Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Last Martyr of Alexandria: Hypatia

The title of my second Bonnie Pinkwater mystery is A Calculated Demise.  I swear it's true.  The darn thing is written right there on the cover.  What's not written on the cover is the subtitle.  To see that you must open the book and peruse the title page.  If you bravely venture to this page you will see once again, A Calculated Demise, BUT you will also see the much anticipated subtitle, The Hypatia Murders.

I chose this subtitle because included in the mystery A Calculated Demise is a bit of 4th Century AD mathematical--and dare I say it--political history.  To be certain, the political history is ancient, almost seventeen hundred years ancient but I maintain political nonetheless.  And all of it, math, politics, and even religion, is wrapped up in the personage of one of the most extraordinary women to have ever graced the planet.  Hypatia

My wife claims I'm given to superlatives.  I don't see it.

Hypatia of Alexandria was born in 370 AD, obviously in the African city of Alexandria--perhaps one of the most unique municipalities ever to be created by man.  A city totally given over to the pursuit of knowledge.  Her father was Theon (once again of Alexandria, but by now I think you get the picture), the last recorded librarian of the fabled Library of Alexandria.  He himself was a scientist, teacher, and mathematician.

At least one of Hypatia's biographers claims she may have been the result of a systematic program of Eugenics--designed to be the perfect human being. Her family for generations had been trying to manufacture this ideal human through selective breeding, and a rigorous program of mental, spiritual and physical training.  In the person of Hypatia they darn well succeeded.

Physical: Theon believed a person needed a formidable regimen of physical activities in order to produce the healthy body required to support the rigors of superior mental acumen.  Part of every day was set aside for physical activity: calisthenics, rowing, mountain climbing, running, and horseback riding. She was considered one the finest athletes of her era.

Religious: Tolerance was the main tenet of Hypatia's spiritual training.  Theon believed that all religions were equal parts valuable and erroneous.  Theon told his daughter, "Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fantasies.  To teach superstition as truth is the most terrible thing.  The child's mind accepts and believes them and only through pain and perhaps tragedy, can she be relieved of them.  In fact men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth...often more so."

Rhetoric: Theon believed formal training as an orator was necessary for the perfect human being.  Hypatia studied the power of words, received training in all manner of formal speech, and became one of the great orators of her time.  Her words were said to produce an almost hypnotic effect.  In fact, it was this ability to sway people with her words which would lead to her eventual murder.

Intellectual:  Hypatia studied widely, and eventually eclipsed her father in the areas Mathematcis and Astonomy.  Many of her texts on these subjects would become the standards for over a thousand years.  

As fate would have it, this extraordinary human being was born at a time of turbulent political upheaval.  Pope Constantine a half century before had made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.  Where before Christians had been marginalized and persecuted, now it was pagans and Jews who were on the receiving end of persecution.  Synagogues and pagan temples in Alexandria were destroyed.

Hypatia considered herself first of all a free thinker.  Christian authorities considered her a pagan.

On her way to teach a class at the library, she was dragged from her chariot and beaten by a crowd of radical Christians.  I will not relate the full brutality of her eventual death except to say that in the end she was burned at the stake.  Legend has it that looking down from her stake she forgave her tormentors.  More than likely this legend is untrue, but I choose to believe it nonetheless, such is my outrage at this injustice.

In the end, her death was not investigated.  For the sake of civil peace, the Roman prefect of Alexandria (who had been a friend of Hypatia's) deemed it best to drop the matter.  Only further civil unrest would result from an open inquiry.

Larger than life and certainly larger than that of the petty individuals who had taken her life, Hypatia's fame only grew after her death.  In life, students from three continents came to hear her speak.  In death, they printed and re-printed her books.  In life, they spoke of her beauty.  In death, bards sang of her beautiful spirit.  To this day Hypatia of Alexandria is considered the most important female mathematician and scientist of the ancient world.

Truth is, she ranks high as one of the first people I would visit if I could travel in time.

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  1. Karen EmanuelsonMay 10, 2012 at 9:15 PM

    Hi Bob! I'm not all that nimble as I negotiate blogs, but here goes: I read all of your posts. I love the way you "sneak in" some fascinating historical figures into your books. I'd heard of Hypatia before, of course, but really enjoyed learning more about her (the woman AND the dog) in your book. I will look forward to learning about other brilliant historical women mathematicians in the rest of your books.

  2. Hi, Bob! Thanks for posting about Hypatia. The more people who know about this remarkable woman the better. For your readers who want to know more about her as a mathematician, I recommend Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr (Prometheus Books, 2007) by Michael A. B. Deakin. I've reviewed the book and also posted several articles about Hypatia on my own blog. I'm not much of a mystery reader, but will check out you book!