Universal Brotherhood Path – May 1901

HYPATIA: I — John Toland

or the history of a most beautiful, most virtuous, most learned, and every-way accomplished Lady, who was torn to pieces by the Clergy of Alexandries, to gratify the pride, emulation, and cruelty of their Archbishop, commonly but undeservedly styled, St.Cyril.

Magnum aliquid inflat, efferum, immane, impium.
     — sen. medea, oct. 3, scen. 1, lin. ib

London, A. D. 1753 British Museum


a general character of the lady; the contrivers and executioners of the barbarities which she suffered; and the authorities from whence this story is extracted.

I am going to give a short account, but as full as ancient books afford us material, of the Life and Death of Hypatia; who will ever continue the Glory of her own sex, and the disgrace of ours: for the women have no less reason to value themselves, that there existed a Lady of such rare accomplishments, without the least blemish, even as a foil to her numberless perfections; than the men to be ashamed, that any could be found among them of so brutal and savage a disposition, as, far from being struck with admiration at so much beauty, innocence, and knowledge, to stain their barbarous hands with her blood, and their impious souls with the indelible character of sacriligious murderers. A Bishop, a patriarch, nay, a saint, was the contriver of so horrid a deed, and his clergy the executioners of his implacable fury. The authors out of whom I collect my account (and I omit none that has come to my knowledge) were either her contemporaries, or lived near that age. One of them was her school-fellow, another her scholar. But they who relate the most odious and flagitious circumstances are ecclesiastical historians, counted orthodox in their own time, as well as eminently so by most in ours. Nor ought we to forget that several of them were priests. To every one of them we shall do the justice that their sincerity or prevarication deserves, though little remains to do in this respect; all being agreed about the principal facts, and some differing only in points of no great importance. They are such things, as, taken either way, neither serve much to alleviate a very bad cause, nor to aggravate what cannot be possibly made worse.


alexandria, famous for learning and merchandise, but particularly for a school or academy, of which theon, the father of hypatia, was master.

After Alexander, the Great, had founded Alexandria in Egypt, as the center of commerce in the Empire he was projecting, this city soon became a nourishing mart for Learning as well as for merchandise. The fame of the Alexandrian School, and of the Alexandrian Library, reached much further than the name of Alexander himself; or at least they carried it, whither it could never have reached without their means. This was the most proper tribute that could in gratitude be paid to the memory of a Prince so ambitious of glory: As indeed no private persons, no more than potentates, will ever do anything praiseworthy without the prospect of a long-lived reputation, the most effectual spur to laudable and arduous undertakings. The succession of the great men that presided in this school may be learnt out of the works of those who have purposely written on such subjects. My design, however, obliges me here to mention one of them, namely, Theon, who governed that Academy with much applause in the latter part of the fourth century. He was particularly famous for his extensive knowledge in Astronomy, as the catalogues, made of such who excelled in this science, abundantly show. But what has contributed to render him more illustrious to all posterity is, that he was father to the incomparable Hypatia; whom, according to the custom of those times, or rather prompted by the encouragement he received from her own promising Genius, he educated not only in all the qualifications belonging to her sex; but caused her likewise to be instructed in the most abstruse sciences, which are reputed the proper occupation of men, as requiring too much labor and application for the delicate constitution of women.


philosophy not an improper study for the female sex; many of them very eminent for their great progress in the sciences; particularly hypatia, who excelled all the philosophers of her time.

That this notion is a vulgar prejudice, the vast number of ladies who have in every age distinguished themselves by their professions or performances in learning, furnishes an unanswerable argument. Whole volumes have been written containing nothing else but the lives of such women, as became eminent in all kinds of Literature, especially in Philosophy; which, as it is the highest perfection, so it demands the utmost effort of human nature.

But leaving these heroines to the search of the curious, I shall confine myself at present to one object worthy all admiration; in doing justice to whom I may be deemed to write the panegyric of the whole sex.

