The Frailty of Knowledge

In The Frailty of Knowledge, Carl Sagan takes us back in time to the great Egyptian Library of Alexandria, the centre of knowledge and reason in the ancient world. Sagan tells us the story of the demise of the Library, and the brutal murder of one of the library’s most dedicated scientists, Hypatia. Sagan concludes with a stirring appeal to our thirst for knowledge, as opposed to our propensity to commit atrocities and destroy knowledge.

Via MilkyWayMusings

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3 Responses to The Frailty of Knowledge

  1. alfy says:

    Carl Sagan tells a simple story, good against evil, science against early Christianity, a virtuous woman and a wicked bishop later made a saint. Unfortunately the truth is rarely as simple as this. I know Carl Sagan is one of “deskarati’s saints” but he is guilty of seriously misleading the viewers of the beautiful film clip presented here.

    As a presenter he has some responsibility to tell the WHOLE truth and not just the part of it which appeals to his own prejudices. I have included here a cut down version of the wikipedia entry on Hypatia which is a far more balanced and even account of a rather complex historical issue.


    Hypatia (b. ca. AD 350–370, d. March 415) was a Greek scholar from Alexandria, Egypt, who is considered the first notable woman mathematician; she also taught philosophy and astronomy.

    As a Neoplatonist philosopher, she belonged to the mathematic tradition of the Academy of Athens, as represented by Eudoxus of Cnidus; she was of the intellectual school of the 3rd century thinker Plotinus, which encouraged logic and mathematical study in place of empirical enquiry.

    Hypatia lived in Roman Egypt, and was assassinated by a Christian mob who accused her of causing religious turmoil. Kathleen Wilder proposes that the murder of Hypatia marked the end of Classical antiquity, while Maria Dzielska and Christian Wildberg note that Hellenistic philosophy continued to flourish in the 5th and 6th centuries, and perhaps until the age of Justinian.

    Nonetheless, the American historian of science David C. Lindberg proposes that the assassination of Hypatia was not consequence of the anti-intellectual conflict between religion and science, but that “her death had everything to do with local politics, and virtually nothing to do with science”.

    The mathematician and philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria was the daughter of the mathematician Theon Alexandricus (ca. 335–405), who educated her as was the norm for boys; he was the last librarian of the Alexandria Library in the Museum of Alexandria. She was educated at Athens and in Italy; at about AD 400, she became headmistress of the Platonist school at Alexandria, where she imparted the knowledge of Plato and Aristotle, to any student; the pupils included pagans, christians, and foreigners.

    The contemporary, 5th-century sources do not identify Hypatia of Alexandria as practicant of any religion, but, two hundred years later, the 7th-century Egyptian Coptic bishop John of Nikiû identified her as a Hellenistic pagan and that “she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through her Satanic wiles”. (An account written 200 years after the events.)

    Nonetheless, despite the historical record, the Christians later used Hypatia as symbolic of feminine Virtue. Moreover, the Byzantine Suda encyclopaedia reported that Hypatia was “the wife of Isidore the Philosopher” (Isidore of Alexandria), and that they (husband and wife) had agreed she would remain a virgin.

    Hypatia corresponded with former pupil Synesius of Cyrene, who became bishop of Ptolemais in AD 410; and an author of the Christian Holy Trinity doctrine derived from the Platonic education he received from her. Together with the references by the pagan philosopher Damascius, these are the extant records left by Hypatia’s pupils at the Platonist school of Alexndria.

    The contemporary Christian historiographer Socrates Scholasticus described her in Ecclesiastical History:
    “There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions.

    On account of the self-possession and ease of manner which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in the presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.”
    —Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History
    Hypatia was believed to be the cause of strained relations between Orestes, the Imperial Roman Prefect, and the Patriarch Cyril, thus she attracted the hatred of the Christians of Alexandria, who wanted the politician and the priest to reconcile.

    One day, in March AD 415, during Lent, a Christian mob of Nitrian monks led by “Peter the Reader,” waylaid Hypatia’s chariot as she travelled home. The monks attacked Hypatia, then stripped her naked, to humiliate her, then dragged her through the streets to the recently Christianised Caesareum church, where they killed her.

    The reports suggest that the mob of Christian monks flayed her body with ostraca (pot shards), and then burned her alive:


    Socrates Scholasticus (5th century)

    “Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy, which at that time prevailed. For, as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported, among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop.
    Some of them, therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and, dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her by scraping her skin off with tiles and bits of shell.
    After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them.”

    Her contributions to science are reputed to include the charting of celestial bodies, and the invention of the hydrometer, used to determine the relative density and gravity of liquids.
    Her pupil Synesius, bishop of Cyrene, wrote a letter defending her as the inventor of the astrolabe, although earlier astrolabes predate Hypatia’s model by at least a century – and her father had gained fame for his treatise on the subject.

    Late Antiquity to the Age of Reason

    Shortly after her assassination, there appeared under Hypatia’s name a forged anti-Christian letter. The NeoPlatonist historian Damascius (ca. AD 458–538) was “anxious to exploit the scandal of Hypatia’s death”, and attributed responsibility for her murder to Bishop Cyril and his Christian followers; that historical account is contained in the Suda.

    Moreover, Damascius’s account of the Christian murder of Hypatia is the sole historical source attributing responsibility to Bishop Cyril. Maria Dzielska proposes that the bishop’s body guards might have murdered Hypatia; furthermore, the fact that most historians of the 4th century, and later, were Christians, is likely why there are few extant historical sources about Hypatia and her murder.


    American astronomer Carl Sagan, in Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, gave a detailed SPECULATIVE description of Hypatia’s death, linking it with the destruction of the Library of Alexandria.
    (How accurate was this historically? What is the evidence for it?)

    A more scholarly historical study of her, Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska (translated into English by F. Lyra, published by Harvard University Press), was named by Choice Magazine as an “Outstanding Academic Book of 1995, Philosophy Category”.

    (This account is a very much shortened version of the article in wikipedia, with references and modern details omitted.)

  2. Deskarati says:

    Wow, well what can I say. An excellent comment as usual Alfy. Please keep them coming, we are not in least upset when you give one of our “saints” a good kicking (well perhaps a little), our only purpose is to enlighten and your comments enhance our offerings. All we will say is that remember Sagan’s comments were made in the late 70s and I’m sure with best intentions. We are also pleased to see you using Wikipedia as the wonderful reference tool that it is, something that I’m sure you wouldn’t have done 5 years ago!
    A note to all other “Sagan disciples”, further excellent videos can be found here

    • alfy says:

      Thank you, Jim. I tend to judge wikipedia entries on their content. This one on Hypatia is heavily reinforced, with over 30 academic references. This does not mean that the author is correct, but certainly he/she is very well informed about contemporary and later sources. In addition the style is detached, balanced, offers more than one side to an argument. This is the hallmark of good scholarship in wikipedia or elsewhere.

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