Influential Women #01: Hypatia of Alexandria

Many people think that before, say, the 18th century, there simply were no very influential female figures in philosophy or science. I’m here to prove them wrong. The exact dates are up for debate, but around 360 AD a woman was born in Greece. She was named Hypatia of Alexandria, and not only was she a well-known mathematician, but she was also an astronomer, an inventor and a philosopher.

Socrates of Constantinople was really into her: as is mentioned in his Ecclesiastical History, Hypatia taught (mostly) men from all over the world and from dozens of different backgrounds about the Philosophy of Plato and Polonius. However, it was not only philosophy she taught – she also talked to hundreds of students and followers about mathematics and astronomy. Yes, my friends – she was hella good at maths. To top it off, she did not only teach – she was the head of the Neoplatonist School in Alexandria. Legend has it that Hypatia was such a well-known philosopher that correspondences addressed to “The Philosopher” reached her. As Socrates says: Hypatia was admired by men and women both, and for good reason.

Besides neoplatonism, there are Egyptian accounts that mention Hypatia having Hellenistic pagan believes. These accounts state that Hypatia was strongly devoted to all kinds of magic, and believed that everything on our planet had only one source: The One. She also believed that mankind lacked the ability to fully grasp this concept, and thus would never be able to understand the ultimate reality (which, again, makes us think of Plato’s philosophy).

These Hellenistic pagan beliefs, however, are very likely what eventually led to her death. We cannot tell for certain, for none of her works stood the test of time, but it is very likely Hypatia publicly opposed christian views. Despite this, there were still many christian that regarded her as valuable, yet this proved not to be enough – she was blamed for a conflict between two highly regarded, important men (surprise) and literally torn apart by a christian mob in 415 AD.

Today, Hypatia of Alexandria is regarded as a philosophical martyr equal to the likes of Socrates (the Greek philosopher). She was murdered for her beliefs, and it is not unlikely that she knew that was how she would eventually come to her end – yet it never stopped her from raising her voice.

  • L. Parole



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