We have the unanimous consent of Synesius, Socrates, and Philostorgius, her contemporaries; as likewise of Damascius, Nicephorus Gregoras, Nicephorus Callistus, Photius, Suidas, Hesychius Illustris, and others, touching the prodigious learning and other excellent accomplishments of Hypatia. What is still a greater proof of the fact, no one person, or through ignorance or through envy, has ever as much as insinuated the contrary. Socrates the ecclesiastical historian, an unsuspected witness, says that "she arrived to such a pitch of learning as very far to exceed all the philosophers of her time;" to which Nicephorus, also an ecclesiastical historian, adds, "Those of other times." Philostorgius affirms that, "She was much superior to her father and master Theon in what regards Astronomy." And Suidas, who mentions two books of her writing, one "on the Astronomical Canon of Diophantus," and another "on the Conics of Apollonius," avers that "she not only exceeded her father in Astronomy, but further, that she understood all the other parts of Philosophy; " a thing that will be easily credited by those who shall peruse the sequel of this story, wherein nothing is advanced without competent vouchers.


hypatia succeeds in the government of the platonic school at alexandria, for which she was judged qualified, in preference to all the men of learning at that time.

And truly were not this matter so well attested by those writers we have just named, and by others we shall presently have occasion to allege; yet nobody could any longer doubt of it, after being informed by the very same persons, that Hypatia succeeded in the government of the Platonic school at Alexandria, the place of her birth and education. This was another guess thing, God knows, than taking the degree of Doctor in any of the faculties which one or two women have not long since done, for which they have been loaded with fulsome eulogies, though producing no effects suitable to the titles they have so much ambitioned. But what greater glory for a woman, what greater honour redounding to all women, than to see a Lady teaching in that chair where Ammonius and Hierocles (to name no more, for 'tis a mistake in Socrates or his transcriber to make Plotinus one of them) where so many professors, I say, uttered the oracles of Learning, rather as Divine Intelligences than mortal men? What infinite merit must She have possessed, who could be preferred to that conspicuous station, at a time when men of immense learning abounded both at Alexandria, and in many other parts of the Roman Empire? Wherefore, the novelty of the thing considered, and Hypatia's worth being universally acknowledged, 'tis no wonder that She soon had a crowded Auditory.

"She explained to her hearers," says Socrates, "the several sciences, that go under the name of Philosophy; for which reason," continues he, "there was a confluence to her from all parts, of those who made Philosophy their delight and study."

To the same purpose speak others; and Suidas adds that "She explained all the philosophers" that is, all the several sects, with the particular tenets of their founders, which shews an inexpressible elevation and capacity; each of these separately being thought a sufficient province to exercise the diligence of any one man consummate in Letters.


hypatia's school crowded with scholars of the best fashion. she is admired for her incomparable beauty, and the vast extent of her learning.

Now, I cannot but here represent to myself with pleasure, let who will censure me for it, the flower of all the youth in Europe, Asia, and Africa, sitting at the feet of a most beautiful Lady (for such we are assured Hypatia was) all greedily swallowing instruction from her mouth, and many of them Love from her eyes. How she served one of this last sort, shall be told in its due place. It was doubtless a thing impossible not to improve under such a teacher; as one must be equally stupid and insensible, that could not be powerfully affected by a charming mind in a charming body. I am sure this reflection is very agreeable to that philosophy she peculiarily professed; and accordingly the Alexandrian School never flourished more. Her Disciples entered into a strict tie of intimacy with one another, styling themselves "Companions," or, as in our colleges "Fellows;" which was likewise the custom at Athens, and in other famous seminaries of Learning. This commonly begot effects of Benevolence through the whole course of their lives, and sometimes acts of friendship very extraordinary. Hypatia was by way of excellence named "The Philosopher," although as much on account of her profound knowledge, as for her public profession of teaching. Nor was any professor ever more admired by the world, or more dear to his own scholars. Hers were as remarkable as numerous.


an enconium on synesius, one of hypatia's scholars; who, though a heathen, was consecrated a christian bishop.

