Story type: Essay
Neo-Platonism is a progressive philosophy, and does not expect to state final conditions to men whose minds are finite. Life is an unfoldment, and the further we travel the more truth we can comprehend. To understand the things that are at our door is the best preparation for understanding those that lie beyond.
The father of Hypatia was Theon, a noted mathematician and astronomer of Alexandria. He would have been regarded as a very great man had he not been cast into the shadow by his daughter. Let male parents beware.
At that time, astronomy and astrology were one. Mathematics was useful, not for purposes of civil engineering, but principally in figuring out where a certain soul, born under a given planet, would be at a certain time in the future.
No information comes to us about the mother of Hypatia–she was so busy with housework that her existence is a matter of assumption or a priori reasoning; thus, given a daughter, we assume the existence of a mother.
Hypatia was certainly the daughter of her father. He was her tutor, teacher, playmate. All he knew he taught to her, and before she was twenty she had been informed by him of a fact which she had previously guessed–that considerable of his so-called knowledge was conjecture.
Theon taught his daughter that all systems of religion that pretend to teach the whole truth were to a great degree false and fraudulent. He explained to her that his own profession of astronomy and astrology was only for other people. By instructing her in all religions she grew to know them comparatively, and so none took possession of her to the exclusion of new truth. To have a religion thrust upon you, and be compelled to believe in it or suffer social ostracism, is to be cheated of the right to make your own. In degree it is letting another live your life. A child does not need a religion until he is old enough to evolve it, and then he must not be robbed of the right of independent thinking by having a fully-prepared plan of salvation handed out to him. The brain needs exercise as much as the body, and vicarious thinking is as erroneous as vicarious exercise. Strength comes from personal effort. To think is natural, and if not intimidated or coerced the man will evolve a philosophy of life that is useful and beneficent.
Religious mania is a result of dwelling on a borrowed religion. If let alone no man would become insane on religious topics, for the religion he would evolve would be one of joy, laughter and love, not one of misery or horror. The religion that contemplates misery and woe is one devised by priestcraft for a purpose, and that purpose is to rule and rob. From the blunt ways of the road we get a polite system of intimidation which makes the man pay. It is robbery reduced to a system, and finally piously believed in by the robbers, who are hypnotized into the belief that they are doing God’s service.
“All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final,” said Theon to Hypatia. “Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.”
Theon gave lectures, and had private classes in esoterics, wherein the innermost secrets of divinity were imparted. Also, he had a plan for the transmutation of metals and a recipe for perpetual youth. When he had nothing else to do, he played games with his daughter.
At twenty-one Hypatia had mastered the so-called art of Rhetoric, or the art of expression by vocal speech.
It will be remembered that the Romans considered rhetoric, or the art of the rhetor, or orator, as first in importance. To impress people by your personal presence they regarded as the gift of gifts.
This idea seems to have been held by the polite world up to the Italian Renaissance, when the art of printing was invented and the written word came to be regarded as more important than the spoken. One lives, and the other dies on the air, existing only in memory, growing attenuated and diluted as it is transferred. The revival of sculpture and painting also helped oratory to take its proper place as one of the polite arts, and not a thing to be centered upon to the exclusion of all else.
Theon set out to produce a perfect human being; and whether his charts, theorems and formulas made up a complete law of eugenics, or whether it was dumb luck, this we know: he nearly succeeded. Hypatia was five feet nine, and weighed one hundred thirty-five pounds. This when she was twenty. She could walk ten miles without fatigue; swim, row, ride horseback and climb mountains. Through a series of gentle calisthenics invented by her father, combined with breathing exercises, she had developed a body of rarest grace. Her head had corners, as once Professor O. S. Fowler told us that a woman’s head must have, if she is to think and act with purpose and precision.
So having evolved this rare beauty of face, feature and bodily grace, combined with superior strength and vitality, Hypatia took up her father’s work and gave lectures on astronomy, mathematics, astrology and rhetoric, while he completed his scheme for the transmutation of metals. Hypatia’s voice was flute-like, and used always well within its compass, so as never to rasp or tire the organs. Theon knew the proper care of nose and throat, a knowledge which with us moderns is all too rare. Hypatia told of and practised the vocal ellipse, the pause, the glide, the slide and the gentle, deliberate tones that please and impress. That the law of suggestion was known to her was very evident, and certain it is that she practised hypnotism in her classes, and seemed to know as much about the origin of the mysterious agent as we do now, even though she never tagged or labeled it.
One very vital thought she worked out was, that the young mind is plastic, impressionable and accepts without question all that it is told. The young receive their ideas from their elders, and ideas once impressed upon this plastic plate of the mind can not be removed.
