Remember Hypatia: Brian Trent
Brian Trent recently recorded a show with The Rational Response Squad. It will be available in shows 30-40 for purchase. It's set to air sometime in November or early December on FreethoughtMedia.com when the responders air their weekly show.
By Brian Trent
“She should have kept her mouth shut.”
The words reached my ears, delivered with a smile and the threat of a laugh, by the well-dressed 50-something gentleman facing me. It might have been the punch-line to a joke, and reflexively I sought for that context in his statement. Some benefit of the doubt.
From across the wooden podium, standing, I regarded his smile. “Really?” I asked in a measured tone.
The bookstore in New Haven, Connecticut was clearing of the audience I had just lectured to. The last day of National Banned Books Week was waning into a listless Saturday afternoon, but I was still flush with my presentation, still fueled by the memory of a long-dead woman who had possessed my heart for the year it took me to write about her. She had lived 1,600 years before my birth, and had been murdered – by a man now deemed a Christian Saint. Brilliant and beautiful, daring and audacious, and silenced. . . brutally.
For an hour I had lectured on her life and times, and then entertained a Q&A with the audience for another hour before thanking them for turning out on this afternoon. I had signed books, I had shaken hands, and the room was growing vacant of bodies and sound.
“She should have kept her mouth shut.”
I stared hard at the well-dressed man who watched me.
The ultimate form of censorship, said George Bernard Shaw, is assassination. A more fitting epitaph for Hypatia of Alexandria can scarcely be written. Nor can a better warning for those wishing to speak out today.
Hypatia of Alexandria lived in the great melting pot community of the ancient world, a multicultural stew built by Alexander the Great in the lush, green Nile Delta. It’s no exaggeration to draw a ready comparison between her home metropolis and America, with its mix of races, religions, and classes. Meats sizzled from street vendor ovens, chariots navigated the bustling residential streets, and the banners of dozens of vessels flapped in the sea breeze of the great harbor where the Nile emptied into the Mediterranean Sea. Alexandria. . . gemstone of the Greco-Roman world.
If you were a woman in the Greco-Roman world, however, you had one role-model to memorize: ever-faithful Penelope from The Odyssey. With a husband presumed dead and her home invaded by suitors, Penelope was afforded one act of defiance. She wove a tapestry by day, claiming that once it was finished she would select a new master. Of course, each night she would unweave the pattern.
Weaving, unweaving. . . the sum total of her actions was to remain at a perfect standstill, impotent to affect her universe until Odysseus finally returned to rescue her.
What a shocking contrast Hypatia must have represented. Mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, teacher, and curator of Alexandria’s Great Library. Essentially she achieved the “Renaissance man” ideal a thousand years before it was fashionable. And equipped with a sharpness of wit and tongue, she was a female Achilles when it came to debate and audacity.
At the beginning of every lecture, I always ask by a show of hands how many people have heard of Hypatia. One or two hands creep skyward. The rest of the audience waits, eyes attentive. It’s not surprising, and I tell them so. Hypatia epitomized the classical age’s fearless inquiry into art and science, and she possessed its feral courage too. Raised by her father Theon (an esteemed mathematician in his own right) she quickly eclipsed him. Her ascent to fame was rapid, and through sheer force of personality and brilliance she had seized a respect unknown to her female peers. It wasn’t simply that everyone knew her name. Letters to her – and those referencing her – rarely need utter her name, and instead say “The Lady Philosopher” or more often and simply, “The Philosopher.” To be called The Philosopher in ancient Rome, and to have people know immediately who was being talked about, is an incalculable tribute.
Perhaps that’s one reason her murderers made certain her works were deliberately destroyed.
The murder of Hypatia was accomplished in the fifth century, but the rape of her memory continued for many centuries afterwards. A millennia after her death, the Renaissance artist Raphael was putting the finishing touches on his “School of Athens” masterpiece when a bishop came to see the painting.
“Who’s that woman?” the bishop asked. He needn’t have pointed. There’s only one woman of note in the painted crowd of male luminaries.
“Hypatia,” Raphael replied. “One of the greatest thinkers in history.”
“Paint her out,” the bishop responded. “Knowledge of her runs counter to the belief of the faithful. Otherwise the work is acceptable.”
