Hypatia of Alexandria: or, a primer on platonic love

by Charlie Huenemann

Plato, as we know, told tales of an abstract realm beyond the senses, a realm beyond the dim and dark cave we call “the world.” It was a realm of forms, first glimpsed through the discipline of mathematics, and more thoroughly known through philosophical cross-examination, or dialectic. It’s not clear just how much religion there was in Plato’s own philosophy, but that philosophy certainly was enlarged into mystical proportions by the time of Plotinus (204-270 c.e.).

Hypatia2-featuredWe can get a richer sense of this notion – that the pure intellect can grasp divinity – by exploring the life of Hypatia, a mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher who lived in the great city of Alexandria about a century after Plotinus. Hypatia was brilliant and utterly dedicated to the life of the intellect. She was famous as a philosopher and mathematician, and a school formed around her. She was also beautiful (it is said), and attracted many suitors; but she resisted them all in deference to the requirements of her philosophy. She became caught up in a power struggle between the city's governor and its Christian bishop, and met a grisly death at the hands of the bishop's supporters.

Hypatia's life and death has been refashioned many times over the centuries, usually in the attempt either to attack or to defend organized religion. Just reading a pair of book titles is enough to give the general idea. In 1720, the infamous atheist John Toland published Hypatia, or the History of a Most Beautiful, Most Virtuous, Most Learned and in Every Way Accomplished Lady; Who Was Torn to Pieces by the Clergy of Alexandria, to Gratify the Pride, Emulation, and Cruelty of the Archbishop, Commonly but Undeservedly Titled St. Cyril. (Earlier times featured the most informative book titles!) Toland's book was answered promptly in a pamphlet by Thomas Lewis, entitled The History of Hypatia, a Most Impudent School-Mistress of Alexandria: In Defense of St. Cyril and the Alexandrian Clergy from the Aspersions of Mr. Toland. I know of these titles from a more recent work with the decidedly more neutral title, Hypatia of Alexandria, by Maria Dzielska (1995). Dzielska offers an overview of all the various uses in both fiction and scholarly literature to which Hypatia has been put to use, and then delivers a very plausible and thorough account of what we can plausibly put forward as the facts of the case.

We first of all need to put aside the popular view that Hypatia died as a young woman of twenty or so years. In all likelihood, she was born around 355 c.e., and her murder took place around 415. This means she lived for about sixty years, which would have given her plenty of time to earn her reputation as a wise and learned teacher. Furthermore, it was not an angry mob of Christians – let alone a cadre of incensed monks – who murdered her, but in all likelihood it was the trained guards of the city's bishop. And she was not murdered for being an infidel or a feminist (though certainly neither of these qualities helped her any), but because of her perceived role in a clash of local politics.

The story is this. There had been violent conflicts between Jews and Christians in Alexandria, and the governor (Orestes) insisted on holding the Christians responsible for the part they had played in the events. The bishop (Cyril) sought some measure of amnesty for his flock. Hypatia was widely known to be a trusted confidant and advisor of Orestes, and at some point she became the focus of the bishop's rage. According to Dzielska, the bishop's guards struck in March of 415:

Hypatia was returning home, through a street whose name is unknown to us, from her customary ride in the city. She was pulled out of the chariot and dragged to the Church Caesarion, a former temple of the emperor cult. There they tore off her clothes and killed her with “broken bits of pottery” (ostrakois aneilon). Then they hauled her body outside the city to a place called Kinaron, to burn it on a pyre of sticks.

We lack any clear picture of what happened after the murder. We know little or nothing of Orestes' subsequent career. Cyril, it seems, gained popular support within the city and continued to exercise control over Alexandria until his death in 444.

By all accounts, Hypatia was a great and respected teacher. Her father, Theon Alexandricus, was a famous mathematician. Hypatia herself seems not to have been a better mathematician than her father, but the scope of her interests was much broader. She had advanced knowledge of astronomy and the construction of astrolabes, and of course she had profound knowledge of Plotinus’s philosophy. Her many students were utterly devoted to her, and several kept in touch with her in subsequent years in their travels throughout the Mediterranean.

It is likely that some did pursue her romantically, and this leads us to an interesting story. It is said that when one suitor expressed his erotic desire for her, she removed a rag bloody with her menses and threw it in his face, and said something along the lines of, “Here! Is this what you are after?” Hypatia, it seems, had ascended above any interest in erotic relationships, and she found creative ways of guiding her students into the same lofty station.

