Dangerous Women: Hypatia and Future Philosophy
It’s dangerous to be a woman with ideas. Women have never been seriously considered as part of the Western philosophical lineage, which is wrapped up with suppression of feminine power, and have too often been forcibly removed from intellectual circles. To provide context, I am a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, middle class woman in the United States of America. I am also a philosopher, thinker, and writer with something to say. While I enjoy a high level of privilege, I am concerned with recent developments around the world that continue to shut down women and our right to a seat at the intellectual table.
Hypatia was a woman with ideas as well. The Neoplatonic philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer was a fixture in the cultural scene in Alexandra at the height of the city’s prominence in the 4th and 5th centuries of the common era. I imagine Hypatia walking the streets, students in tow, ruminating on the thoughts of Plato, Artistotle, and Plotinus. What did she think of Plato’s cave, the philosopher’s famous allegory comparing educated people to those who have seen the light of the sun? Did she see herself in that story and expand upon it from her unique perspective as a woman? These are questions she might have answered in her writing, but I will never read her words.
All of the primary sources we have on Hypatia, her life, and her works fit neatly on to about twenty standard letter-size pages. Every word she wrote has been lost, or more correctly, intentionally destroyed. We do know enough about her life, and more tellingly, about her death, to piece together the broad outlines of her creative works. We know she was the head of the Neoplatonic school where she taught students, who called her mother and sister, and gave public philosophical lectures. We know she provided commentary on the works of prominent mathematicians and astronomers of the time from the reports of her contemporaries. We know she was an inventor and likely created the hydroscope to measure water and the plane astrolabe to track the stars. We know she never married and likely remained a virgin during her life. I wonder how it is possible to know so many details about her personal life and yet have not one sentence of her thoughts — only a concerted effort to rid the world of her ideas makes sense.
Hypatia became dangerous when she used her cultural power and her voice to advocate against unfair policies. In the power struggle between Cyril, the Christian Patriarch (archbishop) of Alexandra, and Orestes, the prefect (governor) of the city, Hypatia supported Orestes. The story goes that Cyril sought to expel Jewish people from the city and Orestes opposed his actions. Hypatia’s support lent Orestes the backing of the prominent families who were connected to her through her scholarship. In his attempts to destroy his opposition, Cyril incited an urban mob against the philosopher. Hypatia, now likely an older woman, was riding her chariot through the streets on an evening in 415 CE when the mob viciously attacked her, dragged her from her vehicle to the church, stripped her, and killed her with shards of broken pottery. It was not enough for the mob to kill her. They took Hypatia’s body, dismembered her, and burned her remains on a pyre outside the city. The records show that those who so despicably murdered this woman were not brought to justice, and instead all of her life’s work was destroyed. Cyril, for his accomplishments, was later made a saint. Hypatia was almost erased from the book of history altogether. How many other women were either similarly written off or fearfully never even entertained their own thoughts seriously?
From our historical vantage point, even more interesting than the few pieces we do know about this incredible woman is what endures 1600 years after her death. Her story, and not her ideas, are what remains in scraps and pieces. Stories can be told and retold, but are not valued next to logic and fact. Hypatia’s ideas were too dangerous to exist in a world made small by hate and greed. I often wonder what were her thoughts that were so dangerous they needed to be expunged, and how might the world be different today if we had even a few of her words.
The lineage of philosophy shows the signs of Hypatia’s loss — an intellectual paternity test follows modern philosophy through an unbroken line of European men directly back to Plato. The story of philosophy also has very little to say about non-European or non-gender binary thinkers. The few European women who have broken through the academic glass ceiling — Simone de Beauvior, Mary Wollstonecraft, and others — were connected to notable men and/or wrote specifically on feminist theory. Their writing tends to end up on the women’s studies shelves rather than in the philosophy section of the bookstore. As a student of philosophy, I’m always looking for women’s voices. What do women think about metaphsyics? What is a female perspective on the good, the true, and the beautiful? Maybe there’s another question that is more primary — How is it that we’ve come to know what we know almost exclusively through the eyes of men?
It’s this last question that to me signals a shift. Our intellectual structures themselves are skewed towards one viewpoint, and that has created a world in alignment with a logical, coherent, scientifically validated belief system, blindly leaving so much behind. Women have thoughts and ideas and opinions that matter and that deserve to be considered on the world stage. It begs the question, what was so dangerous about Hypatia’s ideas? What would need to change if women’s voices were taken seriously?
And the world is not yet safe for the ideas of women. The story of Nobel winner Malala Yousafzai is chillingly close to that of Hypatia’s so long ago: a young woman who only wants to learn is targeted and attacked with intent to kill. The world is exceedingly more rich because Malala is still with us and is able to gift the world her ideas and her advocacy. But there are so many other girls and women in the world who fear for their lives as they try to gain an education. Even in the United States, the debates around women’s rights are dominated by men’s ideas and misinformation, and women’s voices are quiet or silent to the overwhelming, bombastic sound of male politicians. Something tells me Hypatia would not approve.
It will be dangerous to be a woman with ideas anywhere until women globally are safely able to receive an education and have the right to make choices about their own lives. Hypatia’s story, if not her thoughts, lives on within any female-identified person with an interest in understanding wisdom and contributing to the lineage of philosophic inquiry. Women’s voices are critical to the future of philosophy.
Dzeilska, Maria. Hypatia of Alexandria. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.
Deakin, Michael A. B. “The Primary Sources for the Life and Work of Hypatia of Alexandria.” Last modified May 28, 1998. https://archive.is/k3FT