Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Ada Lovelace Day Post: Hypatia of Alexandria

March 24th is Ada Lovelace day, a day when bloggers the world over pledge to write a post celebrating a woman in technology and science, in honour of Countess Ada Lovelace, nineteenth-century mathematician, the world's first computer programmer, one of very few people to understand Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine and foresee its implications for science and society. (This little animation explains the Enchantress of Numbers herself for a young audience.)

In this post, therefore, I am not going to talk about Lovelace herself, but about another historical woman mathematician, Hypatia of Alexandria (murdered by a Christian mob in 415 C.E.). A note: Ada Lovelace day is supposed to provide female role models for women and girls considering a career in science and technology. Many of my colleagues in both the information technology and the science fiction worlds are women who would make inspiring role models, so it may be perverse of me to choose a historical figure instead. However, as a historian I am probably more qualified to talk about a figure of Classical Antiquity than I am any contemporary scientist, so I make no apologies.

First a historical caveat: most persons from the ancient world who were not political or military leaders are known primarily through their written work (whether they be poets, historians, philosophers or scientists), and ancient biographies of these people were often written in later antiquity by biographers who used anecdotal snippets to show how their subject's life influenced their work (or, if you prefer, who used details from their works to invent the life stories that influenced them). These biographies are notoriously unreliable. In the case of Hypatia, in addition, her death occurred at a time and in circumstances that led her to be written about within a tradition of martyrology and religious conflict, and so the biographical information relating to her is perhaps even more prone to invention and elaboration than would otherwise be the case. In this post I shall be less interested, therefore, in the "facts" of her life than in the meta-biographical information that these biographies preserve.

Hypatia was a Pagan philosopher and mathematician, daughter of Theon, a mathematician attached to the library of Alexandria. She wrote commentaries on works of mathematics, philosophy and astronomy (including the existing version of Ptolemy's Almagest), and is said to have invented the hydrometer. In a time of political and religious strife, she was attacked one day in the street by "a multitude of believers in God", stripped naked, dragged through the streets to the church, flayed with broken pottery, and her body parts burned. Different biographers speak of this murder with outrage or approval, but the details are more or less the same in either case. Martyrs, whether Christian or Pagan, tend to be murdered in grisly ways, and it is typical that the slaying of women would include stripping naked and the defilement of the body.

According to the Suda entry on Hypatia:
In addition to her teaching, attaining the height of practical virtue (πρακτικῆς ἀρετῆς), becoming just and prudent (δικαία τε καὶ σώφρων), she remained a virgin. She was so very beautiful and attractive that one of those who attended her lectures fell in love with her. He was not able to contain his desire, but he informed her of his condition. Ignorant reports say that Hypatia relieved him of his disease by music; but truth proclaims that music failed to have any effect. She brought some of her female rags and threw them before him, showing him the signs of her unclean origin, and said, “You love this, O youth, and there is nothing beautiful about it.” His soul was turned away by shame and surprise at the unpleasant sight, and he was brought to his right mind.

Several typical features here: (1) the virtues listed are commonly attributed to philosophers and other moral figures, and while σωφροσύνη (prudence) is perhaps a stereotypically female, practical virtue and justice are just as appropriate for male philosophers and lawgivers; (2) that a female philosopher with such virtue should be a virgin may be especially typical of the late antique period, but the idea that virtuous women should not be sexualized is common to many patriarchal societies (and even those sources who claim Hypatia was married rather tenuously insist she remained a virgin); (3) the inventive story of the philosopher putting off a potential suitor with the unpleasant (ἀσχήμων) sight of her sanitary towel is an interesting mix of male discomfort with the menstrual function (which was considered ritually unclean in the ancient world--menstruating women were barred from many temples and sanctuaries), and admiration at Hypatia's resolution and creativity in preserving her "virtue".

This post may seem more a catalogue of historical sexism than a story of an inspiring role model. On the other hand, what we have preserved here is not merely a story of a martyred woman like Saint Perpetua or Catherine of Alexandria, whose fame is that they were cruelly tortured (details of which torture are lovingly dwelt upon by their martyrologists) and rescued and/or rewarded by God for their virtue, but rather a record of a woman who was respected in her lifetime for her intelligence, learning, virtue and leadership abilities, and whose works continued to be read long after her death, and some are still the standard texts in use today. In an age when women had far fewer rights than men, could not hold public office, were usually less educated, and were held to different standards of virtue and behavior, that was quite an achievement and should be an inspiration to women in science and technology everywhere.

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