Hypatia of Alexandria
The last classical philosopher
Name: Hypatia of Alexandria
Nationality: Hellenic Egyptian
Lived: circa 370-415
Fields: Mathematics and philosophy
Claim to fame: The last of the great classical philosophers
The Hellenic scholar Hypatia (circa 370-415 AD), who lived in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, has the dual distinction of being the last of the great philosophers of the classical era and the first woman to leave a lasting influence in the field of mathematics.
A Greek triumph and tragedy
Hypatia was born some time between 350 and 370 AD in Alexandria, Egypt, which, with its celebrated library, was the leading Hellenistic centre of learning. She was both the daughter and student of Theon, the last-known mathematician associated with the Museum of Alexandria, which comprised the famous library and a number of independent institutes of learning.
Growing up in such learned surroundings was to fuel her lifelong passion for knowledge and free inquiry. “Reserve your right to think. For even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all,” her father advised her. During her studies, she travelled to other parts of the Roman empire.
Love and hate
As the first notable female Neo-Platonist philosopher and mathematician, Hypatia was widely admired and respected, both within her native city and beyond – which gave her considerable political influence. In keeping with her status, she dressed in scholarly robes and moved around town freely in her chariot – fl outing the accepted norms of women’s behaviour at the time.
Nevertheless, she was a controversial figure, both for her “pagan” beliefs and probably also her gender. Living during the painful and violent transition from the classical to the Christian era, Hypatia paid for her philosophy dearly, despite the fact that many of her students were Christians. Possibly spurred on by the animosity expressed towards Hypatia by the city’s bishop, Cyril of Alexandria, one day in 415 AD, an angry Christian mob set upon her and killed her brutally.
Ahead of her time
Hypatia’s first teacher was her father, Theon. In addition to tutoring her in mathematics and other branches of philosophy, he devised a rigorous physical training programme for her. She also travelled to Greece and Rome to study.
Luckily for Theon, his daughter was not only his best student, but she also soon surpassed his own achievements in mathematics which, at the time, was often used for astrological calculations – to predict where a soul would be in the future – and was widely regarded as essentially a bond between science and religion.
Platonic love of knowledge
By around 400 AD, Hypatia had become the head of Alexandria’s Neo-Platonist school, where she taught astronomy, mathematics and philosophy, especially the works of Plato and Aristotle. In fact, so immersed was she in her passion for learning that she, like other ancient Greek scholars, toured the town centre publicly interpreting the works of any philosopher to those who wished to hear her.
“[She] made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time,” was the verdict of her contemporary, the Christian historiographer Socrates Scholasticus.
Either alone or in collaboration with her father, Hypatia left humanity with a profound scientific legacy. She is credited by some sources with inventing the plane astrolabe, which is an ancient navigating instrument; the graduated brass hydrometer, which was used to determine the relative density of liquids; as well as the hydroscope, a device for looking under water. One of her disciples, Synesius of Cyrene, even credited her with the invention of a waterdistilling device.
The Alexandrian scholar authored numerous mathematical treatises, most of which were lost when the library of Alexandria was destroyed. She also wrote a number of commentaries, including on the Arithematica by Diophantus of Alexandria, and one On the conics of Apollonius, the ancient Greek geometer from Perga.
Hypatia edited several of her father’s works, too, including his commentaries on the Roman mathematician Ptolemy’s Almagest, and the Greek mathematician, Euclid of Alexandria’s Elements.