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Hypatia:The Great Teacher

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“Hypatia the Intellectual: The Great Teacher” By Nolan Flike


During the ancient times of Greeks and Romans there were many great male philosophers that are still studied today including Antisthenes, Pythagoras, and Empedocles. However many people do not realize that there were many great Roman woman philosophers during this time also (we do not know about Greek women philosophers because women in Greece had less rights than women in Rome). Even though there are many examples of great women philosophers in Rome we do not see many writings from ancient biographers telling their life stories because at that time it was not socially acceptable to write about women. Despite the lack of writings on these women, historians such as Silvia Ronchey have been able to piece together the lives of some of these women such as Hypatia the Intellectual. Her biography however is written differently than most ancient biographers in the sense that she just gives a broad overview of some of Hypatia’s accomplishments not how she actually lived and thought. This is at no fault to Ronchey who has few sources due to the lack of writings on women and the time that has passed since these women wrote. If ancient biographers like Diogenes Laertius had written on Hypatia we can imagine he would have had more quotes from her and the people that knew her to show how she thought and acted daily.

The life of HypatiaEdit

In Ronchey’s biography of Hypatia in the book Roman Women she tells us that Hypatia was the daughter of another famous philosopher named Theon from Alexandria known for his mathematical work. Unlike her father however she did not limit herself to just one subject; “being more naturally gifted than her father, did not limit herself to the technical-mathematical teachings of her father, but dedicated herself to real and true philosophy” (161 Ronchey). Soon Hypatia excelled so much that she began to take on male philosophers; “she had derived a self-control and a directness in her speech that helped her to “directly confront the powerful and to attend men’s meetings without fear” (Ronchey 162). Because Ronchey takes from many different sources on Hypatia’s life we see a few different versions on different parts of her life including her death. Some versions of her death tell us that she was a pagan and was murdered by Christians, others that she was actually a Christian martyr that died defending her Christian faith. Even though many aspects of her life are disputed one thing that is common throughout Ronchey’s writing is that she was a gifted teacher with great beauty; “such an experienced teacher, was so just and wise, but also so beautiful and attractive” (161 Ronchey).

Hypatia through LaertiusEdit

Diogenes Laertius wrote in a less structured way than Ronchey wrote, not going in chronological but instead moving from subject to subject giving different quotes from the person he was writing on and the people that interacted with them to show their character. Instead of just telling the reader about the people he was writing about Laertius puts you into their mind and shows you their feelings through stories and quotes. We can see an example of this when he is writing about Pythagoras’s feelings on sexual relations; “Asked once when a man should consort with a woman, he replied, “When you want to lose what strength you have” (329 Laertius). Many writers would have just simply stated that Pythagoras does not advise sexual relations but Laertius finds the readers get to know how the people felt better by showing them what they had to say on the matter. He uses this same technique again to show Diogenes’ quick wit; “Being asked whether death was an evil thing, he replied, “How can it be evil, when in its presence we are not aware of it?” (69 Laertius). If writing about Hypatia Laertius defiantly would have put more direct quotes like the ones above to illustrate how she thought. Through quotes Laertius could have shown how Hypatia was able to stand up to the men of her city and prove her worth. He also could have shown us how she able to be such a great teacher, so much so that her students fell in love with her. Last he could have showed the reader what she thought about the Christian takeover and her pagan roots. Laertius also would have direct quotes from people such as Cyril and the bishops to show the reader what their thinking and motives were behind Hypatia’s murder. Helping the reader to fully understand the story behind why Hypatia was murdered.