Said Hypatia: “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.”
Gradually, over the mind of the beautiful and gifted Hypatia, there came stealing a doubt concerning the value of her own acquirements, since these were “acquirements,” and not evolutions or convictions gathered from experience, but things implanted upon her plastic mind by her father.
In this train of thought Hypatia had taken a step in advance of her father, for he seems to have had a dogmatic belief in a few things incapable of demonstration; but these things he taught to the plastic mind, just the same as the things he knew. Theon was a dogmatic liberal. Possibly the difference between an illiberal Unitarian and a liberal Catholic is microscopic.
Hypatia clearly saw that knowledge is the distilled essence of our intuitions, corroborated by experience. But belief is the impress made upon our minds when we are under the spell of or in subjection to another.
These things caused the poor girl many unhappy hours, which fact, in itself, is proof of her greatness. Only superior people have a capacity for doubting.
Probably not one person in a million ever gets away far enough from his mind to take a look at it, and see the wheels go round. Opinions become ossified and the man goes through life hypnotizing others, never realizing for an instant that in youth he was hypnotized and that he has never been able to cast off the hypnosis.
This is what our pious friends mean when they say, “Give me the child until he is ten years old and you may have him afterward.” That is, they can take the child in his plastic age and make impressions on his mind that are indelible. Reared in an orthodox Jewish family a child will grow up a dogmatic Jew, and argue you on the Talmud six nights and days together.
Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist, the same. I once knew an Arapahoe Indian who was taken to Massachusetts when four years old. He grew up not only with New England prejudices, but with a New England accent, and saved his pennies to give to missionaries that they might “convert” the Red Men.
When the suspicion seized upon the soul of Hypatia that her mind was but a wax impression taken from her father’s, she began to make plans to get away from him. Her efforts at explanations were futile, but when placed upon the general ground that she wished to travel, see the world and meet people of learning and worth, her father acquiesced and she started away on her journeyings. He wanted to go, too, but this was the one thing she did not desire, and he never knew nor could know why.
She spent several months at Athens, where her youth, beauty and learning won her entry into the houses of the most eminent. It was the same at Rome and in various other cities of Italy. Money may give you access to good society, but talent is always an open sesame. She traveled like a princess and was received as one, yet she had no title nor claim to nobility nor station. Beauty of itself is not a credential–rather it is an object of suspicion, unless it goes with intellect.
Hypatia gave lectures on mathematics; and there was a fallacy abroad then as there is now that the feminine mind is not mathematical. That the great men whom Hypatia met in each city were first amazed and then abashed by her proficiency in mathematics is quite probable. Some few male professors being in that peculiar baldheaded hypnotic state when feminine charms dazzle and lure, listened in rapture as Hypatia dissolved logarithms and melted calculi, and not understanding a word she said, declared that she was the goddess Minerva, reincarnated. Her coldness on near approach confirmed their suspicions.
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Just how long a time Hypatia spent upon her pilgrimage, visiting all of the great living philosophers, we do not know. Some accounts have it one year, others ten.
Probably the pilgrimages were extended over a good many years, and were not continuous. Several philosophers proved their humanity by offering to marry her, and a prince or two did likewise, we are credibly informed. To these persistent suitors, however, Hypatia gently broke the news that she was wedded to truth, which is certainly a pretty speech, even if it is poor logic. The fact was, however, that Hypatia never met a man whose mind matched her own, otherwise logic would have bolstered love, instead of discarding it.
Travel, public speaking and meeting people of note form a strong trinity of good things. The active mind is the young mind, and it is more than the dream of a poet which declares that Hypatia was always young and always beautiful, and that even Father Time was so in love with her that he refused to take toll from her, as he passed with his hourglass and scythe.
In degree she had followed the example of her great prototype, Plotinus, and had made herself master of all religions. She knew too much of all philosophies to believe implicitly in any. Alexandria was then the intellectual center of the world. People who resided there called it the hub of the universe. It was the meeting-place of the East and the West.
And Hypatia, with her Thursday lectures, was the chief intellectual factor of Alexandria.
Her philosophy she called Neo-Platonism. It was Plato distilled through the psychic alembic of Hypatia. Just why the human mind harks back and likes to confirm itself by building on another, it would be interesting to inquire. To explain Moses; to supply a key to the Scriptures; to found a new School of Philosophy on the assumption that Plato was right, but was not understood until the Then and There, is alluring.
And now the pilgrims came from Athens, and Rome, and the Islands of the Sea to sit at the feet of Hypatia.