We find a more romantic depiction of this philosophical ascension beyond erotic love in Iain Pears' 2002 novel, The Dream of Scipio. The novel features a character named Sophia whose father was one of Hypatia's last students. Sophia herself is a philosopher, and she instructs Manlius, a Roman official who finds it extraordinarily difficult to apply her austere wisdom to the choices he is forced to make as the empire falls around him. Sophia is never afraid to speak the cold, harsh truth, and she is always ready to make whatever sacrifices are necessary for the preservation of civilization and philosophical learning. Manlius is in love with her – but with all of her, her mind and soul and body. She then, in a move similar to Hypatia's, directs him to her outhouse and asks if he also loves what can be found there. Of course he does not – but he persists in trying to express what he does love:

“I love the idea of you.” This from their lessons.

“My beauty is a reflection of the divine beauty?” she said ironically. Manlius hung his head in shame; being mocked was not something he could ever accept.

“No. The love I feel is the reflection. As you say, madam, you are not beautiful, although I find you so. If I were as useless as you imply, I would surely have fallen in love with the pretty young serving girl who draws the water at the end of the street every morning I come here. I would have been drowned in her black eyes and her beautiful hair. But I do not. I lie awake thinking of someone much older, who turns no heads when she is not known but fascinates all who have heard her speak. You say that, at its best, the physical craving is a reflection of the desire of the soul to reunite with the ultimate beauty, with God. And can only be justified as such.”

“But I said it was only a reflection. Not a reality. As real as a glass reflected in a pond.”

“But a reflection of water in a mirror can make you thirsty.”

“That is true. And is what you should work towards. You should not bend your mouth to the imaginary glass and try to drink.”

“I know all this. I have learned well. And yet I cannot stop.”

“That is the corruption of the body, its triumph over the soul. The soul is imprisoned, and what you feel is the same as a prisoner in a dark cell who sees nothing but shadows and thinks these are reality. You must study to escape the cell, let your soul contemplate what causes the shadows. That is the purpose of philosophy, and why it is suited to only those few who wish to escape. In the moment of love, when we escape ourselves and become united with the lover, then we have a hint of the joys to come when the soul rejoins the divine; but we think it is a reality of itself. And we lose sight of our aim. That is why it is dangerous.”

Manlius looked at her. “You never feel such things?”

She looked serious. “Often,” she replied. And for the first time her gaze dropped, and would not meet his.

Sophia is trying to train Manlius – and at the same time herself, it seems – to transform the love for particulars into a love for the eternal. The love for particular things (like people) seems powerful and genuine. But according to both Sophia and Hypatia, this love is in fact not what it seems to be. In reality, it is a disguised version of the soul's love of the divine. Yet even if we acknowledge this, it is exceedingly hard, as souls wrapped in finite bodies, not to act on the attraction we feel to other finite bodies. One way to break free of the attraction is to remind ourselves of our lover's stink and blood, and hope that our disgust forces our mind toward a purer love.

Sophia is following the training manual offered by Plotinus himself, in his first Ennead:

The born lover … has a certain memory of beauty but, severed from it now, he no longer comprehends it: spellbound by visible loveliness he clings amazed about that. His lesson must be to fall down no longer in bewildered delight before some one embodied form; he must be led, under a system of mental discipline, to beauty everywhere and made to discern the One Principle underlying all, a Principle apart from the material forms, springing from another source, and elsewhere more truly present. The beauty, for example, in a noble course of life and in an admirably organized social system may be pointed out to him – a first training this in the loveliness of the immaterial – he must learn to recognize the beauty in the arts, sciences, virtues; then these severed and particular forms must be brought under the one principle by the explanation of their origin. From the virtues he is to be led to the Intellectual-Principle, to the Authentic-Existent; thence onward, he treads the upward way.

The upward way is the way to what is both eternal and divine. As Sophia hints, it is the way out of Plato's cave and into the beaming sunlight of the Good. It is a difficult path, turning our devotion from “some one embodied form” to “beauty everywhere”. Those singular forms can be so enticing! But with mental discipline, we can learn to see that what is attractive to us in singular forms can be enjoyed more thoroughly – for it is “more truly present” – when we see it in its true place. We study wider and more universal forms of order and beauty, until at last we are led to consider order and beauty themselves. And this is truly platonic love.

From this general account, we can begin to see how a conflict between governor and bishop came to center on Hypatia. Hypatia would have offered any civil authority an uncompromising standard for justice. And yet in her day as in ours, civil harmony often requires negotiated compromise. For a philosopher like Hypatia to compromise on matters of justice, though, is to cheat on one's lover; it is to sacrifice a higher and greater love for a more mundane craving. Hypatia, like Socrates, did as her wisdom dictated. The final irony is that her death was brought about by a bishop – that is, a man who was supposed to be an emissary of the eternal word.