|Below is an excerpt from the Evans Academy Reading Room
When the archbishop under whose influence the monuments and libraries of Pagan civilization were pillaged
and pulled down died, he was succeeded by his nephew, St. Cyril, who was even more Asiatic in his sympathies
and more hostile to European thought than his uncle, Theophilius. The new archbishop directed his efforts
against the living monuments of Paganism -- the scholars, the poets, the philosophers -- the men and women
who still cherished a passionate regard for the culture and civilization of the Pagan world. The most
illustrious representative of Greco-Roman culture in Alexandria about this time was Hypatia, the gifted
daughter of Theon, a mathematician and a philosopher of considerable renown. It is said that Theon would
have come down to us as a great man had not his daughter's fame eclipsed his.
Hypatia was a remarkably gifted woman. Her example demonstrates how all difficulties yield to a strong will. Being a girl, and excluded by the conventions of the time from intellectual pursuits, she could have given many reasons why she should leave philosophy to stronger and freer minds. But she had an all-compelling passion for the life of the mind, which overcame every obstacle that interfered with her purpose. The example of a young woman conquering tremendous difficulties, and becoming the undisputed queen of an intellectual empire, ought to be a great inspiration to us faint hearts. She won the prize which was denied her sex, and became "the glory of her age and the wonder of ours."
To pursue her studies, she persuaded her father to send her to Athens, where her earnest work, her devotion to philosophy, the readiness with which she sacrificed all her other interests to the cultivation of her mind, earned for herself the laurel wreath which the university of Athens conferred only upon the foremost of its pupils. Hypatia wore this wreath whenever she appeared in public, as her best ornament. Upon her return to Alexandria, she was elected president of the Academy, which at this period was the rendezvous of the leading minds of the East and West. In fact, it was in this academy that the effort of the advanced thinkers to bring about a pacification between the culture of Europe and that of Asia originated. They wished to make Alexandria, situated midway between the occident and the orient, the point of confluence of the two streams of civilization. They wished to celebrate the marriage of the East as bride to the West as bridegroom. It was their plan to make Alexandria a sort of intellectual distillery, refining and fusing the two civilizations into one. But this amalgamation -- this assimilation -- Christianity, alas, helped to prevent by bringing into still bolder relief the Asiatic habits of mind, and by refusing to concede an inch to the larger spirit of the West. Christianity is responsible for the miscarriage which has ever since left Asia a widow, or, to change the simile, a withered branch upon the tree of civilization. Christianity broke the link which scholarship and humanity were trying to forge between Europe and Asia. The world has never since been one as it came near being under the Roman Empire.
Cyril, the Archbishop of Alexandria, persuaded himself that Hypatia's good name and talents were giving the cause of Paganism a dangerous prestige, and thereby preventing the progress of the new faith. Hypatia was indeed a great power in Alexandria. She was the most popular personage in the city. When she appeared in her chariot on the streets people threw flowers at her, applauded her gifts, and cried, "Long live the daughter of Theon." Poets called her the "Virgin of Heaven," "the spotless star," "of highest speech the flower. " Judging by the chronicles of the times, it appears that her beauty, which would have made even a Cleopatra jealous, was as great as her modesty, and both were matched by her eloquence, and all three surpassed by her learning.
Her beauty did astonish the survey of eyes, Her words all ears took captive. Her renown as a lecturer on philosophy brought students from Rome and Athens, and all the great cities of the empire, to Alexandria. It was one of the great events of each day to flock to the hall in the academy where Hypatia explained Plato and Aristotle. Cyril, the Asiatic archbishop, passing frequently the house of Hypatia, and seeing the long train of horses, litters, and chariots which had brought a host of admirers to the female philosopher's shrine, conceived a terrible hatred for this Pagan girl. He did not relish her popularity. Her learning was rubbish to him. Her charms, temptations for the ruin of man. He hated her because she, a frail woman, dared to be free and to think for herself. He argued in his mind that she was competing with Christianity, taking away from Christ the homage which belonged to him. With Hypatia out of the way the people would turn to God, and give him the love and honor which they were wasting upon her. She was robbing God of his rights, and she must fall; for He is a jealous God. Such was the reasoning of Cyril, whom the Church has canonized. Moreover, Orestes, the Prefect of Alexandria, respected Hypatia, and was a constant attendant at her lectures. Cyril believed that she influenced the Prefect and tainted him with her Paganism. With Hypatia crushed, Orestes would be more responsive to Christian influences. Ah, it is a cruel story which I am about to unfold. Generally speaking, if a man is jealous and small, no religion can make him sweet; and if he is generous and pure-minded, no superstition can altogether poison the springs of his love. Religion is strong, but nature is stronger. Unfortunately Cyril was a barbarian, and the doctrines of his religion only sharpened his claws and whipped his passion into a rage.