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Hypatia was born in the year Three Hundred Seventy, and died in Four Hundred Thirty. She exerted an influence in Alexandria not unlike that which Mrs. Eddy exerted in Boston. She was a person who divided society into two parts: those who regarded her as an oracle of light, and those who looked upon her as an emissary of darkness.
Strong men paid her the compliment of using immoderate language concerning her teaching. But whether they spoke ill or well of her matters little now. The point is this: they screeched, sneezed, or smiled on those who refused to acknowledge the power of Hypatia. Some professors of learning tried to waive her; priests gently pooh-poohed her; and some elevated an eyebrow and asked how the name was spelled. Others, still, inquired, “Is she sincere?”
She was the Ralph Waldo Emerson of her day. Her philosophy was Transcendentalism. In fact, she might be spoken of as the original charter member of the Concord School of Philosophy. Her theme was the New Thought, for New Thought is the oldest form of thought of which we know. Its distinguishing feature is its antiquity. Socrates was really the first to express the New Thought, and he got his cue from Pythagoras.
The ambition of Hypatia was to revive the flowering-time of Greece, when Socrates and Plato walked arm in arm through the streets of Athens, followed by the greatest group of intellectuals the world has ever seen.
It was charged against Hypatia that Aspasia was her ideal, and that her ambition was to follow in the footsteps of the woman who was beloved by Pericles. If so, it was an ambition worthy of a very great soul. Hypatia, however, did not have her Pericles, and never married. That she should have had love experiences was quite natural, and that various imaginary romances should have been credited to her was also to be expected.
Hypatia was nearly a thousand years removed from the time of Pericles and Aspasia, but to bridge the gulf of time with imagination was easy. Yet Hypatia thought that the New Platonism should surpass the old, for the world had had the Age of Augustus to build upon.
Hypatia’s immediate prototype was Plotinus, who was born two hundred four years after Christ, and lived to be seventy. Plotinus was the first person to use the phrase “Neo-Platonism,” and so the philosophy of Hypatia might be called “The New Neo-Platonism.”
To know but one religion is not to know that one.
In fact, superstition consists in this one thing–faith in one religion, to the exclusion of all others.
To know one philosophy is to know none. They are all comparative, and each serves as a small arc of the circle. A man living in a certain environment, with a certain outlook, describes the things he sees; and out of these, plus what he imagines, is shaped his philosophy of life. If he is repressed, suppressed, frightened, he will not see very much, and what he does see will be out of focus. Spiritual strabismus and mental myopia are the results of vicarious peeps at the universe. All formal religions have taught that to look for yourself was bad. The peephole through the roof of his garret cost Copernicus his liberty, but it was worth the price.
Plotinus made a study of all philosophies–all religions. He traveled through Egypt, Greece, Assyria, India. He became an “adept”, and discovered how easily the priest drifts into priestcraft, and fraud steps in with legerdemain and miracle to amend the truth. As if to love humanity were not enough to recommend the man, they have him turn water into wine and walk on the water.
Out of the labyrinth of history and speculation Plotinus returned to Plato as a basis or starting-point for all of the truth which man can comprehend. Plotinus believed in all religions, but had absolute faith in none. It will be remembered that Aristotle and Plato parted as to the relative value of poetry and science–science being the systematized facts of Nature. Plotinus comes in and says that both were right, and each was like every good man who exaggerates the importance of his own calling. In his ability to see the good in all things, Hypatia placed Plotinus ahead of Plato, but even then she says: “Had there been no Plato, there would have been no Plotinus; although Plotinus surpassed Plato, yet it is plain that Plato, the inspirer of Plotinus and so many more, is the one man whom philosophy can not spare. Hail, Plato!!”
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The writings of Hypatia have all disappeared, save as her words come to us, quoted by her contemporaries. If the Essays of Emerson should all be swept away, the man would still live in the quotations from his pen, given to us by every writer of worth who has put pencil to paper during the last fifty years. So lives Sappho, and thus did Charles Kingsley secure the composite of the great woman who lives and throbs through his book. Legend pictures her as rarely beautiful, with grace, poise and power, plus.
She was sixty when she died. History kindly records it forty-five–and all picture her as a beautiful and attractive woman to the last. The psychic effects of a gracefully-gowned first reader, with sonorous voice, using gesture with economy, and packing the pauses with feeling, have never been fully formulated, analyzed and explained. Throngs came to hear Hypatia lecture–came from long distances, and listened hungrily, and probably all they took away was what they brought, except a great feeling of exhilaration and enthusiasm. To send the hearer away stepping light, and his heart beating fast–this is oratory–which isn’t so much to bestow facts, as it is to impart a feeling. This Hypatia surely did. Her theme was Neo-Platonism. “Neo” means new, and all New Thought harks back to Plato, who was the mouthpiece of Socrates. “Say what you will, you’ll find it all in Plato.” Neo-Platonism is our New Thought, and New Thought is Neo-Platonism.
