The Wisdom of Hypatia

Ancient Spiritual Practices
for a More Meaningful Life
Quotations from Hypatia

If you search for “Hypatia” on the Internet, it won’t take you long to encounter this inspiring quotation attributed to her:

Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing. The child-mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after-years relieved of them. In fact, men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth—often more so, since a superstition is so intangible you can not get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.

The only problem is that she never said any such thing, so far as we know. Indeed, it seems highly unlikely to me that Hypatia would ever say, “truth is a point of view, and so is changeable,” since the objective and invariable nature of truth is fundamental to Platonism. The quotation comes from the chapter on Hypatia in Elbert Hubbard's Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Teachers, in which he tells their stories supplemented by imaginative detail, including invented dialog. He uses this vehicle to promote his own philosophical/social agenda. 

Like Hubbard, in my book I have put words in Hypatia’s mouth, but I’ve endeavored to make them consistent with her actual philosophy, so far as we can infer it. I trust that no one will mistake my inventions for the actual words of Hypatia. 

So what, in fact, did Hypatia say? In her book Hypatia of Alexandria (p. 50), Maria Dzielska remarks that the only authentic quotation may stem from the “menstrual napkin incident” (dramatized in The Wisdom of Hypatia, pp. 222–4). Hypatia said, “In truth, this is what you love, young man, but it is nothing beautiful” (τούτου μέντοι ἐρᾷς, ὦ νεανίσκε, καλοῦ δὲ οὐδενός). She is quoted by Damascius, who lived a century after her death. 

Of her writings, little has survived. In the Commentary on Ptolemy's Almagest by Theon, her father, some of the writing is attributed to Hypatia. Her contribution is technical (e.g., an improved long-division algorithm) and tells us nothing about her philosophy. Some other snippets of mathematical text are doubtfully attributed to her. For more on her writings, see Michael Deakin’s Hypatia of Alexandria, chs. 4, 9, and App. A. 

If we wonder what Hypatia might have said about philosophy, we can look to her predecessors Iamblichus and Porphyry (e.g., his Letter to Marcella, his wife) and to her junior contemporaries Hierocles and Synesius. 

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