Researchers Rebecca Buxton and Lisa Whiting retell the history of philosophy through the women who have shaped the discipline, from Diotima to Angela Davis. Below we share an extract from the chapter on Hypatia of Alexandria, written by Lisa
Hypatia was a mathematician, an astronomer and a philosopher. She is one of the first philosophers who was both a woman and who has reliable historical records documenting major elements of her life.
Hypatia was born around 350 CE (although the exact date is unknown) in Alexandria, Egypt, which at that time was part of the Roman Empire. For context, this was around 400 years after the birth of another famous Alexandrian woman, Cleopatra VII. The city of Alexandria was known for its scholarship, second only to Athens, and students would travel great distances to be taught by academics in the city. Theon, Hypatia’s father, is thought to have been the head of the prestigious university in Alexandria named the Mouseion. Theon was a famous mathematician and teacher who edited many mathematical works throughout his life, his most notable contribution being an edited early version of Euclid’s Elements. The book set out extensive fundamental principles of early mathematics, and extracts of Theon’s commentary are still in use today. Sadly, nothing is known of Hypatia’s mother and no records refer to her.
Theon taught Hypatia mathematics and philosophy from an early age, and sources attest that she soon outshone him. The fifth-century Byzantine historian Socrates Scholasticus wrote in his Ecclesiastical History of ‘Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time’. In terms of her mathematical achievements, Hypatia edited and wrote commentaries on various mathematical texts, including books in Ptolemy’s Almagest. It was in this text that Hypatia made her most notable mathematical contribution through devising an improved method of long division described as a tabular method. She also wrote commentaries on Diophantus’ thirteen-volume Arithmetica, devised a new edition of Handy Tables by Ptolemy and wrote a commentary on Apollonius’ book on the geometry of conic sections. In addition to her mathematical writing, she was also known to build astronomical instruments, such as astrolabes, which were devices used to calculate the position of planets.
As none of Hypatia’s philosophical texts have survived, it is not known whether she devised any original theories. However, academics consider it unlikely because during the period it was more common for scholars to comment on existing works and to develop their predecessors’ arguments, rather than write original theses. Some speculate that this was due to a desire to preserve existing texts, following the destruction of the famous Library of Alexandria when a significant number of ancient works were destroyed. It is for this reason that Hypatia is regarded more as an accomplished mathematical commentator than an innovator.
Why, then, should Hypatia be considered an accomplished philosopher? To answer this question we must look to her teaching, as it was here that Hypatia truly flourished. Multiple historical sources attest to the popularity of her lectures on philosophy, which were attended not only by enthusiastic students but also by the political leaders of the day. One of her students, Synesius of Cyrene, so admired her work that he wrote letters to her addressed simply to ‘The Philosopher’. In one letter to a friend he wrote that Hypatia was ‘a person so renowned, her reputation seemed literally incredible. We have seen and heard for ourselves she who honourably presides over the mysteries of philosophy’. Synesius would often send young men great distances to Alexandria to be taught by Hypatia.
Occasionally Hypatia’s students’ appreciation would turn into more than intellectual admiration as her beauty led many young men in her classes to fall in love with her. She, on the other hand, was having none of it and reportedly remained a virgin until she died. In one famous encounter described by the Platonic philosopher Damascius, Hypatia tried to stifle one of her most persistent student’s affections by playing a musical instrument for hours in the hopes he would get bored. When this did not work she turned to more extreme measures and one day pulled out a bloodied menstrual rag and waved it in the boy’s face, proclaiming that it was only lust that he desired, and this was not beautiful compared to her intellect and the true wonder of philosophy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hypatia succeeded in halting the young man’s advances after his soul ‘was turned away by shame and surprise at the unpleasant sight, and he was brought to his right mind’.
When she was not teaching in a classroom, Hypatia would go out into the public square to lecture. Historical sources describe Hypatia ‘putting on the philosopher’s cloak although a woman and advancing through the middle of the city’. She was known to publicly teach the work of Plato, Aristotle and other philosophers to any who wished to listen. This would have been common behaviour for male philosophers of the time, but it was unusual for a woman to teach in public in this way. That Hypatia was so revered for her teaching by countless students serves as a testament to her remarkable talents, not only in philosophy, but also as a charismatic and diplomatic speaker who commanded respect through her intellect.
Hypatia’s popularity was also partly due to her openness and inclusivity towards a variety of different people and perspectives. Although a pagan herself, she accepted and taught many Christians and Jews, which was significant given the rising religious tensions of the period. Her student and friend Synesius went on to become a Christian bishop, and another one of her closest confidants was a man named Orestes, who was the governor of Alexandria. Through these relationships she built a reputation as a highly influential political figure, with leaders often asking for her wisdom when facing challenges in their work.
Hypatia was therefore far more than an academic and a talented mathematician; she was a public intellectual who used her role in society to make a positive difference through her connections.
Extracts from The Philosopher Queens: The Lives and Legacies of Philosophy’s Unsung Women, edited by Rebecca Buxton and Lisa Whiting (Unbound). Buy a copy here.