There are two kinds of thought: New Thought and Secondhand Thought. New Thought is made up of thoughts you, yourself, think. The other kind is supplied to you by jobbers. The distinguishing feature of New Thought is its antiquity. Of necessity it is older than Secondhand Thought. All genuine New Thought is true for the person who thinks it. It only turns sour and becomes error when not used, and when the owner forces another to accept it. It then becomes a secondhand revelation. All New Thought is revelation, and secondhand revelations are errors half-soled with stupidity and heeled with greed.
Very often we are inspired to think by others, but in our hearts we have the New Thought; and the person, the book, the incident, merely remind us that it is already ours. New Thought is always simple; Secondhand Thought is abstruse, complex, patched, peculiar, costly, and is passed out to be accepted, not understood. That no one comprehends it is often regarded as a recommendation.
For instance, “Thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven image,” is Secondhand Thought. The first man who said it may have known what it meant, but surely it is nothing to us. However, that does not keep us from piously repeating it, and having our children memorize it.
We model in clay or wax, and carve if we can, and give honors to those who do, and this is well. This commandment is founded on the fallacy that graven images are gods, whatever that is. The command adds nothing to our happiness, nor does it shape our conduct, nor influence our habits. Everybody knows and admits its futility, yet we are unable to eliminate it from our theological system. It is strictly secondhand–worse, it is junk.
Conversely, the admonition, “Be gentle and keep your voice low,” is New Thought, since all but savages know its truth, comprehend its import, and appreciate its excellence.
Dealers in Secondhand Thought always declare that theirs is the only genuine, and that all other is spurious and dangerous.
Dealers in New Thought say, “Take this only as it appeals to you as your own–accept it all, or in part, or reject it all–and in any event, do not believe it merely because I say so.”
New Thought is founded on the laws of your own nature, and its shibboleth is, “Know Thyself.”
Secondhand Thought is founded on authority, and its war-cry is, “Pay and Obey.”
New Thought offers you no promise of paradise or eternal bliss if you accept it; nor does it threaten you with everlasting hell, if you don’t. All it offers is unending work, constant effort, new difficulties; beyond each success is a new trial. Its only satisfactions are that you are allowing your life to unfold itself according to the laws of its nature. And these laws are divine, therefore you yourself are divine, just as you allow the divine to possess your being. New Thought allows the currents of divinity to flow through you unobstructed.
Secondhand Thought affords no plan of elimination; it tends to congestion, inflammation, disease and disintegration.
New Thought holds all things lightly, gently, easily–even thought. It works for a healthy circulation, and tends to health, happiness and well-being now and hereafter. It does not believe in violence, force, coercion or resentment, because all these things react on the doer. It has faith that all men, if not interfered with by other men, will eventually evolve New Thought, and do for themselves what is best and right, beautiful and true.
Secondhand Thought has always had first in its mind the welfare of the dealer. The rights of the consumer, beyond keeping him in subjection, were not considered. Indeed, its chief recommendation has been that “it is a good police system.”
New Thought considers only the user. To “Know Thyself” is all there is of it.
When a creator of New Thought goes into the business of retailing his product, he often forgets to live it, and soon is transformed into a dealer in Secondhand Thought.
That is the way all purveyors in secondhand revelation begin. In their anxiety to succeed, they call in the police. The blessing that is compulsory is not wholly good, and any system of morals which has to be forced on us is immoral. New Thought is free thought. Its penalty is responsibility. You either have to live it, or else lose it. Its reward is Freedom.
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It was only a little more than a hundred years before the time of Hypatia that the Roman Empire became Christian. When Constantine embraced Christianity, all of his loyal subjects were from that moment Christians–Christians by edict, but Pagans by character, for the natures of men can not be changed by the passing of a resolution. From that time every Pagan temple became a Christian church, and every Pagan priest a Christian preacher.
Alexandria was under the rule of a Roman Prefect, or Governor. It had been the policy of Rome to exercise great tolerance in religious matters. There was a State Religion, to be sure, but it was for the nobility or those who helped make the State possible. To look after the thinking of the plain people was quite superfluous–they were allowed their vagaries.