The winners write history. Hypatia’s books were burned, just as her body was mutilated in a church. But in the letters of her cherished friends some of her sentiments have been preserved.
“Cherish your ability to think,” she was fondly remembered for saying, “for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.”
She might have directed that statement at today’s Congress, which seems to forget that when a person swallows every pill from their chosen political priesthood, they have ceased to be rational beings and have become cult members.
And Hypatia addressed the subject of religion, too. “All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious,” she said, “and should never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final.” It wasn’t religious belief or spirituality she was attacking, but rather the fundamentalist elements that were on the rise in her city of tolerance. Much like the fundamentalist elements in certain parts of the world – like Afghanistan or even America – today.
Consider the life of a woman in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. Never allowed to be teachers (let alone be students.) Forced to wear the dark burqa robe, forced to paint their windows black, forced to keep silent – even to the point of wearing “silent shoes” so they won’t make noise. One particular case involved a house-fire in Afghanistan: Choking on the gushing smoke, the women attempted to leave their home, only to be stopped by neighbors until they had properly attired themselves.
Right. Better they blister and burn than break the religious code of the city. (And the overthrow of the Taliban hasn’t liberated women the way we’d like to hope. Plenty of fundamentalists are still fond of beating, torturing, and executing women who defy religious law. . . including burning down girls’ schools.) Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Taliban flag was white, reflecting a stark worldview allowing neither color nor debate.
Religious freedom and religious fundamentalism aren’t merely two sides of the same coin; they’re two different forms of currency. And when Hypatia differed with the latter, her audacity put her into the crosshairs of the fifth century fundamentalist Archbishop Cyril.
Cyril was the patriarch of the city, and also Hypatia’s future murderer. By the time he met the Lady Philosophy he had solidified his stance as an unbending tyrant. There had been a tradition of religious debate amongst the many different sects of Christianity in Alexandria; Cyril put a violent stop to that, convincing the Empire’s highest authority to exile the Nestorian and Novatian sects on punishment of death. To the Jews, Cyril was even more blunt. Inciting a mob of his parishioners, he had the ancient Jewish synagogue burned and forcibly drove Jewish families – some who could trace their lineage back to Alexander’s founding of the city – from Alexandria entirely.
And Cyril’s faction of fundamentalism had support from other religious writers and leaders. Bishop John of Nikiu, writing of Hypatia (and later reveling in her murder) describes this outspoken woman not as the brilliant thinker she was, but in more colorful phraseology:
“And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, and she beguiled many people through her Satanic wiles.”
In other words, she refused to wear her silent shoes.
“She should have kept her mouth shut.”
In March of 2005, my novel Remembering Hypatia was published, and in October I was the invited guest at a bookstore in New Haven. My lecture discussed her life, and the implications of her murder. . . how she lived during the title-fight between blind faith and rationality. In the one corner was an evangelical philosophy opposed to the pluralistic values of Alexandria. . . opposed in fact to the very religious freedom which Alexandria had historically enjoyed. And when this corner won the fight, civilization plummeted into a thousand years of a Dark Age.
At the conclusion of my lectures I always hold a question-and-answer session with the audience, and this is my favorite part of these events. But my well-dressed 50-something attendee had refrained from asking any questions at all during this period, and only when the audience was safely evaporating did he approach the podium where I had been speaking and, later, signing books.
“Why’s that?” I asked him.
“She was blocking the spread of a true faith,” he answered. “You can disagree, but in the end a greater good was served by her death.”
Sixteen hundred years, same battle-cry. Same justifications.
It isn’t important what I said to him in response. It wasn’t brief, and it wasn’t kind, and it was deserved. What is important is that Cyril’s philosophy didn’t disappear over the course of centuries but can be heard on radio and in books, around book-burnings in Pennsylvania and from the lips of the Jerry Falwells as they wish divine punishment on their enemies, and in the chanting of crowds who watch Afghan schools for girls vanish in flame, just like Hypatia’s Great Library was purged from memory.
Remember Hypatia, I tell my readers, in the hopes that more hands will raise to commemorate a person of courage, brilliance, and free-thinking in a culture which despises – er, despised – such things.