Hypatia of Alexandria: Book Review

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Hypatia of Alexandria, written by Maria Dzielska is a book that highlights the fascinating life of the famous mathematician and philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria. Dzielska describes the life and time of Hypatia through many different sources and interpretations of history. She also describes the difficulties involved in producing a biography of a person about whom we are remarkably ill-informed. Dzielska through her book tries to compose an understanding of Hypatia, her accomplishments and her beliefs. Through each of her chapters Dzielska is able to enlighten us on different aspects of Hypatia and the city of Alexandria. Without a broad number of accurate historical sources to choose from Dzielska sufficiently assists us in understanding the life and times of Hypatia of Alexandria. Chapter one "The Literary Legend of Hypatia" is a brief survey of modern literary works, each with its own style, which have taken their inspiration from the story of Hypatia. Dzielska shows that each author and every age have an Hypatia of its own, a fictitious creature made to serve the purposes of the author and audience. Many of the literary works have similar characteristics but most are written for different reasons at different periods of time. Thus revealing throughout generations that we have always needed something to look up to, worship and believe in. Hypatia a beautiful and intellectual philosopher and mathematician, is an excellent figure in history to fantasize about. Her great deeds throughout time and her gruesome death place her on a pedestal above other historical figures and creates her into a mystifying and intriguing individual. Hypatia being a woman only enhances our amazement of her and her accomplishments. She has given women and minorities throughout time a sense of hope that they can overcome obstacles and forces trying to hold them back. Dzielska by exposing us to these literary works gives us a sense that there is something special about this woman that we must look into deeply. It also challenges us to try to figure out the mystery of Hypatia and the effects her death had on the empire. The chapter, "Hypatia and Her Circle" is devoted to a reconstructed list of her students. Dzielska points to a handful of men whom we know very little about and whose connections with Hypatia are rather insubstantial. This part of the book raises many questions. Did Hypatia have any influence in her student's choice of career? What type of prestige was she given unlike other women? How did her teaching relate to her as a public figure in the city? How did a highly educated woman operate in a society largely dominated by the male? Dzielska throughout the book shows Hypatia giving assistance to others. Whether it was helping her students get jobs, enter the right social circles or other political matters Hypatia did not hesitate to use her connections to help other. Hypatia once even helps a man get his land back. Dzielska provides us with this side of Hypatia to show that the people of society when in need did not make distinctions of gender if they had to ask for help from civic or religious community leaders. Hypatia was a mentor she was regarded by Synesius as "sacred" and "divine." Hypatia became a model of unattainable intellectual and moral virtues for her followers. Not only was she a widely educated woman she was also beautiful. These two attributes made her somewhat of a goddess that her people worshipped. Dzielska illustrates this because during the time of Hypatia the need for worship was very important to the people. Hypatia kept a "secret schedule" of teaching which implies a special bond between teacher and some students. She clearly inspired them with a sense of exclusivity as we can tell through the tone in which Synesius addressed his school friends . This shows us that there was something special about the way Hypatia treated her students. She cared for each and every one of them and was part of them spiritually. Dzielska informs us of this to show how personal Hypatia was to her students and how much she loved them. A bond also grew between Hypatia's students showing us there was something about her and her teachings that spiritually united them and constantly drew them back to her. Dzielska can not tell us precisely where Hypatia taught. The sources offer us a few ideas of the location but all emphasize Hypatia's public teaching style. Hypatia was willing to explain philosophy to whomever cared to listen. This sort of public appearance must have made Hypatia into a highly visible and well-known public figure. Dzielska shows us that Hypatia wanted to share her words with everyone and that many people wanted to listen, this was also a form of entertainment for the people at this time in history. Religion and politics were usually the main topics of Hypatia's lectures. These two topics were also the most important parts of society. Citizens were willing to learn new things as they had a thirst for knowledge. Dzielska also chose to display to us the similarity of Hypatia's students. This is