One of these, who has preserved to us the names of several others, is the celebrated Synesius. He was a native of Cyrene in Africa, on the borders of Egypt, a very ancient Greek colony, the birth-place of Aristippus and Carneades, which Synesius forgets not to mention in his writings. He travelled for improvement to his neighbouring country of Egypt, the undoubted Mother of the Sciences, where he happily succeeded in his studies at Alexandria under Hypatia. This person alone may suffice for a specimen of the extraordinary spirits that she formed. If we may rely on the judgement of no less a man than Nicephorus, Gregoras, Patriarch of Constantinople (who wrote elaborate annotations on his treatise of Dreams, a piece fraught with uncommon learning). He says, "There was nothing he did not know, no science wherein he did not excel, no mystery in which he was not initiated or skilled," with a great deal more to this purpose. And it must be owned, that to all the vivacity natural to his country, there was joined the most profound knowledge and solid judgement. His works are every one highly commended, but his epistles are admirable, as Suidas very truly remarks; and in the opinion of Protius, as well as of Evagrius, they are elegant, agreeable, sententious, and learned. He was a man of noble birth, which added no less weight to his learning than this reflected lustre on his quality; as both together procured him credit with his superiors, authority over his inferiors, and admiration from his equals. He went upon an embassy, which lasted three years, to the Emporer Arcadius at Constantinople, on the behalf of his country; which was miserably harassed by the auxiliary Goths and other barbarians, but which received considerable relief from his solicitations. It was then that with greater boldness than any of the Grecians (as he tells us himself) he pronounced before the Emperor that extremely fine oration concerning government; which, in a country so justly fond of Liberty as ours, I wonder has never been translated. This defect I have supplied, and will impart it to the public on a proper occasion. As for Synesius's being consecrated Bishop of Ptolemais, notwithstanding his protestation, that he disbelieved some of the most essential articles of the Christian Religion, we spoke enough to that point at the latter end of Clidophorus; only we shall observe in this place, how Petavius, the editor of his works, affirms that in some of the books written after his profession of Christianity, he appears as very a Heathen as ever. But this being no prejudice to his parts, however it may affect his salvation, is none of our present business to examine; much less to adopt the pitiful excises, or rather prevarications, invented by some learned men to defend him from this imputation. The principal is Baromius.


synesius's testimony to the learning and virtue op hypatia. some account of his writings and other works.

The thing which our design obliges us not to pass over lightly is, the grateful testimony he everywhere bears to the Learning and Virtue of Hypatia, whom he never mentions without the profoundest respect, and sometimes in terms of affection, coming little short of adoration. In a letter to his brother, Euoptius: — "Salute," says he, "the most honored and the most beloved of God, the Philosopher; and that happy sodality of Fellowship which enjoys the blessing of her divine voice." In another to his said brother he mentions one "Egyptus, who sucked in the seeds of Wisdom from Hypatia." And thus he expresses himself, writing to Olympius: "I suppose these letters will be delivered by Peter which he will receive from that sacred hand. I send them from Pentapolis to our common Instructress, and she will intrust them with whom she thinks fit, which I am sure will be to one that is well known to her." In a letter addressed to herself he desires her to direct a Hydroscope to be made and bought for him, which he then describes. Petavius thinks it was a sort of level, and others an hour-measure. That famous silver Astrolabe which he presented to Peonius, a man equally excelling in Philosophy and arms, he owns to have been perfected by the directions of Hypatia. In a long epistle he acquaints her with the reasons for his writing two books, which he thereby sends her. The one was his mystical treatise on "Dreams," and the other his " Dion." This last is a most ingenious apology for learning against two sorts of men, who by very opposite lines tended to the same center of Ignorance. The one, that under pretense of being reserved towards unworthy hearers, concealed their want of real Knowledge, did accuse him of being too communicative, and of prostituting Philosophy. The others would have him to be eternally prating like themselves, not that they studied more than others, nor yet so much, to be furnished with matter of discourse; but that talking by rote out of certain systems, the truth of which they took for granted, and which nobody must contradict; they could tire the patience of their hearers without making these or themselves a whit the wiser. Both sorts charged him with studying elegance and oratory in his compositions; for the divines of that time were substituting apace to Philosophy and other learning, Legends and enthusiasm, fables and fancies, which they sanctified by the name of "Divine contemplation." Metaphysical distinctions about the Trinity and extravagant notions about the Essence of God (whose majesty they blasphemed by their profane definitions) was all the study then in vogue, to the irreparable damage of polite and useful letters.


synesius submits his book of dion to the judgement of hypatia; his description of his censurers.

Of his "Dion," therefore, he begs Hypatia's judgment, resolving not to publish it without her approbation. He informs her, moreover, that she's the first among the Greeks, or rather the " Heathens," to whom he communicates his treatise of "Dreams;" and, that he might complete, he says, the sacred number three, he adds to these two his "account of the Astrolabe," presented to Peonius. It will not be a digression altogether foreign to the subject (as we shall see hereafter) if we insert here part of the fine description, which he has given of the second sort of those that censured him:

"Who being full of ignorance (says he) yet armed with confidence, are "readier than all other men to discourse concerning God; and if you happen to light upon them, you will straight hear some of their unreasonable reasonings, which they will needs obtrude on such as are desirous of no such matter; because, I suppose, it is for their interest so to do. For on the score of such things they are made preachers in towns, which is the same thing as to enjoy Amalthea's Horn or plenty of all things, which these think themselves obliged to use. I fancy by this time you perceive what this forward generation of men may be that blame my generous purpose. They invite me to come into their discipline, promising, that in a short time I shall appear most confident in things relating to God, and ever after be capable to dispute incessantly both night and day."

