contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Philosophy

HYPATIA

March 15 is a day of remembrance for Hypatia, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer from Alexandria in Roman Egypt. Hypatia is claimed both as a Pagan and an Atheist martyr, for in 415 or 416 a mob of Christian zealots dragged her into a church, stripped her and beat her to death with roofing tiles. Then they tore her body apart and burnt it. Her crime was a combination of her gender, education, non-Christian views and role as a publicly respected teacher.

In an article for Smithsonian.com (1), Sarah Zielinski says, “though she is remembered more for her violent death, her dramatic life is a fascinating lens through which we may view the plight of science in an era of religious and sectarian conflict”. Hypatia’s life (350/70? – 415/16?) was devoted to the Alexandrian Academy, where she was the pupil and subsequently colleague of her father Theon. She became the head of the Academy on his death and as a teacher is best remembered for her contribution to mathematics.

Hypatia has been described as “the first recognizably Neoplatonic teacher in Alexandria” (2), which links her into a belief system in which everything emanates from the One, but where the One is not the personal God of popular religion. Her pupils included Synesius of Cyrene, who later became a Christian Bishop of Ptolemais. Her public lectures were popular and drew crowds. “Donning the robe of a scholar, the lady made appearances around the centre of the city, expounding in public to those willing to listen on Plato and Aristotle”, wrote the philosopher Damascius after her death.

She was also admired by Orestes, the Roman Governor of Alexandria. But this was less of a protection than it might seem. For many years, the city had been beset by fighting among Christians, Jews and Pagans, as the pressure for religious uniformity grew. Notable casualties included the city’s once famous Library and Museum. The last remnants “likely disappeared … in 391, when the Archbishop Theophilus tore down the temple of Serapis, which may have housed the remaining scrolls, and built a church on the site” (1). Hypatia’s father, Theon, was the last known member of the Museum. The Academy continued, with Theon and Hypatia working together, and then with Hypatia by herself taking pupils at home. Lessons included instruction on how to design an astrolabe, a kind of portable astronomic calculator that continued in use until the nineteenth century. Hypatia also wrote commentaries on important texts of the day.

In 412 Alexandria got a new Archbishop – Cyril, nephew to Theophilus. The hostile pressure on other faiths, now including Christian heresies, continued. One of Cyril’s first actions was to close and plunder the Churches of the Novatian sect. It became a fight over who controlled Alexandria. The Governor Orestes was a Christian, but not in this bigoted form, and in any case did not want to cede power to the Church. In 415 a three-sided feud broke out over the regulation of Jewish dancing exhibitions in Alexandria (3), with the Jewish community, Cyril’s Christian faction and the civil power all taking different positions. It seems that Orestes consulted Hypatia for neutral advice. The situation escalated. Orestes tortured one of Cyril’s followers on suspicion of instigating an anti-Jewish riot; Cyril then threatened “utmost severities” against the whole Jewish population; a group of Jewish extremists responded by killing several of his followers. At this point Cyril “rounded up all the Jews of Alexandria, then ordered them to be stripped of all possessions, banished them from Alexandria, and allowed their goods to be pillaged by the remaining citizens of Alexandria”.

Orestes was incensed and wrote to the Emperor, “excessively aggrieved that a city of such magnitude should have been suddenly bereft of so large a portion of its population”. Cyril, too, wrote to the Emperor. Then he changed tack and tried to restore relations with Orestes, but Orestes refused. Cyril changed tack again and brought down 500 monks of “a very fiery disposition” from the mountains of Nitria into the city. They attacked Orestes’ chariot in the street and tried to stone him to death, but they were driven off. One of the monks, who had struck the Governor on the head with a rock, was arrested and executed. Cyril’s people had come off worst and needed a counter blow.

Hypatia was an easier target than Orestes. A rumour was spread that she was preventing Orestes and Cyril from settling their differences. A contemporary, Socrates Scholasticus of Constantinople, tells of “the fierce and bigoted zeal” with which she was waylaid, and the great public revulsion against the Alexandrian Christian community that followed her brutal murder. He laments, “surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort” (3). But 200 years later, in a world of deepened Orthodoxy, John of Nikiu celebrates the final defeat of Pagan idolatry “And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a Pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes, and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through Satanic wiles … a multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the Magistrate … and they proceeded to seek for the Pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the Prefect through her enchantments”. John seems entirely at ease as he goes on to recount the story of Hypatia’s death.

