February 19, 2008

Humanist Martyr | Hypatia of Alexandria

?350 - 415: Age 65?

"Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing. The child mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after years relieved of them. In fact, men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth — often more so, since a superstition is so intangible you cannot get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable." — Hypatia of Alexandria

Hypatia was a mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer. Despite the intense misogyny of the times, she rose to prominence on the basis of her intellect and her excellent teaching, attracting students from all over the civilized world. At a time of intense religious sectarianism, she was a humanist, studying everything with equanimity, believe fervently in — and preaching — the importance of freedom of thought.

She had friends in powerful places, and this certainly protected her but also made her a target. The Christian Archbishop was a fanatic, and believed that her influence over the city's leaders was blocking the proper flourishing of Christianity. He and his supporters spread rumours about her, claiming she was involved in black magic and an instrument of the devil — all the usual things. Bishop John of Niku, writing two centuries later, claimed that "She was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through her Satanic wiles." Yup, if anyone comes at you with an astrolabe, it's a safe bet they're using their Satanic wiles.

During Lent in 415 Hypatia was in her carriage on her way home from teaching when she was waylaid by a mob of Christian zealots. They dragged her from her carriage into a local church, where they tore off her clothes and attacked her with sharp shards of pottery and shells. They literally scraped and tore her skin off, eventually pulling her apart limb from limb and then burning her body.

Nobody was ever arrested for the crime, and no charges were every laid. The Archbishop, who was widely believed to have been behind the murder, was canonized after his death by the Catholic Church. He was praised three centuries later by Bishop John of Niku for "he had destroyed the last remains of idolatry in the city."

Hypatia is the only female included in Raphael's famous painting The School of Athens.

Three more quotes by Hypatia, who really was extraordinary:

"Life is an unfoldment, and the further we travel the more truth we can comprehend. To understand the things that are at our door is the best preparation for understanding those that lie beyond."

"All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final."

"Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all."

Sources: Skyscript, The Life and Legacy of Hypatia

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