The Beautiful Mathematician
“The greatest loss of all, however, is the absence of your divine spirit. I had hoped that this would always remain with me, to conquer both the caprices of fortune and the evil turns of fate.” (Syrenios of Cyrene to Hypatia)
I wrote recently in a post of how history and historians have been unkind to women. In the main, historians treated women as mere accompaniments to the men to whom they belonged. When they did not, they often portrayed them as weak, irresolute or bloodthirsty.
Happily, the past sixty years have brought changes – changes of emphasis and in method. With the help of television, interest in history has been awakened. No longer solemn, monotonous, date-heavy and masculine, history is a vibrant and colourful pageant that not only reveals the past but tells us much about who and what we are today. Modern historians are revisiting the past with a more critical eye and discovering women who, until modern times, lived only in the pages of legend, or of fiction.
“Esteemed by the ruling elite, sympathetic towards Christians, indifferent to pagan cults, neutral in the religious fights and altercations, she lived … enjoying the city’s rulers’ respect and her disciples’ love.” (Maria Dzielska)
Romanticised through the work of Charles Kingsley, Hypatia of Alexandria was one such woman who is brought alive in two biographies of the past twenty years by writers with very different approaches to her life and work. Somewhat confusingly, both have the same eponymous title.
Hypatia, born in Alexandria, probably around 360 CE although opinions vary, was a mathematician, astronomer, philosopher and teacher of the Neoplatonist School. Daughter of the celebrated mathematician Theon, she lived her whole life in the city and taught there for more than twenty years. Students – pagan, Jewish and Christian – flocked to her lectures and public debates. They included two later bishops of the Christian Church, two Roman governors and several men who would go on to be philosophers, teachers and authors in their own right.
“But that tide of opinion which knows no possibility of doubt, which adheres blindly and mindlessly to a cause, which abandons intellectual quest for the assurance of a mute and unquestioning ‘faith’ – all this was against her, and her life became forfeit to the bloodlust of those who would claim …. their access to a higher morality.” (Michael AB Deakin)
In 415 CE, she became a victim of the doctrinal war that waged under the archbishopric of Cyril of Alexandria. She was attacked by a Christian mob, stripped naked and savagely beaten to death. Afterwards, her body – or what was left of it – was consigned to a fire. The exact circumstances of her death vary depending on who is telling the story, and whether they are admirers or detractors. Likewise, argument still rages as to the precise identity of her killers. Nevertheless, all accounts, even those of her enemies, agree that she was murdered in a most brutal manner.
The layout of the two books alone gives some indication of each author’s approach to Hypatia’s life, work, death and legacy. The earlier of the two, by Maria Dzielska, is 157 pages long and comprises three longish chapters occupying about 100 pages and some 50 pages of notes and sources. Ms Dzielska focuses on the legend, the philosophy of Hypatia through the correspondence of her students, and the background and controversy leading to her death.
The later work by Michael AB Deakin is longer (231 pages). Again, the main text, consisting of ten short chapters, occupies about 100 pages. The rest comprises mathematical appendices, diagrams and source notes in translation. Mr Deakin’s emphasis is on Hypatia the mathematician and on her contribution to the sciences we know today as geometry, algebra and astronomy.
His assessment seems the slightly more sympathetic of the two and he does occasionally wax lyrical about her qualities and achievements. He is clearly an admirer. Maria Dzielska is an admirer too but she takes a more feminine stance, refusing to overplay the ‘beautiful mathematician’ idea, clearly promoted by the film Agora, starring the talented Rachel Weisz in the role of Hypatia.
Almost every extant record of Hypatia describes her as physically attractive, but so many leave us with the impression of a young woman suffering an agonising death at the hands of terrorists. [Most men, I have to say, cannot handle that sort of thing.] However, the two biographies share the conclusion that, beautiful or not, Hypatia was certainly not a young woman when she died. This does not make her death any less dreadful. And the idea of the young, beautiful martyr detracts from the real historical tragedy.
Hypatia’s contribution to both science and philosophy is largely lost; we know her through the works of others. We might even consider the possibility that she was sabotaged by a patriarchal and misogynist world; it would not be the first attempt to excise a woman’s life from history.
If indeed such an attempt at excision was made, thankfully it did not succeed.
Which biography do I prefer? They are complementary and thus both are necessary to build a complete picture. Ms Dzielska’s work is the easier read yet if I have a preference at all it falls slightly towards Mr Deakin’s book. Some of it is quite technical. It is a book for a mathematician with an interest in history – or for a historian with an interest in mathematics, and I hold myself to be loosely in one or other of those categories.