I believe this race of men is not yet extinct; but another time they may hear of a certain speech addressed to them by the same truth-telling Synesius.


synesius's misfortunes; his letter of complaint to hypatia.

On his promotion, or, as he accounted it himself, his banishment to the Bishopric of Ptolemais, he was forced to quit the Fellowship of his co-disciples and the presence of his dear Hypatia. As an augmentation of his affliction he soon lost his wife, with his children a little time after, whom he very tenderly loved, and whose death he did not bear with the same fortitude that is reported of some other philosophers. On this occasion, and a fancied neglect of his friends, he wrote the following letter: "To Hypatia, the Philosopher, (that I may use the very words of the inscription). I salute you, happy Lady, and by your means the most happy Companions. I have of a long time had an intention to chide, by reason I have received no letters from any of you. But now I perceive that I am neglected by all, not that I have in any thing failed of my duty; but that I am in many respects unfortunate and indeed as unfortunate as anyone can be. Nevertheless, could I be thought worthy of receiving your letters, and of being informed how you lead your lives (being confident, however, it is after the best manner that may be, and that you fail not to exercise a sprightly genius) I should only think myself unhappy by halves, while I enjoyed any happiness on your account. But now I must reckon this also, as one of the misfortunes wherein I am involved. For I am not only deprived of my children, but likewise of my friends, and of everybody's kindness; nay, what is more than all, of your most divine Soul, which only thing I flattered myself would continue steadfast to me, in spite of the injuries of fortune and the storms of fate."

One would think that he could not better express, in so few lines, the good opinion he had of his Teacher; yet he's still more pathetical in other letters, which, because serving to give us the fuller view of Hypatia's character, I shall produce as essential to my subject.


synesius's grief for the death of his children brings upon him a fit of sickness; his letter of complaint to hypatia in his illness.

Continuing therefore to grieve for the death of his children, he fell into ill state of health, which he signifies to his mistress (whom in all his letters he styles "The Philosopher") and to the beloved Companions of his studies, in these words: "Being confined to my bed I have dictated this letter, which may you receive in good health, my mother, my sister, and my Instructress! in all which respects you have been my Benefactress, or if there be any other, either name or thing, that is more honorable. The weakness of my body proceeds from the anguish of my Soul. The remembrance of my deceased children consumes me by little and little. Synesius ought only to have lived so long as the evils of life were unknown to him. Afterwards it has happened to him as to a stream that is stopped; it rushes over its dam on a sudden, and forces all the pleasure of life before it. Let me cease to live, or to remember the burial of my children. May you enjoy health yourself, and salute in my name the happy companions, beginning with Father Theotecnus, and Brother Athanisius, and so proceeding to the rest. Or if any other be since associated to them, who is agreeable to you (and to whom, for this very reason of pleasing you, I ought to stand obliged) salute him also for me, as one of my dearest friends. If what relates to me be of any concern to you, 'tis well done; though, even then, I shall be insensible to this favor."

What can be more affectionate, what can be more tender, what can be more benevolent or candid? The Soul speaks here in every line. A while after, the calamities of war being added to all his other sorrows, he writes her this letter, beginning with a couple of lines out of Homer, changing only a word or two:

' Tho' 'mong the Dead profound oblivion reigns
E'en there, my dear Hypatia, I'll remember.

"I, who am surrounded with the miseries of my country, and who am thoroughly weary of it, since I daily see hostile arms, and men slaughtered like beasts; that I breathe air infected with the corruption of dead bodies, and that I hourly expect the like fate myself; for who can hope well, where the very face of the sky is most lamentable, being darkened by the shadows of carnivorous birds? Yet, notwithstanding all this, I retain an affection for the country; nay, how can I do otherwise, being a Libyan by nation, and born in this place, where I behold no ignoble sepulchers of my ancestors. For your sake alone I fancy I can set light by my country, and, as soon as leisure offers, will banish myself out of it."

In " Clidophorus" I showed the resolutions out of some of his letters to others; but whether he ever executed them, or how long he lived, where or in what manner he died, is not recorded by any author that I remember.

Theosophical University Press Online Edition