Hypatia,
life and dreams of a scientist of the 4th century A.D.

Note of Adriano Petta



      First came across Hypatia when I was preparing the introductory note to my historical novel (Roghi fatui: Fatuous fires), which together with Eresia pura (Pure heresy), represents my contribution to an analysis of the struggle between Science and Religion, from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.
      I could only devote six lines, then, to that Alexandrian woman scientist: enough, however, to set the spark of my curiosity alight. And from my first investigations of the historical sources I realised that in order to retell the story of this great figure (who appears in the works of Pierre de Fermat, Chateaubriand, Voltaire, Proust, Toland, Fielding, Diderot, Gibbon, Wieland, Péguy, Leopardi, Monti, Pascal, Luzi, Calvino and innumerable other writers) I needed not only a novelist's pen (my own, written in the printed text in roman type) but also a philosopher's demonstration of the intricacies of symbolism and valuation involved (printed as the dreams, in italic type in the text). Thus began my cooperation with Antonino Colavito, whose pen has traversed Hypatia's skies heights, their flickering cloud of atoms… luminous cloud in which has been dispersed the bloodstained filthiness of my fragmented narrative.
      A pitiless narration for the butchers and assassins who, with premeditated ferocity, put an end to Hypatia's life during Lent of the year 415 A.D.
      Hypatia was heiress to the School of Alexandria, the most important scienti?c community in history, in which had studied Archimedes, Aristarcus of Samos, Eratosthenes, Hipparchus, Euclid, Ptolemy and all those people of genius who laid the foundations of all scienti?c knowledge. She was a neoplatonic philosopher, musicologist, doctor of medicine, scientist, mathematician, astronomer, the mother of experimental science (she invented and constructed the astrolabe, the hydroscope and the aerometer)… and, as Pascal wrote, la dernière, merveilleuse ?eur de la gentillesse et de la science hellénique.
      During its seven hundred years of existence the School of Alexandria had reached such elevated peaks of achievement in the field of science, that it would have been enough to leave Hypatia and her pupils alive and free to pursue their studies, to have secured another 1200 years of scienti?c progress. But on Hypatia and on the whole of humanity there fell the grossest of misfortunes: the rise to power of the catholic Church and the pact of blood sealed between it and the agonizing Roman empire. This pact - apart from the suppression of paganism - provided for the destruction of the libraries, of science and of the scientists themselves and the abolition of free thought and of scienti?c research (at the councils of Carthage, in fact, it was forbidden to everyone - bishops included - to study the works of Aristotle, Plato, Euclid, Ptolemy, Pythagoras etc.). Women were to be prevented from taking part in religion, from attending school, from practising any art or science.
      In the course of a few decades this plan was almost entirely realised. But Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Augustine and Cyril - the giants of the dawning empire of the Church - found in their path, already blackened with fire and paved with blood, one last impediment: a young and very beautiful creature at the head of the School of Alexandria, a scientist of inflexible moral rectitude, who at the end of a day of study and research would throw around her shoulders the tribon - the philosopher's mantle
- and would go around Alexandria explaining to people - with rhetorical brilliance and extraordinary wisdom - what was meant by freedom of thought and the use of reason.

And Cyril, bishop and patriarch of Alexandria, plotted the martyrdom of Hypatia.
      To unjustly kill the most ordinary of human beings is to cut short a life, to shatter some possibility, but to slaughter such a creature as Hypatia is to wreak incalculable havoc against the whole of humanity, to kill the hope of human progress.
      This crime marked the end of paganism, the decline of science and the destruction of the very dignity of woman. It sealed the definitive ascendancy of the most astute, refined, voracious, ruthless and ferocious clique of men ever produced by the human race: from that month of March of the year 415 A.D. the Catholic Church, besides imprisoning, torturing and burning entire populations alive, enchained the minds of men in order to manipulate, direct and dominate them, allying itself always with the ruling power and with injustice. No mea culpa can ever atone to the human race for the shedding of so much innocent blood and for so many centuries of progress prevented.

      In that year of 415 A.D. the lonely voice of the imperial prefect Orestes was of no avail, as he tried in vain to defend and to save Hypatia. When he arrived in Alexandria, before calling on the magister militiae (the local military commander) and the other civic authorities, before even paying his respects to the bishop Cyril… Orestes went to pay homage to Hypatia, that pure star of culture and of learning. From her he learned that she could not really call herself a pagan, because "any religion, any dogma, is a hindrance to unfettered research, and can become a prison that prevents one from freely investigating the origins of life and the destiny of man". Hypatia told him how, after the burning of the library, the imperial prefect Evagrius had suggested that she convert to Christianity in exchange for more generous subsidies to her School, and that she had declined the offer, telling him: "If I let myself be bought, I am no longer free. And I will not be able to go on with my research. That's how a free mind works: it too has its own laws".

      This book has been written to honour the memory of the first martyr for Reason, who preferred to be murdered rather than to renounce her freedom of thought, that indispensable condition of human progress.

      At the beginning of this third millennium, UNESCO, at the request of 190 of its member states, has set up an international project intended to promote the scienti?c endeavours of women of all nationalities, because if Science is really to serve the real needs of humanity, it is urgently necessary to create a better equilibrium between the sexes in taking part in scienti?c work. At present in that sphere only 5% of the participants are women. Unesco has called this international project: Hypatia.

Adriano Petta (Rome, November 2003)

 
 
 
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