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Hypatia: The Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher by Edward J. Watts

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  • Pages: 5
  • Word count: 1181
  • Category: Legacy

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Hypatia  recounts the life of Hypatia, one of the most overlooked figures in the ancient world and science. The book provides a purely non-fictional account of the life of Hypatia from birth to death to her posthumous legacy. Edward Watts, an established professor and historian has studied intellectual and religious history of the Roman Empire for decades. Through his research and knowledge, he paints a vivid picture of the ancient city of Alexandria in the Roman Era around 331 BCE to provide readers with not only a historic recount but an ancient experience through the book itself.

Prior to 2017, the books publication date, the entire history of Hypatia appeared difficult to find in just one novel. Many believed Hypatia’s legacy to be mythical and books about her were partially fictional. Given the relative dearth of primary source material, it would seem impossible to produce a more definitive biography than this. Moreover, given today’s world of learning, it is essential to reflect upon the basis of modern science and give voice to the unsung hero, Hypatia, who in many ways paved the way for women intellectuals in a male-dominated society. Her dedication, drive and courage to pursue the life she wanted was nothing less than remarkable, as illustrated in this novel.

As a reader myself, I find the book to be very well written in terms of including specific details and history of the entire era around which she lived. It makes it easier to understand the state of education, the religious beliefs, major issues and the society in which Hypatia grew up in. The novel is also separated by many chapters each pertaining to a different stage of Hypatia’s life. Thus, the novel is easy to follow, and information is not over-lapping.

The beginning of the book provides details of the making of the city of Alexandria by Alexander the Great. The desire to create an intellectual world center of scholarship and teaching was successful at the time and Alexandria “had the energy of a living, breathing ancient megacity” (Watts, 19). As described later in the chapter, the intellectual, philosophers, teachers, doctors etc. were not of much interest to fellow citizens, they all shared the same city. However, these people were from a different world intellectually, and Hypatia wanted to bridge this gap between the two and create one intellectual environment.

The recount of Hypatia’s early life and education provides insight to her privilege as a child and her early learning. She had the resources, wealth and support needed to thrive. She had been trained by her father, Theon, the foremost mathematician of his generation, and had worked under him to edit the mathematical texts of Ptolemy. She was his best student and stood out to the intellectual establishment as the most promising mathematician in the city. She was also the top student at the school of Athens, the world’s first “university.” Moreover, Hypatia shifted the way of thinking from one that favored mathematicians to one that privileged the ideas of philosophers (37).

Following this, the book describes Hypatia’s role as the head of the Neoplatonist school in Alexandria and her role as a professor of mathematics, astronomy, and mechanics during her middle age. Watts emphasizes the city of Alexandria’s unity through wisdom and intellect. He then interprets Hypatia’s role at the time of occupying a public role as a philosopher with obligations to the community as well as philosophically minded students.

The last chapters of the novel were of utmost importance. It takes a more extensive approach at Hypatia and female contemporaries. As Watts states, “Beneath all that Hypatia accomplished was the reality that, by publicly teaching and practicing philosophy, Hypatia was a woman operating in what remained a predominantly male environment” (93). What was unique about her was the way she navigated these unfortunate situations to maintain her voice and emergence as one of the most powerful people in the Roman Empire.

The book ends with Hypatia’s brutal murder and the legacy she left behind. Watts argues that religious extremism and social decline inhibit the modern reception of Hypatia, obscuring centuries of history following her death as well as the significance of her life. Watts wants readers to reconsider Hypatia’s symbolic nature and does not want to emphasize her death but rather her accomplishments and the legendary status she carries.

I believe that the intent of this book is clear, to shed light on women in antiquity. As stated, Watts wanted to emphasize the life and achievement of Hypatia. Her upbringing, education, teachings, etc. are majorly out shadowed by her death. This made for a difficult task as not much information remains of Hypatia, but Watts outstandingly delivered. Through letters addressed to Hypatia and student recounts of her, he manages to set himself apart form nearly every published means through his expertise on ancient philosophy and education. His dedication to finding factual information proved successful.

Furthermore, Watts takes his own interpretation of the issues and seems to conclude Hypatia’s thoughts or beliefs for multiple instances. Although he wants to gage the audience it can lead to false interpretations of his intent. However, I personally enjoyed this as it made the novel easier to understand and provides a clear synthesis.

Moreover, many of the books written about Hypatia do not include the idea of sexism and her gender during the era, rather focusing purely on Hypatia “the mathematician.” As a male author himself, Watts partially overcomes the androcentric view through his gender awareness. However, his interpretation of Watts sexuality is questionable. He believes that her being an unmarried virgin meant she was uniquely willing to accept the harsh sacrifices her career demanded of her. As Victoria Leonard from the University of London states, “Hypatia’s situation was unique because her father was the mathematician and astronomer Theon, from whom she received her education. Choosing not to get married and not to have sex meant that she was able to pursue a philosophical and pedagogical role that was not available to other women, regardless of their ability or willingness to make sacrifices.” Watts states that Hypatia was unique not because she had more chances than the female intellectuals who came after her, but she was instead uniquely willing to accept the harsh sacrifices her career demanded of her.

To add on, I feel that Watts did not consider the privilege of Hypatia as a factor in her success as a female, compared to other less fortunate women. His ending page contradicts the first few pages of chapter one, where he describes her elite status and intellectual parents. “Upper-class daughters had more opportunities, at least in theory…this meant that Hypatia’s education differed greatly from the functional training that most Egyptian women received” (21). Moreover, as mentioned by Fernando Gouvêa, a mathematics professor in the United States, he relates this disconnect of the rich and poor as what ultimately leads to the death of Hypatia. Through his own words “the times had changed, and the elite did not quite understand that. When the two Alexandria’s collided, violence was the result.” It would have been interesting to hear Watts consideration of this in his novel.

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