If we were living in those days we would have witnessed at the close of each day, when both sea and sky blush with the departing kiss of the sun, Hypatia mounting her chariot to ride to the academy, where she is announced to speak on some philosophical subject. She is followed by many enthusiastic and devoted admirers impatient to catch her eye. She is nodding to her friends on her right and on her left. She, who refused lovers that she may love philosophy, is not insensible to the appreciation of her pupils. Approaching the academy, she dismounts, ascends the white marble steps and enters by the door, on either side of which sit two silent sphinxes. As we follow her into the hall, we see that it is lighted by numerous swinging lamps filled with perfumed oil; the rotunda of the ceiling has been embellished by a Greek artist, with figures of Jupiter and his divine companions, who appear to be rapt in the words which fall from his lips. The walls have been decorated by Egyptian artists, with pictures of the sacred animals, the crocodile, the cat, the cow, and the dog; and with sacred vegetables, the onion, the lotus, and the laurel. Besides these there is a scene on the walls representing the marriage of Osiris and Isis. On an elevated platform is a divan in purple velvet, and upon a little table is placed the silver statue of Minerva, goddess of wisdom and patron of Hypatia. Behind the table sits the philosophic young woman dressed in a robe of white, fastened about her throat and waist by a band of pearls, and carrying upon her brow the laurel crown which Athens had decreed to her. A musical murmur sweeps over the audience as she rises to her feet. But in a moment all is silent again save the throbbing and trembling of Hypatia's silvery voice. She speaks in Greek, the language of thought and beauty, of the ancient world. Alas! this is her last appearance at the academy. Tomorrow that hall will be a tomb. Tomorrow Minerva will be childless. When Hypatia's listeners bade her farewell on that evening they did not know that within a few hours they would all become orphans.
The next morning, when Hypatia appeared in her chariot in front of her residence, suddenly five hundred men, all dressed in black and cowled, five hundred half-starved monks from the sands of the Egyptian desert -- five hundred monks, soldiers of the cross -- like a black hurricane, swooped down the street, boarded her chariot, and, pulling her off her seat, dragged her by the hair of her head into a -- how shall I say the word? -- into a church! Some historians intimate that the monks asked her to kiss the cross, to become a Christian and join the nunnery, if she wished her life spared. At any rate, these monks, under the leadership of St. Cyril's right-hand man, Peter the Reader, shamefully stripped her naked, and there, close to the alter and the cross, scraped her quivering flesh from her bones with oystershells. The marble floor of the church was sprinkled with her warm blood. The alter, the cross, too, were bespattered, owing to the violence with which her limbs were torn, while the hands of the monks presented a sight too revolting to describe. The mutilated body, upon which the murderers feasted their fanatic hate, was then flung into the flames.
Oh! is there a blacker deed in human annals? When has another man or woman been so inhumanly murdered? Has politics, has commerce, has cannibalism even committed a more cruel crime? The cannibal pleads hunger to cover his cruelty -- what excuse had Hypatia's murderers? Even Joan of Arc was more fortunate in her death than this daughter of Paganism! Beautiful woman! murdered by men who were not worthy to touch the hem of thy garment! And to think that this happened in a church -- a Christian church!
I have seen the frost bite the flower; I have watched the spider trap the fly; I have seen the serpent spring upon the bird! And yet I love nature! But I will never enter a church nor profess a religion which can commit such a deed against so lovable a woman. No, not even if I were offered as a bribe eternal life! If, O priests and preachers! instead of one hell, there were a thousand, and each hell more infernal than your creeds describe, yet I would sooner they would all swallow me up, and feast their insatiable lust upon my poor bones for ever and ever, than lend countenance or support to an institution upon which history has fastened the indelible stigma of Hypatia's murder!