The Empire had been bold, brazen, cruel, coercive in its lust for power, but people who paid were reasonably safe. And now the Church was coming into competition with the State and endeavoring to reduce spoliation to a system.
To keep the people down and under by mental suppression–by the engine of superstition–were cheaper and more effective than to employ force or resort to the old-time methods of shows, spectacles, pensions and costly diversions. When the Church took on the functions of the State, and sought to substitute the gentle Christ for Caesar, she had to recast the teachings of Christ. Then for the first time coercion and love dwelt side by side. “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” and like passages were slipped into the Scriptures as matters of wise expediency. This was continued for many hundred years, and was considered quite proper and legitimate. It was slavery under a more subtle form.
The Bishop of Alexandria clashed with Orestes the Prefect. To hold the people under by psychologic methods was better than the old plans of alternate bribery and force–so argued the Bishop.
Orestes had come under the spell of Hypatia, and the Republic of Plato was saturating his mind.
“To rule by fettering the mind through fear of punishment in another world is just as base as to use force,” said Hypatia in one of her lectures. Orestes sat in the audience and as she spoke the words he clapped his hands. The news was carried to the Bishop, who gently declared that he would excommunicate him.
Orestes sent word back that the Emperor should be informed of how this Bishop was misusing his office by making threats of where he could land people he did not like, in another world. Neither the Bishop nor the Prefect could unseat each other–both derived their power from the Emperor. For Orestes to grow interested in the teachings of Hypatia, instead of siding with the Bishop, was looked upon by the loyalists as little short of treason.
Orestes tried to defend himself by declaring that the policy of the Caesars had always been one of great leniency toward all schools of philosophy. Then he quoted Hypatia to the effect that a fixed, formal and dogmatic religion would paralyze the minds of men and make the race, in time, incapable of thought.
Therefore, the Bishop should keep his place, and not try to usurp the functions of the police. In fact, it was better to think wrongly than not to think at all. We learn to think by thinking, and if the threats of the Bishop were believed at all, it would mean the death of science and philosophy.
The Bishop made answer by declaring that Hypatia was endeavoring to found a Church of her own, with Pagan Greece as a basis. He intimated, too, that the relationship of Orestes with Hypatia was very much the same as that which once existed between Cleopatra and Mark Antony. He called her “that daughter of Ptolemy,” and by hints and suggestions made it appear that she would, if she could, set up an Egyptian Empire in this same city of Alexandria where Cleopatra once so proudly reigned.
The excitement increased. The followers of Hypatia were necessarily few in numbers. They were thinkers–and to think is a task. To believe is easy. The Bishop promised his followers a paradise of ease and rest. He also threatened disbelievers with the pains of hell. A promise on this side–a threat on that! Is it not a wonder that a man ever lived who put his honest thought against such teaching when launched by men clothed in almost absolute authority!
Hypatia might have lived yesterday, and her death at the hands of a mob was an accident that might have occurred in Boston, where a respectable company once threw a rope around the neck of a good man and ran him through streets supposed to be sacred to liberty and free speech.
A mob is made up of cotton waste, saturated with oil, and a focused idea causes spontaneous combustion. Let a fire occur in almost any New York State village, and the town turns wrecker, and loot looms large in the limited brain of the villager. Civilization is a veneer.
When one sees emotionalism run riot at an evangelistic revival, and five thousand people are trooping through an undesirable district at midnight, how long, think you, would a strong voice of opposition be tolerated?
Hypatia was set upon by a religious mob as she was going in her carriage from her lecture-hall to her home. She was dragged to a near-by church with the intent of making her publicly recant, but the embers became a blaze, and the blaze became a conflagration, and the leaders lost control. The woman’s clothes were torn from her back, her hair torn from her head, her body beaten to a pulp, dismembered, and then to hide all traces of the crime and distribute the guilt so no one person could be blamed, a funeral-pyre quickly consumed the remains of what but an hour before had been a human being. Daylight came, and the sun’s rays could not locate the guilty ones.
Orestes made a report of the affair, resigned his office, asked the Government at Rome to investigate, and fled from the city. Had Orestes endeavored to use his soldiery against the Bishop, the men in the ranks would have revolted. The investigation was postponed from time to time for lack of witnesses, and finally it was given out by the Bishop that Hypatia had gone to Athens, and there had been no mob and no tragedy.
The Bishop nominated a successor to Orestes, and the new official was confirmed.
Dogmatism as a police system was supreme.
It continued until the time of Dante, or the Italian Renaissance. The reign of Religious Dogmatism was supreme for well-nigh a thousand years–we call it the Dark Ages.
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