At Medium, “The Herstory of Hypatia” — Herstory, get it? — written by one Joshua Hehe, who bills himself as:
Theorist, Pantheist, Ontologist, Syncretist, Glocalist, Anthropologist, Populist, Cosmologist, Futurist, Ethicist, Alarmist, Epistemologist, Occultist, Artist,…
Clearly this impressive list of accomplishments qualifies him to write about Late Antiquity. Or something. My old buddy Mohsen is a cosmologist, and I am familiar with the range of mathematics and physics he had to master. (TOF himself took only Astrophysics and Galactic Structure and the usual range of Differential Manifolds, Tensor Calculus, etc. Although that was many eons ago and, use it or lose it, TOF would hesitate to bill himself as a Tensorist, or even a Manifoldist, since he specialized in General Topology instead.) Glocalist stumped him for a time, but he figures it is a combination of Globalist and Localist, which is sort of like what Hegel and Marx called an internal contradiction. Not only is Mr Hehe a Syncretist, but also a Pantheist. Plus, he is a Theorist and they don’t come any more impressive than that.
TOF’s Faithful Follower recalls that Hypatia has made appearances heretofore, but knew there would be a hereafter, as well. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, being one of the foundational myths of the Modern Age. The story has been told so often it is easy to forget that these accounts are many times longer than the only surviving near-contemporary source, meaning that new facts have been created to flesh out these longer narratives.
Naturally, as is often the case with writers from that quarter, Mr Hehe cites no sources, and one suspects he leans heavily on Draper/White, on Sagan, and/or Gibbons. At least an account TOF once saw on something called rationalwiki cited sources, even if they were mostly irrelevant.
TOF will pause here and allow you to read Mr Hehe’s account and make your own notes. Remember the TOFian battle cry: “How do you know that? What is your source!” Ready? Go!readreadreadreadreadreadreadreadreadreadreadreadreadreadreadreadreadread
Back already? Okay, let’s look at some of the points. You will note there are actually some truthful statements in his essay, though oft spoilt by exaggeration, by Modernist interpretations, and by the addition of details for which there is no actual evidence. These hypes are unnecessary. The actual event is horrific enough. Is it made more horrific by imagining that Hypatia was “very beautiful”?
1. Yes, we know: the “his” in history is not the 3rd person possessive pronoun for first declension. The root word is ιστορ, Greek, meaning a wise person or judge, a quo ιστορία, “a learning or knowing by inquiry; an account of those inquiries, history, record, narrative,” thence to Latin historia, “a narrative of past events; account, tale, story.” But everyone likes a pun, aina?
2. “a terribly eager successor of Alexander the Great established the Ancient Library in Africa.”
You can tell us, Mr Hehe. It was one of the Ptolemies. According to a letter supposedly written by one Aristeas, it was Ptolemy Philadelphius (309-246 BC). It was not called the Ancient Library for the excellent reason that the folks back then did not know they were the ancients. It was the Royal Library and was the property of the King. But it was not a library as we would think of libraries. The word βιβλιοθήκη (bibliotheke} meant a book chest (βιβλιο – θήκη), not a building. These chests were usually stored in the niches of the colonnade of a temple, of the baths, or of other public buildings. The Royal Book Chests were stored in the Temple of the Muses and the priest-scholars were permitted to use them. Many were also stored in warehouses in the harbor district, conveniently placed for Caesar’s troops to accidentally destroy them in the First Alexandian War.
3. “the illustrious repository of planetary wisdom housed millions of scrolls…”
No. Only one ancient source, from long after the Book Chests had been plundered, estimates 700,00 scrolls, but like the fish that got away, the Library tended to grow bigger after it had disappeared. (Greek was notoriously sloppy about writing large numbers, cf. Archimedes, The Sand Reckoner.) Such a collection would have required a fairly enormous building in its own right, given the size of standard scrolls and the methods of shelving them. Yet when Strabo (64 BC – 24 AD) visited Alexandria sometime around the time of Christ, he mentioned no such building, though he gave a detailed description of the Museum itself. That the Royal Book Chests contained twice as many scrolls as the other great libraries of the era is not beyond reason. But that it contained more than ten times as many defies reason. Strabo, in a passing mention, writes:“Eratosthenes … had read many historical works, with which he was well supplied if he had a library as large as Hipparchus says it was.” (Geographia, II.1).
