Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1555:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1555.

Today, looking for the person behind the story. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Even the pronunciation of today's name is troublesome. In Greek it's Ipateeah. A reasonable Americanization is Hipahtyah. The English give the Greek name the peculiar pronunciation of 19th-century school Latin. They call her Highpayshya.

Hypatia was the daughter of a fourth-century-AD director of the famous Library at Alexandria. She was an extraordinary scholar who taught philosophy, mathematics, and mechanics. Most of what we know of Hypatia comes from letters written by one of her students, Synesius of Cyrene. Synesius went on to become an early Christian bishop, and his letters are full of admiration for Hypatia's knowledge. He was one of a close circle of her students.

Many early Christians were among her students, yet it was a Christian mob that murdered her in 415 AD. They'd been stirred up by the power-hungry patriarch Cyril. They dragged her from her chariot one day as she went to the Library. They scraped flesh from her body with pottery shards and sea-shells. Then they burned what remained of her. Cyril was later made a saint, and Hypatia has often been represented as a martyr to the old pagan beliefs.

Polish historian Maria Dzielska goes looking for the truth of the story. But first she traces the myth. Hypatia was a favorite of the 18th-century Enlightenment. The rationalist, agnostic Voltaire portrayed her as a victim of superstition and ignorance.

The 19th century made her into a voluptuous pagan priestess, younger than she really was. A liberal Anglican clergyman, Charles Kingsley, wrote the most famous version of her story in 1853. He published it in Fraser's Magazine after his regular publisher, the Christian Socialist, failed. Kingsley's romantic tale of the pagan, converted at the end, spins out against a world of deceit and cabals. It went through countless editions and translations. It was wildly popular in 19th-century England, whence comes the bowdlerization of her name into Highpayshya.

When Dzielska combs the scant records and pieces together the real Hypatia, we meet a less theatrical but far more impressive woman. She was a highly disciplined follower of Plato. Her scholarship was valid for Christian and pagan alike. She had no formal involvement with either religion, although she was clearly conversant with both. She probably contributed to fourth-century editions of the works of Ptolemy and Diophantus -- works on astronomy and math.

Hypatia was about sixty when Cyril spread the word that she was practicing witchcraft. His assault had nothing to do with pagan worship. Rather, her influence thratened his own ambitions. He may not even've meant for her to be killed. But going after her made the surest testimony to her vast presence and influence, sixteen hundred years ago. That's how you and I know that Hypatia was far more than the romanticized figure people still try to make of her. (I wonder how her story will play when they make the movie.)

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Dzielska, M., Hypatia of Alexandria. (tr. By F. Lyra) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Kingsley, C., Hypatia. (Choose any of a vast number of editions.)

For a good on-line biography of Hypatia, see http://www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Hypatia.html

I did a very early program on Hypatia (Episode No. 215) long before Dzielska's study corrected several points.

An artist's impression of Hypatia from 1908.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H. Lienhard.