The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

Alexandria and The Rule of The Book

The date is March 8, 415 CE. It’s probably a bright and sunny day, as the place is Alexandria, and most days are bright, or at least sunny, in Egypt. By this stage, Alexandria has enough Christians in it to allow for a Christian schism – moderates on one side under Orestes and hard-liners on the other, led by the Patriarch Cyril.

In this awesome, wonderful and wondrous city is a woman called Hypatia. She is a mathematician and astronomer. She teaches. Not just that, she’s held in the highest of regard across the ancient world. Many of her ex-students are powerful political figures in this, one of the most powerful and influential cities of the Roman era. She is credited with great moral authority within this same city. Silesius the philosopher can think of no-one greater on the whole face of the planet. She creates a staggering number of devices for measuring azimuths, tables for all kinds of calculations, is credited with improving the astrolabe to such a degree of fine accuracy that it can be used, not just for navigation and measuring mountains, but for telling the time of the day by just about any celestial body.

She is a shining light in a city that has already produced ideas like the earth being round, the sun being the centre of the solar system; where a philosopher accurately measured the circumference of the planet with what was essentially two sticks and a massive brain… In fact, speaking of brains, this is the city where the West first heard the idea that the brain might be the boss of the body.

And amidst all this, Hypatia is rated an exceptional mind.

But not by Cyril and his cronies. Cyril has been cynically using ignorance and prejudice to condemn Hypatia as a witch. He puts about the idea that her instruments are for divination – black magic. It doesn’t help that an astrolabe can be used to (broadly) predict the tides and weather. Eventually, a mob consisting largely of Christian monks hunts Hypatia through the city and drags her into the Caesarea (once a temple to the Caesars but now vandalised and invaded with a giant cross). Here, in this scratch church, they cut the philosopher into pieces, pick up the dismembered body parts and dump them outside the city.

This murder is often seen as a sort of critical starting point for the process that eventually resulted in the destruction of 99% of the texts in this amazing city’s amazing library.

And certainly, the deeper motives behind all this murder and vandalism can be seen as more political than religious – more temporal than spiritual, but it is impossible to deny that the perpetrators on the ground were motivated by a religious feeling that was as sincere as their ignorance was deep. It is therefore irrelevant that they were manipulated by cleverer men – their prejudice and ignorance was a lethal weapon, honed, aimed and used to devastating effect by their political and spiritual masters.

Sound familiar? It should. What we have here is a clear and specific warning from history. Any time you meet an evangelical who tells you that he doesn’t need to think because faith is his reason, every time you see a fundamentalist screaming and frothing about his right to religious ‘freedom’ over and above the civil rights of any and everybody else – remember Hypatia. Every time you encounter an anti-academic, anti-scholarly, anti-critical right wing bible thumper, or hear a rant from a Tea Party spokesperson, or other spurious ‘defender of the common man’,┬áremember Alexandria. Remember that this is exactly the sort of person that set the development of the modern world back a thousand years or more. The kind of person that did so much damage to our corporate human knowledge that we will probably never know the extent of our loss.

Remember, and also note that these people and attitudes can’t just be scorned, ignored or laughed at.

They have to be fought.

Category: Religion


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