I just saw the movie Agora, and I
believe every Pagan would be well advised to see this account of the life and
death of Hypatia.  She was the greatest of Classical women philosophers, and apparently a great philosopher
by any standards, given the Pagan and Christian men who were her students. Her works have not come down to us, but her story has.  I
think every American who cares about their country should also see it.  The sets are wonderful and the acting
good, particularly that of Rachel Weicz, who plays Hypatia’s part.  While the movie is not a completely
reliable historical account of Hypatia’s life and death, it is a very
insightful account of the impact a radically new and authoritarian religion had
on the ancient world.  And it gets
all the big questions right.

I will do a quick over view of the
historical flaws, to get them behind us. 
They are significant and I believe with one exception they are
ultimately irrelevant.

The Temple of Serapis  at the time of its destruction was not the library of Alexandria.  It may or may not have had the largest
location of classical texts still extant, the evidence is not conclusive.  No single disaster destroyed a unparalleled collection of ancient
learning.  Julius Caesar had burned
the first collection, accidentally, when he captured the city from Cleopatra
and Marc Antony.  Subsequent
invasions destroyed other collections. 

There is no clear evidence that
Hypatia herself was closely connected to the Temple, as she was in the
movie.  She may have been.  We do not know.  In my understanding NeoPlatonists were
not devotees of any particular polytheistic deity, but in general honored them
all as emanations of the One.

More disturbingly to my view, there
is no sense in the movie that Hypatia was a Pagan rather than a rationalist
philosopher.  In reading reviews I
was struck by the number of atheists who praised her atheism.  She was not. NeoPlatonism was a deeply
Pagan monistic philosophy that honored the Gods as well as reason.  In fact, the movie gives a relatively
insipid account of Pagan belief in general.  Nothing much could be learned
about it, let alone NeoPlatonism, by watching the movie.

There is also no sense of just why many people were initially attracted to Christianity.  Pagan antiquity was a brutal and in may ways oppressive society, and ironically, until their misogyny came to the fore after taking power, Christianity often seemed a better bet for women because becoming a nun beat losing all power to a husband.  The Hypatias were the exception, not the rule. 

Ironically, many Pagans and
Christians’ admiration for Hypatia was even stronger than the movie gives a
testimony to.  Some suggested
jealousy was one of Cyril’s motives for his “final solution” to his Hypatia
problem.  Others that it was really a part of his quest for power.  She was very influential and these motives are hardly mutually exclusive. 

My biggest problem with the movie’s
message concerns the relationship between Hypatia and her former student
Synesius, who became Bishop ­­­­of Ptolemais (NOT Cyrene).   In reality Synesius remained an admirer
of Hypatia to the end and was not the rigorous doctrinal fanatic that the movie
suggests.  In fact in his
letters  he called her a “divine
guide” and “the most holy and revered philosopher.” His surviving correspondence
remains our main source of information about her and the last letter he wrote
in his life was to her.  It reads

I am dictating this letter to you from my bed, but may you receive it in good health, mother, sister, teacher, and withal benefactress, and whatever is honored in name and deed.

For my bodily weakness has followed in the wake of mental sufferings.  The remembrance of my departed children is consuming my forces, little by little.  Only so long should Synesius have lived as he was still without experience of the evils of life.  It as if a torment long pent up had burst upon me in full volume, and as if the sweetness of life had vanished.  May I either cease to live, or cease to think of the tomb of my sons!

But may you preserve your health
and give my salutations to your happy comrades in turn, beginning with
father Theotecnus and brother Athanasius, and so to all! And if any one has
been added to these, so long as he is dear to you, I must owe him gratitude
because he is dear to you, and to that man give my greetings as to my own
dearest friend. If any of my affairs interests you, you do well, and if any of
them does not so interest you, neither does it me.

Apparently Synesius did not know of Hypatia’s murder, and
for this reason historians believe he probably died before she did, although
not by much. Synesius was very unfairly painted in the movie, and I think this
is a serious shortcoming for two reasons. 

I think the movie seeks to
exaggerate the distinction between philosophy and religion.  People such as Hypatia and Synesius
indicated that this need not be so, even when the religions were
different.  So the gulf between
them was made far greater than it really was among people of good will, with Hypatia made arguably into a noble
atheist (at least that’s how many atheists interpreted her in the movie
reviews) and Synesius was turned into someone dominated by a crude
literalism.  I think this
artificial simplification is the movie’s biggest weakness.

