Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Hypatia of Alexandria and The Evening Papyrus

There are atoms in the void. Democritus (460-370 BCE) Imagine what it was like at the dawn of western civilization to think things like that for the first time. Democritus had the opportunity to tease ideas out of primary material. He observed, deduced and hypothesized. He didn't have to push the river of historical precedent out of his way first.

Democritus arrived at his theories by looking at life around him with only his eyes and his mind. He decided that truth was perceived through the senses, which were subjective and varied from individual to individual. According to Democritus, sensory perceptions are then interpreted by the mind and contain truth because truth underlies all perceptions.

I was profoundly moved in high school philosophy class, in spite of being seriously distracted by the boys in the class who infiltrated the girls' school for certain courses. This was my first opportunity to think in such a completely abstract fashion about something so essential and so far beyond the stuff of everyday conversation. It began to frame questions that had swirled in my nascent consciousness. I could practically smell the limestone dust gathering slowly in the quiet rectilinear corners of Athenian brilliance as intellectual fireworks exploded one after the other.

Later that semester I first encountered Raphael's painting, The School of Athens. I imagined all early Greek philosophers stood on steps outside gleaming white buildings wearing flowing gowns, gesturing broadly, exchanging profundities--it was a club of sorts that met outdoors in the clear Greek air flooded with sunshine. That fantasy evaporated when I learned that the figures in the painting were not all contemporaries, and, in fact, my old friend Democritus was not represented. He wasn't all that well liked in Athens, it turns out, and if it hadn't been for Aristotle, we may not even know his name today. Plato wanted his works burned.

That bit of information hinted at a descent. I wanted mountain tops and clean air because I had enough chaos at home in the hidden depths of dysfunction behind our closed doors. In ancient Greece I thought I had discovered a world in which high motive and intellectual pursuit sustained all interactions, where logic prevailed and good triumphed over all contenders. Something died for me when I realized the sun was not really any brighter in the ancient world. It must have been just the flash of clarity in Democritus' thought that made it seem that way to me.

Still, I liked to imagine what it was like to live during those times and to think about the unseen and the unprovable core of material reality. Though nearly all the big names of the ancient world were the names of men, I discovered Hypatia, the one woman who was granted scholar status (and dressed like a scholar instead of in the female fashion of her day), whose image Raphael sneaked into his painting in defiance of strict orders from the reigning prelates of the Catholic Church to omit her. Instead, Raphael painted his own mistress dressed in pure white as Hypatia and placed her figure next to that of Parmenides very near the central vanishing point occupied by Plato and Aristotle. Whether Raphael was influenced by ideals or by lust we will never know; I like the result.

Why did the Catholic Church feel so strongly about eliminating this woman from the School of Athens painting? It wasn't because she hadn't live in Athens; nearly 2/3 of the philosophers included hailed from other places. Hypatia (370-415 CE) lived in Alexandria, the renowned city in the Nile Delta created by Cleopatra as her capital.

Daughter of leading scholar Theon, Hypatia herself was brilliant and popular, the teacher of many fine young minds both male and female. Among other things, she was an expert on conical sections, and kudos for that--all I saw when I looked at cones in trigonometry class was the dunce hat I ought to have been wearing. Hypatia paid for standing out from the norm. At a time when the ascendancy of Christianity meant converting or conquering all dissenters, she tried to remain neutral but was involuntarily drawn into the chaos.

Accused of being a prime player in the non-Christian camp, she was attacked in her chariot one afternoon. Women didn't drive chariots in Alexandria or any other Greek or Roman city; it wasn't the done thing. She was dragged from her chariot and slashed to bits by a mob. Then the flesh was scraped from her bones with sharpened oyster shells and scattered around the streets; what remained of her after that was set afire. The gruesome murder of Hypatia of Alexandria was the climax of the first great witch hunt.

As often happens when my mind wanders off into the very small tributaries of history, once again I stumbled into a topic that was already vibrating in the atmosphere (oh, if I could bottle this talent!). To wit: by pursuing Hypatia of Alexandria I inadvertently did so just as a movie is about to come out on the subject. In this case, the movie is called Agora and it stars Rachel Weisz as Hypatia. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this past May and is due to open in theaters in the fall.

The review of Agora is favorable, though I'm not sure that translates into the movie is good. (Note my restraint in avoiding any references to agoraphobia while mentioning my concerns.) I hope the message of Hypatia's life is not lost in the artifice of imagined ancient splendor. She made difficult choices to follow her gifts, sensing correctly that she would be of the greatest service to her community by doing so, and also become the finest vessel for the divine spark she carried within. She was aware of the price such freedom entailed for a woman in the fifth century, even in the enlightened environment of the Roman-run Greek city of Alexandria in Egypt. Hypatia found the courage to move forward anyway.

Honoring the gifts we are born with is a perennial challenge we face as human beings. We can learn so much from Hypatia. Her historical moment wasn't that far in the past; we are closer in time to the days of Hypatia than she was to the days of Egypt's pyramid-building pharaohs. Did she stare into the papyrus reeds (Cyperus papyrus) that choked the Delta region and wonder whether the sun shone more brightly in earlier times? Or did she cast her mind forward into a mist of possibility that one day things would not be as difficult for women as they were for her?

Her work lives on. We know her name. What were the names of her accusers? Who were the men who killed her? I can't find them in history's footnotes. They didn't even make the Evening Papyrus.

Photo credits: Sculpture, Democritus Meditating on the Seat of the Soul (1868) by Leon-Alexandre Delhomme, Wikipedia; The School of Athens (1510-1511) by Raphael, Wikipedia; Cyperus papyrus, Wikipedia

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