Seiler on Science

Thoughts on the history of science, with a special focus on the relationship between religion and science through history, all coming from an Objectivist perspective. ("Seiler" is pronounced "Sy-ler")

Location: Virginia, United States

Thursday, August 19, 2010


I recently saw the movie Agora, which was inspired by the life of the female mathematician-astronomer-philosopher Hypatia (pronounced hy-pay-shuh). This is one of the best movies I've seen in a long time. It is filled with dramatic conflicts and insightful dialog, and the cinematography is beautifully done, with an amazing reproduction of ancient Alexandria.


Very little is known for certain about the actual historical details of Hypatia's life. According to the Dictionary of Scientific Biography:

“Hypatia, the first woman in history to have lectured and written critical works on the most advanced mathematics of her day, was the daughter and pupil of the mathematician Theon of Alexandria. It is believed that she assisted him in writing his eleven-part treatise on Ptolemy's Almagest... According to Suidas she composed commentaries not only on the Almagest but also on Diophantus' Arithmetica and Apollonius' Conic Sections. None of them survives...

It is known that she lectured in her native city on mathematics and on the Neoplatonic doctrines of Plotinus and Iamblichus and that about A.D. 400 she became head of the Neoplatonic school in Alexandria. Her classes attracted many distinguished men, among them Synesius of Cyrene, later bishop of Ptolemais...

In spite of her association with Synesius and other Christians, Hypatia's Neoplatonic philosophy and the freedom of her ways seemed a pagan influence to the Christian community of Alexandria. Prejudice was strengthened by her friendship with Orestes, Roman prefect of the city and political enemy of Cyril, bishop of Alexandria. The mounting hostility culminated in her murder by a fanatic mob. None of her writings was preserved; but the general loss of Hellenic sources must be blamed on repeated book-burning episodes rather than on lynching. The great Alexandrian library had been burned by Roman soldiers long before Hypatia's day, and during her lifetime the valuable library in the temple of Serapis was sacked by an Alexandrian mob.”

The Movie

In the movie, the Christians are generally presented as vicious and violent. (But the violence is not limited to the Christians.) So it is not surprising that Christian reviewers have hated the movie and obsessed over the movie's historical inaccuracies, real and imagined. But the capacity for repression and violence among Christians in history has been well documented. (As just one example, consider the systematic extermination of the Cathars from southern Europe.) It is only after the relatively recent European Enlightenment that religious tolerance became an accepted goal in the west.

Scott Holleran has written a terrific review of the movie here, which I can't possibly improve upon. He has also published a short interview with the director here.