The other main technique used by Laertius to describe his subjects was using quotes from other philosophers and people that interacted with his subject everyday. We see him use this technique when he takes a quote from Aristippus of Cyrene to show Pythagoras’s commitment to telling the truth and how he received his name; “he was named Pythagoras because he uttered the truth as infallibly as did the Pythian oracle” (339 Laertius). If Laertius was going to use this technique with Hypatia we can imagine that he would give quotes from students of Hypatia to show the reader how intelligent and beautiful she was. We do see some examples of this in Ronchey’s writing including quotes from Synesius a student of Hypatia who believed her teachings to be the greatest gift of his life; “Believe me, you are the only treasure that, together with virtue, cannot be taken away from me” (182 Ronchey). This is the type of quote that Laertius would have put in his biography because it shows us how Synesius actually feels about Hypatia and it proves to us that she truly was a remarkable teacher instead of just telling us like some biographers do. However he also would have added interactions between the two of them so we could see how Hypatia was able to have such an effect on him.

Another person that Laertius probably would have quoted is Hypatia’s father, in Ronchey’s writing we never get a sense of what type of role he played in her life. For example we do not know how much he taught his daughter about philosophy or how he felt about his daughter surpassing him in the skill of philosophy (or if he even believed she did). Another example of Laertius using this technique is when he cites a poem written to describe Heraclitus’ “discourse”; “Do not be in too great a hurry to get to the end of Heraclitus the Ephesian’s book: the path is hard to travel. Gloom is there and darkness devoid of light” (Laertius 423). Quotes of this nature would have been used by Laertius to show the readers what Hypatia was really like in her day-to-day life and teachings. For example he could have used quotes from the other philosophers in her circle to show us what they thought of her philosophy, were they jealous or did they believe she truly deserved her respect?


To write a biography that truly tells the story of a person’s life I believe you have to include how they acted on a day to day basis and what the people they encountered the most thought of them. Ronchey is unable to do this because she is writing centuries after Hypatia lived and there are limited records on her life. Therefore she was forced to take information from many different sources and piece together Hypatia’s life the best she could and give the reader a broad overview of her life. We can imagine that if it were not socially unacceptable to write about women in ancient Rome and Laertius had written about Hypatia that he would have taken the opposite root of Ronchey, going in depth into the way Hypatia thought. He would have studied Hypatia’s works and teachings and found direct quotes to show the readers her beliefs on philosophy and the status of her country and world. Along with direct quotes from Hypatia Laertius would have found quotes from the people who knew her the best to tell the readers what she was actually like when she was living her daily life.


  1. Fraschetti, Augusto. “Hypatia the Intellectual.” Roman Woman. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2001.
  2. Diogenes, Laertius. Diogenes Laertius Lives of Eminent Philosophers. New York: G.P. Putnam

Project 1 Part 2Edit

Analysis of Diogenes' Approach to Hypatia

By Erik Becker

The central thesis argues that if Laertius were to create a depiction of "Hypatia The Intellectual", he would have emphasized the ways in which those close to her viewed Hypatia and her belief systems. The argument states that in order to so direct quotes would be necessary to see deeper into her beliefs and actions of daily life.

Nolan concludes in the third paragraph that "Laertius also would have direct quotes from people such as Cyril and the bishops to show the reader what their thinking and motives were behind Hypatia’s murder. Helping the reader to fully understand the story behind why Hypatia was murdered". However, there is no additional evidence that helps to support this claim. One example that complicates this statement is the way in which Laertius describes the death of Pythagoras. While Laeurtius is able to give a fairly detailed account of the multiple opinions regarding Pythagoras' death, he does not delve into the minds of the murderer in great detail. When describing one of the accounts of Pythagoras' death he explains, "It chanced that the house was set ablaze out of jealousy by one of the people who were not accounted worthy of admittance to his presence, though some say it was the work of the inhabitants of Croton anxious to safeguard themselves against the setting-up of a tyranny" (Laertius on Pythagoras pg. 355). While Laertius is able to give the reader some understanding of murderers motives, he does not provide direct quotes from them that give deeper understanding of what the potential murderers were thinking internally. Instead, he only provides a general overview. In the case of a Laertius' attempt to explain Hypatia's death, it is unsure whether he would be able to give greater insight into the motives of Cyril that would differ from that in "Roman Women".