Second, Hypatia and Synesius
demonstrated that spiritually wise men and women could see the underlying
truths beneath seemingly opposed spiritual positions, and respect and honor one
another for it.  (I am NOT an
advocate of the so-called “perennial tradition” in saying this, but that’s
anther story.)  Today, when
religious fanaticism again afflicts civilized life from many quarters a better
description of the true relations between these two people would have been a
great service.

These are significant flaws in the
movie’s depiction of the time.  A
very good historical discussion of the movie can be found in Faith and Justice . (I recommend reading all the parts.) 

Finally, the information that has
come down to us from that time is so incomplete that while the major events in
Hypatia’s life are recounted, they are too sketchy to comprise a movie, and so
creative linking was employed.  It could have happened more or less that way, but probably
not.  I am very grateful that Hypatia’s
death was handled delicately, for I knew her story before seeing the movie, and Weicz’s acting was superb. It had been emotionally wrenching enough even before the final moments. The sad
truth is that her murder was almost certainly far more bestial than depicted because she probably had no one such as Davus at the end.  At best she was stoned alive, and at worst
her skin was scraped from her body by oyster shells held in the hands of
depraved monks. These are not mutually exclusive.  Either way she was dismembered and her body dragged through the
streets of Alexandria.

And yet, it was powerful movie that
I hope Pagans will watch. 

The Rise of Totalitarianism

Cyril was a thug, and his street
toughs, “monks,” were every bit as nasty as the movie indicates, constituting a
genuine Christian Taliban, a preview for what the religious right has in mind
for us if they get the opportunity. That Cyril was later made a “saint” tells us all we need to know about the
inherent worth of that religious title.  But there is something far more serious
that the movie depicts very successfully, something important today.

Agora depicts a crucial stage in
the rise of the West’s first totalitarian system of power.  Now some might say I go too far.  But let’s look at the traditional
descriptions of totalitarianism as described by studies inspired by Nazi
Germany and Stalin’s Russia. 

First, unlike authoritarian systems
(like Rome under the Pagan Caesars), in totalitarian systems your thoughts
matter.  Thinking the wrong
thoughts is a crime.  Going through
the motions is not enough.  The
movie depicts this growing strain in Christianity as it comes to power.

Secondly, in totalitarianism there
is terror.  The threat of violence
is always present if someone comes to the attention of the authorities.  The sanctioned terrorists are given
special privileges that both make their violence easier and help separate
themselves from people in general. 
Cryil’s violent monks are the Brownshirts and Red Guards of the time.

Third, there is a party, a mass
organization that is separate from the government.  In Germany there were the Nazis and in Russia the Communists.  In Agora, and historically, this was
the crowds of zealots who provided the mass foundation for Cryil’s rule.  (The movie briefly alludes to his
ultimately becoming ruler of Alexandria. And even Christian apologists concede
he was too brutal.) 

Fourth, totalitarianism seeks to
radically transform a society, demolishing older ways of life.  This is certainly the case with the
period covered in Agora.

Fifth, the ideology sought to be
all encompassing.  Monopolistic
monotheism gave us thought crime.  Thinking
the wrong thoughts was illegal, and Authority prescribed what thoughts to
think. As power shifted different interpretations of the ‘Word of God’ came to the fore or were destroyed.  Students of 20th century totalitarianism will feel at home.

Some people who look back on these
times call them “integral,” where all of life is seen to be integrated into one
overarching and meaningful way. 
Well, sort of, in the same way a Soviet era election where everyone
voted was democratic.  Hunting and gathering times, and many Pagan agricultural societies truly were integral.  However the “integral” character of the Christian empire was
not rooted in people’s ways of life and spiritual experience, it was rooted in imperial power enforcing a
common set of beliefs on everyone. 
Its integral character was manufactured and imposed.  There have been integral societies, but
the real ones did not need the force of arms to be such.

Monopolistic monotheism was the
West’s first experience with totalitarianism, and perhaps the world’s first
experience of it.  (Interestingly
in China the first totalitarian movement there of which I have any knowledge
was also Christian inspired: the Tai Ping Rebellion.) 

Agora depicts this totalitarian
movement through the life and times of one of the most fascinating women in
ancient history, a woman who rose to the heights of philosophical admiration by
Christian and Pagan alike during a time when most women were relegated to
silence and isolation, a woman whose own writings have been destroyed.

As our own decadent society is
assailed by our own barbarians, it is worth our time, well worth our time, to
consider the collapse of Pagan antiquity and its replacement by a cloud of
religious orthodoxy that suppressed the wisdom of the ancients while stamping
on the spiritual face of the West for centuries to come.

(I cleaned up some poorly written parts at 6pm PST.)

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