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Tuesday, June 15, 2010  

The Endless Battle over the Christian Past

Some day or other, Agora will finally be in theaters, and when it is I expect to see more essays like David B. Hart's in First Things (via Douthat).

The movie concerns the Platonist philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria, the destruction of that city's library, and her own murder some years later. I could tell from the preview that it's a propaganda piece, but one done with some visual panache, and at least nominally taking on the history of a fascinating time and place.

Mr. Hart takes on the film's contention that a Christian mob destroyed the legendary Library of Alexandria. That's good enough as far as it goes. But then he turns to the matter of Hypatia and her death:

She was, all the evidence suggests, a brilliant lecturer in Platonic thought, a trained scientist, and the author of a few mathematical commentaries. Despite the extravagant claims often made on her behalf, however, there is no reason to believe she made any particularly significant contributions to any of her fields of expertise.

She was not, for instance—as she has often been said to have been—the inventor of either the astrolabe or the hydrometer....

At the time of her death, she was probably not even the beautiful young woman of lore; she was in all likelihood over sixty.

So let's recap: she was a smart gal, but not as smart as people think. Also she was elderly. So it's not like it would have been some kind of monumental loss to humanity if, hypothetically, she'd been brutally murdered by a Christian mob.

Which is fortunate because...

She was, however, brutally murdered—and then dismembered—by a gang of Christian parabalani (a fraternity originally founded to care for the city’s poor); that much is true.

As Hart goes on to explain, she wasn't murdered because she was a woman or a scientist or a pagan or an enemy of Christianity--she got on well with the Christian elite of the city. She was murdered "simply because she became inadvertently involved in a vicious political squabble between the city’s imperial prefect and the city’s patriarch, and some of the savages of the lower city decided to take matters into their own hands." You know, the usual things--squabbles, old-timey offices, people--ghetto-trash Christians, not smart ones like David Hart--taking things into their own hands.

For an essay meant to set the record straight on the actual history of early Christian Alexandria, I'd have appreciated a little more specificity on this clearly important point. But let's accept Hart's vague gesturing as bearing the truth as far as it goes. His whole point in addressing Hypatia is to speak against the "sordidly sentimental nonsense" that has enveloped her memory. And it is true that Hypatia has become a secular saint to those who wish to celebrate ancient pagan culture and condemn Christianity. So it's a little unfair, if not actually misleading, for Hart to leave out the name of the mysterious patriarch whose mob cut Hypatia into pieces. It was in fact Cyril of Alexandria, also known as St. Cyril, commemorated both East and West as a Doctor of the Universal Church and, by definition, as an example of pure teaching and holy life.

Alexandria was an unruly place back then, and mob violence was part of life. But excellence in raising and directing mobs has not usually been counted among the saintly virtues. Then again, no one mythologizes and exaggerates the polemically useful characteristics of their past more aggressively than Christians do. If Hypatia has been the object of "sordidly sentimental nonsense," what, exactly, would Hart say about the canonization of men and events that were, whatever else, part and parcel of the roiling, violent, and morally complicated history of late antiquity? I tend to be easily convinced that history is less heroic and morally instructive than it's made out to be, so I have no problem with the notion that Hypatia was no martyr for the ages. But then what about our martyrs? What about the propaganda campaigns waged by the Church in behalf of her own conflicted dead?

As an anti-atheist polemicist, I appreciate a lot of what Hart has to say. But the problem with being a polemicist is that one's allegiance to the whole truth, or even to a coherent way of arguing, is rarely unambiguous.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 8:50 AM
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