Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Was Hypatia of Alexandria a Scientist?

a film review by S. James Killings

July 28, 2010

The film Agora, released in theatres in late 2009 in Spain and this summer in the United States, portrays an unlikely heroine for the popular American audience — the ancient mathematician Hypatia of Alexandria, played by Rachel Weisz. Although renowned as a Neo-Platonic philosopher during her lifetime, she is remembered more often for her death than for her life. In 415 AD the pagan Hypatia was caught up in the political and religious violence that routinely swept Alexandria and murdered by a group of fanatical Christian monks who were intent on making an example of her. One of her colleagues, the Syrian Damascius, placed the blame squarely on the Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria and his Christian followers.

In the 18th century, the Enlightenment thinkers John Toland and particularly Voltaire seized on Damascius’ story of Hypatia’s death as symbolic of the antagonistic nature the Christian religion had toward the freedom of inquiry. They imagined her as a martyred symbol of free thought who was destroyed by the irrational dogmas of the growing ecclesiastical patriarchy. Her death, according to her blossoming legend, set back free inquiry a thousand years and ended the scientific hopes of the Hellenistic Age. This image of Hypatia as an Enlightenment symbol was to have far-reaching influence well into the 20th century, as Maria Dzielska explains in her book, Hypatia of Alexandria, so much so that it has become difficult now to untangle the historical Hypatia from her literary legend. Amenábar’s Hypatia, also apparently influenced by Carl Sagan’s portrayal of her in his documentary film Cosmos, appears to be another cultural product of this Enlightenment legend.


More about the film

Roger Ebert's Review

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