Even in later times Hypatia remained controversial. The Deist/Pantheist scholar John Toland defended her in the early eighteenth century. but got a spirited reply from Thomas Lewis, in a 1721 tract The History of Hypatia, a most Impudent School-Mistress of Alexandria, Murder’d and torn to Pieces by the Populace, in Defence of Saint Cyril and the Alexandrian Clergy, from the Aspersions of Mr. Toland. In 1853 Charles Kingsley needed to adjust history. Hypatia; or New Foes with an Old Face initially portrays the scholar as a “helpless, pretentious and erotic heroine”, though later she is redeemed her through her conversion by a Jewish Christian character, Raphael Aben-Ezra, having supposedly become disillusioned with Orestes.

More recently, Hypatia has attracted more favourable attention from people as diverse as Carl Sagan and Judy Chicago. Iain Pears features a Hypatia-like figure in his novel A Dream of Scipio. Maria Dzielska published Hypatia of Alexandria, a scholarly study of her life, in 1995 and Michael Deakin wrote a book of the same name in 2007. The Indiana University Press publishes Hypatia: a Journal of Feminist Philosophy. The Spanish film Agora tells a fictional story of Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) struggling to save the library from Christian zealots, which is nonetheless faithful to the issues raised by her life and death. For me Hypatia’s is a living story, with lessons still to offer. It is well worth a day of remembrance.

 

  • Pauliina Remes Neoplatonism Stocksfield: Acumen Press, 2008

 

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: THE EARTH, THE GODS AND THE SOUL

jhp51efa580a1aafThe Earth, the Gods and the Soul: a History of Pagan Philosophy, from the Iron Age to the 21st Century by Brendan Myers fully justifies the ambition of its title. I see it as a must-read for anyone with an interest in pagan ideas and culture – past and present. Part of the author’s  mission is to demonstrate that “a pagan culture can be artistically vibrant, environmentally conscious, intellectually stimulating, and socially just”.

Myers provides useful working definitions of both ‘pagan’ and ‘philosophy’, whilst also showing the complexities involved in each term. He limits ‘pagan’ to people in the nations of the west and their predecessor societies in Europe and the Mediterranean, whose religion is non-Abrahamic (not Judaism, Christianity and Islam). This may now be complicated by patterns of migration and the Western impact of dharmic religions, but it works well enough if you are looking for a specific pagan tradition and its origins. Modern paganism, according to Myers, is informed by three families of ideas – pantheism, neo-Platonism, and humanism: these address the “immensities”, respectively, of Earth, Gods and Soul.

‘Philosophy’, for Myers, is an intellectual discipline that seeks answers to the ultimate questions about ‘life, the universe and everything’ using reason rather than the authority of dogma or an intuited divine source. He usefully lists 7 branches of this discipline: logic, ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, phenomenology, aesthetics and the history of ideas. Western philosophy’s origins are in Greece, and linked to the ‘know yourself’ injunction outside the temple of the Delphic Oracle. Myers sees this as a basic ethical demand for an honestly examined life, especially when wishing to enter the presence of a god. It leads to a wider view that self-knowledge heals, enlightens and empowers, though it may also at times judge and condemn.

The book is arranged as if musically, in an overture and six movements. The people chosen for inclusion are in many cases neither philosophers not pagans, and in many others only one of the two. But they have helped to define modern pagan ideas, culture and sensibility. Each movement covers a different historical period:

