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Hypatia, Hypatia

June 18th, 2009 No comments

Hypatia of Alexandria, by Maria DzielskaI picked up Hypatia of Alexandria (Revealing Antiquity) after hearing about Agora, a film which made some waves at Cannes this year and should be showing on U.S. screens soon. It’ll be interesting seeing the movie after reading this book, as director Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar’s Hypatia is exactly the type of literary Hypatia that Dzielska spends the first chapter of her book debunking.

This is a rather boring book about a really interesting subject. Hypatia, noted Alexandrian philosopher and mathematician of the fourth and fifth centuries, has variously been characterized as atheist, pagan, and consummate Neoplatonist. The causes and circumstances of her death at the hands of a Christian mob have been similarly obfuscated by a long series of historians and artists, each with their own agendas.

Dzielska goes deep into primary and secondary sources looking for answers, and what she comes back with is satisfying, if not terribly gripping. At the same time, she does a convincing job of not putting too much of her own spin on the topic. Unfortunately, Dzielska is mostly intent on arguing with other writers. The structure of her argument works against spinning a good yarn, and she puts in few or no details of what daily life in fourth century Alexandria was like.

This year’s film Hypatia is a sensuous freethinker played by Rachel Weisz, a far cry from the virginal, sexagenarian Christian of history. Weisz in a philosopher’s tribon should prove pretty easy on the eyes, but I don’t know… Judy Dench might’ve been a much better choice.