One of the strong points of Nolan's analysis points out that "Instead of just telling the reader about the people he was writing about Laertius puts you into their mind and shows you their feelings through stories and quotes". An additional piece of evidence that helps to complement the one provided is the way in which Laertius describes Pythagoras' views on living with excess, friends, and other life aspects. He explains Pythagoras by including direct quotes that capture his belief system. "Drinking he calls, in a word, a snare, and he discountenances all excess...of sexual indulgence, too, he says, 'keep to the winter for sexual pleasures, in summer abstain" (Laertius on Pythagoras pg. 329). It is with this explanation and direct quoting that the reader is able to understand Pythagoras to a greater degree than simply being given a "sparknotes" type summary. Hearing the words directly from Pythagoras builds greater credibility and certainty over his belief system when compared to if Laertius only stated his own summary.

In the second paragraph of the "Hypatia through Laertius", Nolan states, "If Laertius was going to use this technique with Hypatia we can imagine that he would give quotes from students of Hypatia to show the reader how intelligent and beautiful she was." One example that might help to better support this claim is the example of Antisthenes and his teaching. "When a friend complained to him that he had lost his notes, 'you should have inscribed them,' said he, 'on your mind instead of paper.' (Laertius on Antisthenes pg. 7). Through this, Laertius is able to capture Antisthenes' as a teacher, and show that he values a deeper attention to learning, rather than simply going through the motions of writing them down. If Laertius applied a similar method of quoting Hypatia, one would be able to see what made her so "intelligent and beautiful" to her students, rather than simply being told she was.

Response: The Focus of Diogenes Laertius by Adam MarguliesEdit

Nolan comprehensively tackles how DL's style would work with the life of Hypatia. He argues that Diogenes Laertius (DL) uses quotes from his subjects and people who knew his subjects to portray the subjects' beliefs. Nolan not only supports this argument with evidence from DL's biographies, but with evidence from the life of Hypatia, in that he cites a quote from one of Hypatia's students and suggests that DL might find quotes from Hypatia's contemporaries. Nolan does not need to limit himself to DL's style, but could also address how the substantive focus DL applies to his subjects might also be applied to Hypatia.

Nolan is right when he states that DL's biographies lack a clear linear structure. Although true, this is not to say DL does not think some things more important than others. For instance, right away Nolan mentions that there is more than one account for Hypatia's death; this is something that DL would certainly use in his biography. Where a story is disputed, DL often gives all versions in his biography, especially when it is a death story. To cite one of many examples, DL writes that Pythagoras was either killed after escaping a fire, in battle, or from starvation. (D.L., VIII 39-40).

Nolan explains why Hypatia was a successful female philosopher when he cites the text, stating that she was an "experienced teacher", as well as "beautiful", "just", "wise", and "attractive". DL cared about what made philosophers successful. He focused on Diogenes's dog-like cynicism and public displays, and Pythagoras's simple life-by-example and community leadership. Therefore, Nolan could explain that DL would similarly focus on Hypatia's beauty, wisdom, and fairness - not just because these attributes spawn good quotations to fit with his style, but because they are part of his biographical focus.

DL, in addition to caring about what made his subjects successful and how his subjects died, also cared about the origins of his subjects. To again cite his biography of Diogenes and Pythagoras, he devotes portions of the respective biographies to how Diogenes was exiled for altering currency and how Pythagoras believed he was reincarnated. Again, this is not just because the these particular origins provide great quotes, but because this is what DL cared about. It follows, then, that DL would devote part of his biography to Hypatia and her father, and how that relationship might have spurred her on (or not) to become a philosopher.

In conclusion, Nolan does a great job explaining how DL would explain certain parts of Hypatia's life, but he stops short of explaining why DL would explain certain parts of Hypatia's life. The "why" is answered by DL's specific biographical focus, which he applies throughout his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers.

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