Review written by Henri Laurie.
This is an important book for anybody interested in the history of mathematics and in the history of women intellectuals.
To recap very briefly: Hypatia is well-known as the mathematician/philosopher who was murdered by a Christian mob in 415 CE in Alexandria. She is one of the best-attested woman philosophers in the Greek tradition.
Watts turns this on its head: he tells the story of a life, one of singular achievement, and one in which the manner of death is not the most important part. The picture he paints is of a very remarkable woman, who became the head of her father’s school at a relatively young age and came to dominate the scholarly activity of her city, at the time one of the three most important centres of learning in the Mediterranean.
It is important to realise that although women did study philosophy at the time, and therefore also mathematics, which was seen as preparation for philosophy, very few of them were able to continue well into adulthood. Hypatia was an exception for two reasons: she was the daughter of Theon (whose 4-th century edition of Euclid’s elements became so dominant that all older versions were lost, except for a tiny 1-st century fragment), and she never married.
As the daughter of professional scholar, she could receive the best education available. She apparently surpassed her father in mathematics, and became the head of his school while he was still alive and able to teach. As head of the school, the students were loyal to her, not to her father, and she was highly respected as a philosopher. It is currently thought that the famous Almagest of Ptolemy survives through her edition, but the respect she enjoyed not due only to her scientific work, but rather to her philosophical teaching, which followed Plotinus. In this version of Platonism, philosophy is a way of attaining unity with god through contemplation.
Nevertheless, the choice of not marrying was also central to her success. She was the only philosopher in the Greek tradition to head a school. This rare success must indicate that it was a very difficult thing to achieve. Besides her talent and energy, Hypatia must also have been able to persuade a group of young men to follow her, and to make it clear to them and to a skeptical city that they really did devote themselves very deeply to philosophy. That they worked hard at this is attested to by the fact that all accounts of her life emphasise very strenuously her chastity and the way her philosophy directed her life.
This should not be taken lightly. Watts is very good on the role of intellectuals in the Greek tradition. There is a very clear distinction to be made between philosophers and rhetoricians. One important difference is that philosophers must be seen to practice philosophy, and in particular must be seen to possess unwavering devotion to truth. It seems clear that this standard was applied much more strictly to Hypatia than to philosophers in general.
Hypatia’s intellectual leadership came at a crucial time in the history of Alexandria: during her lifetime, the city changed from being largely pagan to being largely Christian. This brought real tensions. At Hypatia’s school, Christians and pagans joined in the study of philosophy. They differed in what “divine” means in “union with the divine” but they agreed that philosophical contemplation was essential in achieving it, and in Hypatia they found the teacher they needed. This allowed the elite of the city to unite in what can be seen as a project for productive co-existence of Christian and pagan.
It seems that Hypatia’s role was especially important from the year 392 onwards. In that year, a pagan temple (the Serapeum) was destroyed by Christians. This alarmed the political authorities (under a prefect appointed from Rome) and the city’s elite. They managed to keep the city peaceful until 414, when the Nicene Christian bishop died. A struggle for the leadership of the Nicene Christian community ensued, and prefect Orestes attempted to deal with it by force. Much unrest followed, eventually leading to Hypatia’s death.
Why did she get caught up in what was essentially a struggle within one Christian group? It is clear that she became strongly associated with Orestes’ government, and was blamed by at least some unruly monks for Orestes’ actions. Watts makes it clear that philosophers at the time were expected to advise rulers. Indeed, their devotion to truth meant, or should have meant, that they gave the advice without expecting any honours or wealth in return. Hypatia took up this role, but was blamed for the actions of the prefect. It appears that the Christians paid more attention to the fact that she was a pagan than to the fact that she was a philosopher.
We should not make the same mistake, and celebrate her as an exemplary philosopher: a life devoted to learning and a lived deeply governed by contemplation.
Oh, and what about mathematics? Isn’t this a website devoted to mathematics?
Well, to Hypatia mathematics was the essential starting point of philosophy: only mathematical understanding could lead to a well-ordered mind, and only a well-ordered mind could lead to union with the divine.
Nowadays, mathematics is both much bigger than merely a guarantee of order and much less than union with the divine. But the principles remain: looking as deeply as possible, and of following contemplation as far as it can take us.”