I wish I could live a thousand years to admire the noble spirit and delight in the courage and beauty of this brave martyr of Philosophy, Hypatia! O that my voice were strong enough to reach the ends of the world! I would then summon all independent minds to join with me in a hymn of praise to that incomparable woman, who has joined the choir invisible and whose music is the gladness of the world. Honor and love to beautiful Hypatia! Pity to the monks who killed her! A delicious feeling of satisfaction, like a warm sunshine on a wintry day, spreads over me as I contemplate the privilege I am enjoying of vindicating her memory against her assassins. Fortune has smiled upon me in selecting me as one of her defenders. I congratulate myself on having both the heart and the head to weep over her sad fate. And I tremble and shrink, as from a paralyzing nightmare, when I think that, under different circumstances, I might still have a minister of the Church whose hands are, after fifteen hundred years, still unwashed of her innocent blood. The thought overpowers me; I labor for breath. But I am free. O joy, O rapture! I am free to speak the truth about Hypatia. Let the clergy praise Peter and Paul, St. Cyril and St. Theophilius. I give my heart to thee, thou glorious victim of superstition! If we, of this present generation, are responsible for Adam's sin, and deserve the penalties of his disobedience, as the clergy say we do, then the Church of today is responsible for Hypatia's fate. How will they take this practical application of their own dogma? It will not do for them to say: "We wash our hands clean of St. Cyril's sin"; for if Adam can, by his remote act, expose us all to damnation, so shall Bishop Cyril's dark deed cleave for ever unto the religion which his followers profess. Yet, let the Church people apologize, and we shall forgive them; but no apology short of discarding this Asiatic slave-creed, which in the Old Testament stoned the free thinker to death, and in the New pronounces him a "heathen and a publican," will satisfy the ends of justice.
I have intimated, by the wording of my subject, that it was a classic world which was murdered in the person of one of its last and noblest representatives, Hypatia. Hypatia embodied in her life and teaching, the proud spirit, the beauty, the culture, and the sanity of Greece. With her, fell Greece; fell the intellectual world from her eminence.
Then followed the nearly ten centuries of Egyptian darkness, which settling over Europe, paralyzed all initiative. During the thousand years in which the spirit of St. Cyril and his Church managed, with undisputed sway, the affairs of religion and the State, night folded to its sterile bosom our orphaned humanity, and the chains of slavery were upon every mind. A cloud of dust rising heaven-high choked the flow and dried up the fountains which had, in the days of Pericles and Antoninus, poured forth a world of living waters. The barren and lumbering theology of the Church crowded out the Muses from their earthly walks, and the world became a prison after having been the home of man. One by one the great lights went out; Athens was no more, Rome was dead. The bloom had vanished from the face of the earth, and in its place there fell upon it the awful shadow of a future hell.
Symonds, in his "The Greek Poets," says that while Cyril's mobs were dismembering Hypatia, the Greek authors went on creating, "Musaeus sang the lamentable death of Leander, and Nonnus was perfecting a new and more polished form of the hexameter." These authors, ignorant that the Asiatic superstition had destroyed their world, or that they had themselves been stabbed to death -- like one who has been shot, but whose wound is still warm, and who does not know that he has but a few more breaths to draw -- kept on singing their song. But their song was, \ indeed, the "very swan's notes" of the classical world. "With the story of Hero and Leander, that immortal \ love poem, the Muse," says the same author, "took her final farewell of her beloved Hellas."
After a thousand years of night, when the world awoke from her sleep, the first song it sang was the last long of the dying Pagan world. This is wonderfully strange. In the year 1493, when the Renaissance ushered in a new era, the first book brought out in Europe was the last book written in Alexandria by a Pagan. It was the poem of Hero and Leander. The new world resumed the golden thread where the old world had lost it. The severed streams of thought and beauty met again into one current, and began to sing and shine as it rushed forth once more, as in the days of old. A Greek poem was the last product of the Pagan world; the same Greek poem was the first product of the new and renascent world.
Between the dying and reviving Pagan world was the Christian Church -- that is to say, ten dark centuries.
If Greece and Rome made art, poetry, philosophy, sculpture, the drama, oratory, beauty, (and) liberty classical, (then) Christianity the Syrian, Asiatic cult made for nearly fifteen hundred years persecution, religious wars, massacres, theological feuds and bloodshed, heresy huntings and heretic burnings, prisons, dungeons, anathemas, curses, opposition to science, hatred of liberty, spiritual bondage, the life without love or laughter, a classic!
But the dawn is in the sky, and it is daybreak everywhere!
We are reasonably confident that never again will this religion, born and bred in Asia, command sufficient influence over the minds of modern men to burn or murder the intellectual aristocrats, the daily beauty of whose lives makes the ugliness of superstition so very noticeable. What a difference there would have been in our attitude toward the Christian Church, if, instead of fearing the thinker and the inquirer, and persecuting him with a hatred too awful to contemplate, it had opened both its arms to welcome him with affection and gratitude! But the "divine" is always jealous of the human. Hypatia eclipsed the glory of God. She was murdered because only "the poor in spirit" -- the intellectual babes, are the elect of Heaven.
It is good news, however, that while the Church may still exclude the mental giants from the world to come, it can no longer exclude them from the world that now is!
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