Which sounds like that large library was not around any more, or else Strabo would have noticed it. Eratosthenes (276 – 194 BC) had been the head librarian and the author of an earlier, now-obsolete Geographia. Strabo had worked in Alexandria itself, yet he had to rely on a remark by Hipparchus (190-120 BC) a century and a half earlier to tell him that he had had a big library.
4. “the illustrious repository of planetary wisdom … contained the collective understanding of the entire world.”
Well, of the local entire world. In the account of Epiphanius (On Weights and Measures), the Royal Book Chests held almost entirely Greek works, and the librarian Demetrius of Phaleron recommended that they collect Latin works as well as Egyptian and Syrian. (And he has also heard that there are many books in India.) Most importantly, there are works by the Jews relatively close by. (Epiphanius is re-telling the tale of Aristeas how the Septuagint translated Scripture into Greek and placed it in the Royal Library.)
5. “…a continuous supply of manuscripts coming in and out of the facilities on any given day, including Jewish, Turkish, and Babylonian texts alike.”
We know that there were Jewish texts because the Septuagint is specifically mentioned by Epiphanius. Babylonian is questionable, and Turkish is out of the question because the Turks were not in the Middle East until the 10th century AD.
6. “…a sort of peculiar little girl named Hypatia was born in ancient Greece circa 370.”
There is no evidence she was born in Greece. So far as we know she was born and bred in Alexandria. Why Mr Hehe thinks she was “peculiar,” who knows.
7. “…the finest education she could get, in the best place available. Athens was home to the most sophisticated society in the classical world, and that’s where she was destined to come of age.”
By the 4th-5th century AD, Athens was “famed only for her beekeepers,” according to Hypatia’s student, Synesius. It glory days were long over.
Do read the whole thing, Flynn’s dry sense of humor and erudition are always a source of education for me. No small part of my pleasure just comes from entering the very different mental world of the ancients, who stubbornly refuse to conform to post-modern categories. F’rinstance:
16. Hypatia … [became] a naturalist, a physicist, and a feminist, to name only but a few of her incredible accomplishments.
She not only had accomplishments, but incredible accomplishments. However, she was not a feminist. The ancient world knew of no such thing. Following the success of Christianity, women became more prominent in the public square. This included pagan as well as Christian women. Women philosophers were not unusual in that milieu. Gemina, Amphiclea, Marcella, Sosipatra of Pergamon, the renowned Aedesia, St. Theodora, St. Eugenia, and St. Maria the Egyptian are examples. The pagan Aedesia, eulogized by Damascius, held forth in Alexandria in the generation immediately after Hypatia and no one hassled her. (Dzielska: 117-9)
24. Unlike the other women of her time, Hypatia could move and speak freely among the men.
Well, unlike women other than Gemina, Amphiclea, Marcella, Sosipatra of Pergamon, Aedesia, St. Theodora, St. Eugenia, and St. Maria the Egyptian.
25. she had endless suitors,
We know of one example, mentioned by Damascius about two generations after Hypatia’s time. One of her students developed a crush on his teacher and “showed her a token of his love.” In response, she showed him her menstrual rags, saying “this is what you’re in love with [i.e., her vagina], and it isn’t pretty.” This must have been early in her career, since she was in at least her fifties by the time of her murder.
26. the thing is that she never really wanted to get married. Hypatia was a strong independent woman. As a kind of Vestal Virgin for Truth, she would not be pressured into expecting and nursing children.
Neoplatonists as a rule disdained physical relations. Plotinus had taught that a man is a soul trapped in matter and matter was icky. Sex was dirty. This had no relation to being “a strong, independent woman,” or pressure to give birth and nurse children. It was simply Neoplatonic anti-materialism.