  1. A look at the old northern (‘barbarian’) world includes the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer, Iceland’s Elder Edda, early writings about Druids, Irish wisdom texts and the Pelagian heresy (an early Christian heresy popular in the Celtic lands). There is no direct voice from a pagan culture in north west Europe, so Christians with half a foot in the old pagan world, or (in the case of the Druids) Greek and Roman authors are cited.
  2. A substantial collection of pagan Greek or Greek influenced philosophers from the early pre-Socratic period to the pagan martyr Hypatia of Alexandria. Also included are the Irish Christian neo-Platonist John Scotus Eriugena, and a section on the much later Italian renaissance. The people in this section, up to and including Hypatia, are both pagans (as we use that word today)and philosophers (in the ancient Greek understanding of that term).
  3. This movement is called ‘Pantheism in the Age of Reason’ and includes 18th century figures like John Toland, Edward Williams (aka Iolo Morganwg) and the Platonist and translator Thomas Taylor – as well as the more famous Jean-Jacques Rousseau. For the nineteenth century, we have Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.
  4. A movement on pagan ‘resurgence, reinvention and rebirth’ begins with Helena Blavatsky and the launch of 19th century Theosophy, going on to include J.G. Fraser of The Golden Bough, Robert Graves of The White Goddess, George William (A.E.) Russell of A Vision and Aleister Crowley. It goes on to look at the background to Gerard Gardner’s work and the Book of Shadows, then at the appearance of American Feminist Witchcraft and also at the separate stream of Eco-Spirituality and Deep Ecology.
  5. The fifth movement comprises ‘living voices’, so Stewart Farrar and Isaac Bonewits are placed at the end of the fourth, whereas Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone appear here. So too do Starhawk, Emma Restall-Orr, John Michael Greer, Vivianne Crowley, Michael York and Gus diZerega. There is also a section on ‘the critique of monotheism’. Myers praises Emma Restall-Orr for her work on ethics, its spirit of critical inquiry and her formal use of philosophical sources.
  6. Here we find Brendan Myers’ personal commentary. He talks about a hoped-for development of a critical tradition on paganism, and the value of ‘institutions’ in maintaining such a tradition. (He acknowledges that this may go somewhat against the grain of paganism as a dissident culture). He talks about modern to paganism’s history of ‘faulty ideas’, and promotes the development of better ideas for the future.  He also celebrates the health of a ‘will to live in an enchanted world’. Myers has ‘no special teachings’ of his own. A declared pagan philosopher, he builds his personal inquiry around four questions: how shall I dwell upon the earth? How shall I converse with all people? How shall I emerge from my loneliness? How shall I face my mortality? He then goes on to discuss what these questions bring up for him.

Myers ends his book by saying: “the best music is made with humanity, integrity and wonder – everyone has instruments to hand … When I hear music I share it … when I make music I share it too … I hope that my people will celebrate with me and play along … when I make dissonant or offending sounds, I trust my people will warm me, so I can make amends … nothing more, perhaps, could be asked of anyone. And, perhaps, nothing less”.

The Earth, the Gods and the Soul is a well-informed and simply written history of pagan ideas, which tells modern pagans a lot about the shoulders we sit on. It is a great reference book. But what it did mostly for me was to get me thinking about my own relationship to philosophy and its working methods. I call my own journey a contemplative inquiry. How could I use tools from philosophy’s  toolkit to improve my own inquiry in service of a pagan critical tradition? That’s where there’s an inspiration for me – because I sense an invitation there, from a professional philosopher, to make use of this toolkit. Myers’ forward includes a reference to Clear and Present Thinking, written by him with support from a number of University colleagues for a general audience, and freely downloadable. It’s another good job, and very useful to have.

“THE WORSHIP OF THE GODS IS NOT WHAT MATTERS” BY BRENDAN MYERS

I’ve been writing this week about the possibilities of a non-theistic approach to contemplative druidry, and potential synergies between druidry and forms of humanism. So I’ve enjoyed coming across ventures into similar territory by Brendan Myers, the Canadian philosopher, pagan and druid.

Humanistic Paganism

“The sacred, I shall say, is that which acts as your partner in the search for the highest and deepest things: the real, the true, the good, and the beautiful.” —Circles of Meaning, Labyrinths of Fear

I don’t normally see omens or other messages from the gods in the way many other pagans say they do. I’m not especially interested in ritual or magic or spellcraft. I do not sense auras, I do not feel the energies, I do not read tarot cards or cast the runes. In fact, around ten years ago or so, I hit upon one of the most liberating and life-changing propositions ever to have entered my mind, which is that the worship of the gods is not what matters. What, then, am I still doing in the pagan community? And if the worship of the gods isn’t what matters, then what does?

People…

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