expressed the hope that by the mercy of God he might find the priesthood a help rather than a hindrance to philosophy.

He did not, however, break off correspondence with Hypatia. He had been in the habit of sending to her his scientific works for her judgment, and he continued in great emergencies to write to her for sympathy and counsel. His brief term of office was full of anxiety and trouble. He administered his duties with energy and rare fidelity, not shrinking from an encounter with the Roman prefect of the province. But misfortune came and he found himself ill able to meet it. A pestilence ravaged Libya, and his family were among the victims. He himself succumbed to sickness. In his last letter to her whom he calls his "sister, mother, teacher and benefactor," he describes his sad condition of mind and body.

"My bodily infirmity comes of the sickness of my soul. The memory of my dear children overpowers me. Synesios ought never to have survived his good days. Like a torrent long dammed up, calamity has burst upon me and the savor of life is gone. If you care for me it is well; if not, this, too, I can understand."

It is supposed by historians, that his death took place not long afterward. He was spared, then, from a terrible grief, which he might have considered the most appalling of all. For it was not many months after that his venerated teacher herself fell a victim, under the most revolting circumstances, to the mob in Alexandreia.

We are told that Hypatia taught the Platonic Philosophy in a purer form than any of her later predecessors. Her eloquence made its abstruse features attractive, and her method of scientific demonstration rendered these clearer to the common understanding. Like Plotinos, she insisted strenuously upon the absolute Oneness of the Divine Essence. From this radiates the Creative Principle, the Divine Mind as a second energy, yet it is one with the First. In this Mind are the forms, ideals or models of all things that exist in the world of sense. (8) From it, in due order, proceeded a lesser divinity, the Spirit of Nature, or Soul of the World, from which all things are developed. In abstract terms these may be represented as Goodness, Wisdom and Energy. In regard to human beings it was taught that they are held fast by an environment of material quality, from which it is the province of the philosophic discipline to extricate them. This is substantially the same doctrine as is propounded in the Vedanta and the Upanishads.

Plotinos tells us of a superior form of knowing, illumination through intuition. It is possible for us, he declared, to become free from the bondage and limitations of time and sense, and to receive from the Divine Mind direct communication of the truth. This state of mental exaltation was denominated ecstasy, a withdrawing of the soul from the distractions of external objects to the contemplation of the Divine Presence which is immanent within — the fleeing of the spirit, the lone one, to the Alone. In the present lifetime, Plotinos taught that this may take place at occasional periods only, and for brief spaces of time; but in the life of the world that is beyond time and sense, it can be permanent. (9)

Synesios makes a declaration of the same tenor. "The power to do good," he writes to Aurelian, "is all that human beings possess in common with God; and imitation is identification, and unites the follower to him whom he follows."

Much of this philosophy, however, had been already accepted, though perhaps in grosser form, as Christian experience. The legends of that period abound with descriptions of ecstatic vision and intimate communion with Deity. The philosophers taught that the Divinity was threefold in substance, the Triad, or Third, proceeding from the Duad or Divine Mind, and ruled by the ineffable One. Clement, of the Gnostic school, deduced from a letter of Plato that the great philosopher held that there are three persons, or personations in the Godhead, and now in a cruder shape, it became an article of faith. To this the Egyptian Christians added the veneration of the Holy Mother, and various symbols and observances which belonged to the worship that had been suppressed.

This was the state of affairs when Cyril became patriarch of Alexandreia. Hypatia was at the height of her fame and influence. Not only the adherents of the old religion, but Jews and even Christians were among her disciples. The most wealthy and influential of the inhabitants thronged her lecture-room. They came day after day to hear her explain the literature of Greece and Asia, the theorems of mathematicians and geometers and the doctrines of sages and philosophers. The prefect of Egypt, himself a professed Christian, resorted to her for counsel and instruction.

Cyril was endowed with a full measure of the ambition which characterized the prelates of that time. He was not a man to scruple at measures that he might rely upon to accomplish his ends. Like Oriental monarchs, he was ready with pretexts and instruments for the removal of all who might stand in his way. He was not willing to divide power, whether ecclesiastic or secular. A course of persecution was begun at once. The Novatians or Puritans, a dissenting sect of anabaptists, were expelled from the city, their churches closed and their property confiscated. The prefect strove in vain to check the summary procedure; the mob at the command of the prelate was beyond his authority. The Jews were next to suffer. "Cyril headed the mob in their attacks upon the Jewish synagogues; they broke them open and plundered them, and in one day drove every Jew out of the city." The efforts of the prefect in their behalf only served to turn the current of fanatic fury upon him. Five hundred monks hastened from their retreats to fight for the patriarch. Meeting the prefect in the street in his open chariot, they taunted him with being an idolater and a Greek, and one of them hurled a stone, which wounded him in the head. They were speedily dispersed by his guards, and the offending monk was put to death with tortures. Cyril at once declared the man a martyr and a saint, but the ridicule which followed upon this proceeding, soon induced him to recall his action.

