Hypatia (370/75–415 CE)

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(370/75415 CE)

Hypatia was a philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer who, though female and pagan, achieved the honor of being named by the Christian Roman government to the position of philosopher at the museum of Alexandria. Students reading philosophy at the Alexandrian School would also study mathematics and astronomy as technical, applied disciplines of the more traditional studies of metaphysics and cosmology. Hypatia's father, Theon of Alexandria, was the museum's most famous mathematician-astronomer, and it is largely through Theon that we have a reliable source of Ptolemy's Syntaxis Mathematica (Almagest ).

Hypatia likely assumed the directorship of the school of philosophy in about 400. The recently converted Christian, Synesius of Cyrene, later the bishop of Ptolemais, became her student in 393. From Synesius's works we surmise that Hypatia's early philosophical teachings concentrated on Plato's metaphysical works, especially the Timeaus. Her mathematical and astronomical writings can be understood primarily as applications of Neoplatonist metaphysical and cosmological theories to mathematical problems whose solution informed astronomical theories. These in turn were considered to illuminate Neoplatonist cosmological theories. Six of Hypatia's works have been tentatively identified. They include an edition of Diophantus's Arithmetica with new lemmas, a lost prototype based on Archimedes's Sphere and Cylinder surviving as John of Tynemouth's De Curvis Superficibus, a text on isoperimetric figures incorporated by a later author into Introduction to the Almagest, a commentary on Archimedes's Dimension of the Circle, and a commentary edition of Apollonius Pergaeus's Conics upon which later commentary editions were based. But her most important work appears to have been a revision of a work by her father Theon appearing in Book III of his Commentary of Ptolemy's Syntaxis Mathematica.

Hypatia was an eclectic philosopher with a Cynic's literary and personal style that may have had as much to do with her risky status as both woman and pagan as with her philosophical affiliation. Accounts of outrageous tactics to counter sexist male student behavior may be apocryphal (Lewis 1921, Toland 1720). Nevertheless, they provide insight into the personality of a defensive female professor in a brutally misogynist environment. A traditional middle Platonist, Hypatia was sympathetic to Porphyrian metaphysics and to Stoicism. She preferred Euclidean methodology to the Archimedean in formulating results of problems and as a pedagogical tool for teaching philosophical mathematics. In 415, she was savagely dismembered by a gang of monks. She appears to have been succeeded by Hierocles.

See also Alexandrian School; Cynics; Feminism and the History of Philosophy; Neoplatonism; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Porphyry; Sexism; Stoicism; Women in the History of Philosophy.


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Toland, John. Hypatia, or the History . In Tetradymus, part III. London: J. Brotherton and W. Meadows, 1720.

Usener, Hermann. "Fasti Theonis Alexandrini." In Chronica Minora Sasc. IV. V, VI, VII, edited by T. Mommsen. Berlin: Berolini, 1898.

Waithe, Mary Ellen. "Finding Bits and Pieces of Hypatia." In Hypatia's Daughters: Fifteen Hundred Years of Women Philosophers, edited by Linda Lopez McAlister, 415. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Waithe, Mary Ellen. "Hypatia of Alexandria." In A History of Women Philosophers, Vol. 1, Ancient Women Philosophers 600 BC500 AD. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff/Kluwer Academic Press, 1987.

Mary Ellen Waithe (1996, 2005)