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Hypatia: The Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher

Edward J. Watts
Oxford University Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Fernando Q. Gouvêa
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When we read a biography, we expect to find answers to modern questions. What was the person’s childhood and education like? Why did they do what they did? How would it have felt to meet with him or her? Would she have lost her temper at our inquisitiveness?

Ancient biographies hardly ever discuss such things. One doesn’t find psychological information, and there is rarely any attempt at a disinterested evaluation of a person’s life and achievements. Even when the sources are abundant, as in the cases of Jesus, Socrates, or Julius Caesar, attempts at biographies in the modern sense are usually both unsuccessful and controversial. All too often such biographies closely reflect the biographer’s personality, as Albert Schweitzer famously observed about the early work on “the historical Jesus.”

When it comes to Hypatia, for whom we have very few ancient sources, the difficulty is much greater. She remains a fascinating (and useful) figure nevertheless, so people keep writing about her. That a woman could become a prominent philosopher and influential public figure in late-antique Alexandria is surprising. Her manner of death — a philosopher in her sixties, killed in the streets by a mob led by monks, her body mutilated — shocked cultured people at the time and continues to be discussed today.

Edward J. Watts is a classicist working on Late Antiquity. His interests include the religious world of the period (for example, his book The Last Pagan Generation) and the philosophical schools (most notably in his book on City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria). He is therefore thoroughly well informed on the context in which Hypatia lived and (most famously) died.

Most of the book is an attempt to write about Hypatia’s life. This is very hard to do, as Watts points out on page 5:

Hypatia the symbol has shaded nearly all of what we know of Hypatia the person. But this person is not entirely lost. This book will tell her story.

Our evidence for Hypatia’s life is scanty, it is almost entirely written by men, and it is interested in telling only the stories that appealed most directly to male authors… In Hypatia’s case there is the additional challenge of distilling the details of her life out of the works of authors primarily interested in talking about her death…

The “almost entirely” is surprising. I am not aware of any ancient woman who wrote about Hypatia. But Watt’s comment reflects one of his concerns. This book is very interested in how Hypatia became a philosopher, on the content of her philosophy, and on the fact that she seems to have been influential in Alexandrian politics. He describes a kind of feminist hero: Hypatia overcomes the biases of the male-dominated philosophical schools to become herself a respected teacher.

Given the barest outline of Hypatia’s life, how do we construct a biography? The idea here is to use information about what was typical of the time to reconstruct what “likely” happened in the case of Hypatia. This is tricky, of course, since there is nothing typical about a woman philosophical teacher. Nor was Hypatia’s death the sort of thing that was supposed to happen.

The picture Watts paints is somewhat different from, say, the one drawn by Michael Deakins in his Hypatia of Alexandria. Watts’s Hypatia learned mathematics and some philosophy from her father Theon, then replaced him as the main teacher in his school. She was a Neoplatonist, but one whose ideas were not incompatible with (sufficiently high-minded) Christianity, given that she had Christian students. She felt a responsibility to advise the city’s rulers.

Watts does not say much about Hypatia’s mathematical work, though he does mention that Theon says that she helped revise one of his works. Notably, Theon refers to her as “my daughter Hypatia, the philosopher”! Indeed, the fact that her father was merely a mathematician may have been a difficulty Hypatia had to face, since in the ancient world one of the main ways to establish one’s reputation was to have been a disciple of a reputable teacher. Watts thinks that while she did not “abandon” mathematics,

Hypatia quickly surpassed the level of philosophical teaching her father could provide, however, and she seems to have decided that her father wrongly subordinated philosophy to mathematics. (p. 34)

Watts makes much of Hypatia’s sense of duty toward her city. This appears to be entirely speculative on his part; he reaches that conclusion based on her relationship with Orestes, the Roman governor of Alexandria. She is said by some of the ancient sources to have been his adviser, and Watts portrays this as something expected from a respected philosopher.

Every biographer of Hypatia ends up having to give an account of her brutal murder. Watts calls our attention to the great divide between the sophisticated Alexandrian elite and the many poor and uneducated workers that also lived in the city. On page 19, for example:

When most intellectuals went out, they traveled the city in carriages or litters born by attendants so as to avoid the filth of the streets and the stench of the city air. Most of the time they probably thought little of the people whose shops they passed, whose labor they may not even have observed, and whose daily lives they did not really understand.

Ultimately it is this disconnect that Watts blames for the terrible outcome. The times had changed and the elite did not quite understand that. When “the two Alexandria’s collided,” violence was the result.

Unlike Deakins, Watts does not include the available source material (all the relevant texts take up only 21 pages in Deakins’s book). He easily could have done that, and it would have made his book better, allowing the reader to see the basis on which Watts builds his narrative. Instead, he tells his story first, then turns to a discussion of what the sources actually say. In chapter 9, he summarizes the ancient sources, making the point that almost all of them are motivated to write about Hypatia by her death. One writes about her to make the point that religious controversies create political instability. Another wants to criticize Cyril of Alexandria because he belongs to a different wing of the church. Everyone agrees that Hypatia’s death was a horrible disruption of expected norms, but the explanations differ according to the writer.

The last chapter looks at the images of Hypatia created since the Early Modern period. Again, she is discussed with a view to the points one can make. Hypatia’s death marks the end of the glorious period of Ancient philosophy, or reveals the awfulness of the Catholic Church, or demonstrates the intolerance of the male-dominated world. The images begin to show her as young and beautiful. The accounts of her virginity are forgotten or ignored and Orestes becomes her sometime lover. And so on.

Anyone interested in Hypatia will want to read this book. Those committed to Hypatia the mathematician will probably be disappointed, but they will end up with a much deeper understanding of the culture of Late Antiquity.

Fernando Q. Gouvêa is Carter Professor of Mathematics at Colby College in Waterville, ME.

Table of Contents

List of figures

Introduction: A Lenten Murder

Chapter 1: Alexandria

Chapter 2: Childhood and Education

Chapter 3: The School of Hypatia

Chapter 4: Middle Age

Chapter 5: A Philosophical Mother and her Children

Chapter 6: The Public Intellectual

Chapter 7: Hypatia's Sisters

Chapter 8: Murder in the Street

Chapter 9: The Memory of Hypatia

Chapter 10: A Modern Symbol

Reconsidering A Legend