displayed through Synesius, his brother and uncle whom all studied at her school . Even more significant is the Christian affiliation of nearly all of her students. This suggests that at the time education was valued above the specific religious affiliation of the educator. To have status in these times you must have been rich or educated. Social status was very important to the people of these times so education was taken very seriously. To be able to study at the school of Hypatia you would have to of been wealthy, that showed us why there were such distinct social classifications at this time in history as the poor were unable to gain a education easily. By assuming that Hypatia drew students from affluent backgrounds and well-connected families Dzielska tells us she "occupied a strong political and social as well as cultural position in Alexandria." Hypatia's circle included key political figures in the city. Her public lectures served as a means of communication with the widest possible audience. Dzielska makes us wonder whether or not these lectures drew people away from church services. The people of this society always had been open to people with new ideas. Hypatia had well thought out and informative lectures that they could understand. They also did not have to read anything as most of society was not literate. We know this because most educators lectured so all classes of people could hear their words and wisdom. In the third and last chapter the life and death of Hypatia are recounted. Dzielska once again shows us how ill-informed we are about Hypatia's life. We do not know her birth date or even her mothers name. Dzielska illustrates that we must assume the many happenings in her life. This lack of knowledge has given a greater sense of myth to her legend. The emphasis of the chapter falls on the death of Hypatia. Hypatia's gruesome end told by Socrates, highlights the increasing role the church took in the city. The planning of her murder falls to Cyril the elected bishop of Alexandria in 412. Her assailants however can not be identified. Before her death, a public campaign was launched against Hypatia accusing her of the use of magic and witchcraft. Dzielska tells us this to show the intellectual fear some had of her. Hypatia however is never brought to trial for this crime. The failure of this campaign may have lead to the physical violence against her. This showed us that women and children were not to be harmed in society however Hypatia was looked upon as an enemy to Cyril and his crew and therefore she could be killed. Cyril's aim was to dislodge the prefect and to secure the appointment of a more flexible candidate. Oresestes became a target . Since attacks on him, his office and his alleged paganism failed, Cyril had to think up another strategy. Dzielska indicates that the public violent attack on Hypatia was not a coincidence and was a deliberate tactic to scare Orestes. This reveals to us that at the time violence was a useful political tool. Power was very important to political leaders at the time. If a leader had power he more or less does anything he wants. The murder of Hypatia paid off for Cyril has he became firmly entrenched in his position as a power in imperial politics. The scene of Hypatia's murder raises questions about the nature of her paganism and paganism in Alexandria. Just how pagan was Hypatia in a city where militant paganism found expressions in passionate defense of pagan monuments like the Serapeum and verbal attacks on Christianity? How did Hypatia's death affect the relationship between the pagan and Christian communities? Dzielska assumes that Hypatia's absence from the Serapeum episode indicates her non-militant paganism. It is rather ironic that Hypatia and the Serapeum came to such violent ends. Dzielska does not give us an ample amount of information to decide whether or not Hypatia's religious beliefs played a part in her death. Hypatia lived during a turbulent period in the history of the late empire. We are therefore entitled to ask how a biography of a person whose life, in spite of impressive intellectual credentials, largely passed in the margins of major events and far from imperial centers of power, can enhance our understanding of her society and her era? Dzielska like us is hard pressed to find accurate information dealing with Hypatia. This puts limitations on the accuracy of her book and the true story of Hypatia. Through interpretations of others Dzielska is able to give us a sense of Hypatia and the time in which she lived. Although many authors' views on Hypatia differ in detail they all establish relatively the same account of the happenings of her life and death. How did advanced female literacy survive through a time when a premium was put on male literacy? Was the town of Alexandria a city where violence was used extensively to get things done or was the brutal death of Hypatia just an exception? How were women political figures looked at? These are all questions left unanswered by Dzielska due to a lack of historical information that leave us stranded wondering why Hypatia was killed.

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