We have read the story of Haman at the court of the king of Persia. He was advanced above all princes and received homage, except from Mordecai the Jew. Recounting to his wife the distinction to which he had been promoted, he said: "Yet all this availeth me nothing, so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king's gate." The patriarch of Alexandreia appears to have cherished similar sentiments. He was a prince in the Church, with power exceeding that of any official south of the Mediterranean. He had but to give the signal and an army of monks would hurry to his call, ready to do or die. But all this did not avail, while the long train of chariots continued to assemble daily before the door of Hypatia's lecture-room. Like Haman, he resolved to put an end to his mortification. He had not been able to close the Academy, but he could make an end of her who was its chief attraction, and the principal obstacle to his ambition.

"The thing was done during Lent," says Sokrates. At this period the city of Alexandreia was crowded by multitudes from other places, desirous to participate in the religious services. Cyril had been zealous to substitute Christian observances for similar customs of the old worship, and this was one of them. Alexandreia was for the time at his mercy. He was thoroughly skilled in the art of exciting the passions, and he was surrounded by men who knew well his bent and how to do what he wished without a suggestion from him to involve him directly in the responsibility. He needed only to indicate the School and its teacher as the great obstacle to the triumph of the Church. They were then ready to carry into effect what he purposed.

Mr. Kingsley has described the occurrence in dramatic style. "I heard Peter (the reader) say: 'She that hindereth will hinder till she be taken out of the way,' And when he went into the passage, I heard him say to another: 'That thou doest, do quickly.'"

It was on the morning of the fifteenth of March, 415, — the fatal Ides, the anniversary of the murder of the greatest of the Caesars. Hypatia set out as usual in her chariot to drive to the lecture-room. She had not gone far when the mob stopped the way. On every side were men howling with all the ferocity of hungry wolves. She was forced out of the vehicle and dragged along the ground to the nearest church. This was the ancient Caesar's temple, which had been dedicated anew to the worship of the Christian Trinity. Here she had been denounced by Cyril and her doom determined by his servitors. Her dress was now torn in shreds by their ruffianly violence. She stood by the high altar, beneath the statue of Christ.

"She shook herself free from her tormentors," says Kingsley, "and, springing back, rose for one moment to her full height, naked, snow-white against the dusky mass around — shame and indignation in those wide, clear eyes, but not a stain of fear. With one hand she clasped her golden locks around her; the other long, white arm was stretched upward toward the great still Christ, appealing — and who dare say in vain? — from man to God. Her lips were open to speak; but the words that should have come from them reached God's ear alone; for in an instant Peter struck her down, the dark mass closed over her again, . . . and then wail on wail, long, wild, ear-piercing, rang along the vaulted roofs, and thrilled like the tram-pet of avenging angels through Philammon's ears."

While yet breathing, the assailants in a mad fury tore her body like tigers, limb from limb; and after that, bringing oyster-shells from the market, they scraped the flesh from the bones. Then gathering up the bleeding remains they ran with them through the streets to the place of burning, and having consumed them, threw the ashes into the sea. "The thing was done during Lent."

FOOTNOTES:

1. The great image of King Nebuchadnezzar, which is described in the book of Daniel, was evidently a simulacrum of this divinity; and the Rev. C. W. King further declares in so many words that "there can be no doubt that the head supplied the first idea of the conventional portraits of the Saviour." — Gnostics and their Remains. (return to text)

2. "The Grecian King besides, by whom the Egyptian Kings, Ptolemaios and Antigonos (Gangakenos or Gonatos) and Magas have been induced to allow both here and in foreign countries everywhere, that the people may follow the doctrine of the religion of Devananpiga, wheresoever it reacheth." — Edict of Asoka, King of India. (return to text)

3. This term is derived from the Sanskrit jna to know; and signifies well-knowing, profoundly intelligent. The designation of the new doctrine of that period, the Gnosis, was from this origin. (return to text)

4. Reply of Abammon to Porphyry. (return to text)

5. Sopater, who succeeded Iamblichos as head of the School at Alexandreia, had been employed by Constantine to perform the rites of consecration for the new capital; but the Emperor afterward quarrelled with him, and sentenced him to death. (return to text)

6. The same Hypatia (Υπατεί α) signifies highest, most exalted, best. In this instance it would not be difficult to suppose that it had been conferred posthumously, or at best as a title of distinction. This, in fact, was an Egyptian custom, as in the case of the native kings, and now of the Roman pontiffs. (return to text)

7. Hypatia, or New Foes with an Old Face. (return to text)

8. Reply of Abammon to Porphyry, VIII., ii. "For the Father perfected all things and delivered them to the Second Mind, which the whole race of men denominate the First.- Chaldaean Oracles. (return to text)

9. I sent my soul through the Invisible
Some letter of that After-Life to spell:
And by and by my soul returned to me,
And answered: "I myself am Heaven and Hell!" — Omar Khayam. (return to text)


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