A Short Animated Introduction to Hypatia, Ancient Alexandria’s Great Female Philosopher

Ten years ago, a film came out called Agora, a biopic of philosopher and mathematician Hypatia of Alexandria, daughter of mathematician Theon, the last recorded director of the Library of Alexandria. The movie wasn’t well-reviewed or widely seen, which is neither here nor there, but it was heavily criticized for historical inaccuracies. This seemed a little silly. “One does not go to the movies to learn about ancient history but to be entertained,” as Joshua J. Mark writes at the Ancient History Encyclopedia. Agora is not an accurate rendering of the little we know of Hypatia, but neither is Spartacus, a far more entertaining film, an accurate depiction of the 2nd century B.C.E. gladiator and rebel.

And yet, we should know who Hypatia was, and we should understand what happened to her, something many of the film’s religiously-motivated critics refused to admit, claiming that the depiction of hostile, anti-intellectual Christians in the movie was nothing more than prejudicial animus on the part of director Alejandro Amenabar. The truth is that “the anti-intellectual stance of the early church is attested to by early Christian writers,” Mark points out. And “the historical records state” that Hypatia “was beaten and flayed to death by a mob of Christian monks who then burned her in a church.”




The TED-Ed video above calls this mob a “militia” who saw Hypatia’s scientific pursuits as “witchcraft.” The charge is, of course, specifically gendered. The manner of her death was so brutal and shocking that “even those Christian writers who were hostile to her and claimed she was a witch,” Mark writes, “are generally sympathetic in recording her death as a tragedy. These accounts routinely depict Hypatia as a woman who was widely known for her generosity, love of learning, and expertise in teaching in the subjects of Neo-Platonism, mathematics, science, and philosophy.”

As is the case with many ancient figures, none of her own writings survive, but both her contemporary critics and sympathetic students record similar impressions of her intellectual curiosity and scientific knowledge. The short video lesson tells us Hypatia was born around 355 A.C.E., which means she would have been around sixty years old at the time of her death. She lived in Alexandria, “then part of the Egyptian province of the Eastern Roman Empire, and an intellectual center.” Educated by her father, she surpassed him “in both mathematics and philosophy, becoming the city’s foremost scholar.”

She eventually succeeded Theon as head of the Platonic school, “similar to a modern university,” and she served as a trusted advisor to the city’s leaders, including its governor, Orestes, a “moderate Christian” himself. Her achievements were many, but her teaching, drawing on Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and Pythagoras, was her greatest legacy, the TED-Ed lesson (scripted by Soraya Field Fiorio) asserts. Hypatia’s death not only deprived the city of a beloved teacher and scholar. Her murder, at the behest of Alexandrian bishop Cyril, “was a turning point.” Other philosophers fled the city, and Alexandria’s “role as a center of learning declined.”

“In a very real way,” the lesson tells us, “the spirit of inquisition, openness, and fairness she fostered died with her.”

For a more complete treatment of Hypatia's life and intellectual contributions, read Maria Dzielska's book, Hypatia of Alexandria.

Related Content:

The Rise and Fall of the Great Library of Alexandria: An Animated Introduction

Carl Sagan Explains How the Ancient Greeks, Using Reason and Math, Figured Out the Earth Isn’t Flat, Over 2,000 Years Ago

Free Courses in Ancient History, Literature & Philosophy 

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Philosopher Portraits: Famous Philosophers Painted in the Style of Influential Artists

Ludwig Wittgenstein/Piet Mondrian:

Ludwig Wittgenstein & Piet Mondrian

What do the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian have in common? For philosopher and artist Renée Jorgensen Bolinger, the two have similar beliefs about the logic of space.

"Many of Mondrian's pieces explore the relationships between adjacent spaces," says Bolinger "and in particular the formative role of each on the boundaries and possibilities of the other. I based this painting [see above] off of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, in which he develops a theory of meaning grounded in the idea that propositions have meaning only insofar as they constrain the ways the world could be; a meaningful proposition is thus very like one of Mondrian's color squares, forming a boundary and limiting the possible configurations of the adjacent spaces."




An Assistant Professor at Princeton, Bolinger studied painting a Biola University before making philosophy her second major. "I actually came to philosophy quite late in my college career," Bolinger says, "only adding the major in my junior year. I was fortunate to have two particularly excellent and philosophic art teachers, Jonathan Puls and Jonathan Anderson, who convinced me that my two passions were not mutually exclusive, and encouraged me to pursue both as I began my graduate education."

Bolinger now works primarily on the philosophy of language, with side interests in logic, epistemology, mind and political philosophy. She continues to paint. We asked her how she reconciles her two passions, which seem to occupy opposite sides of the mind. "I do work in analytic philosophy," she says, "but it's only half true that philosophy and painting engage opposite sides of the mind. The sort of realist drawing and painting that I do is all about analyzing the relationships between the lines, shapes and color tones, and so still very left-brain. Nevertheless, it engages the mind in a different way than do the syllogisms of analytic philosophy. I find that the two types of mental exertion complement each other well, each serving as a productive break from the other."

Bolinger has created a series of philosopher portraits, each one pairing a philosopher with an artist, or art style, in an intriguing way. In addition to Wittgenstein, she painted ten philosophers in her first series, many of them by request. They can all be seen on her web site, where high quality prints can be ordered.

G.E.M. Anscombe/Jackson Pollock:

G.E.M. Anscombe & Jackson Pollock

Bolinger says she paired the British analytic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe with the American abstract painter Jackson Pollock for two reasons: "First, the loose style of Pollock's action painting fits the argumentative (and organizational) style of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, which Anscombe helped to edit and was instrumental in publishing. Second, her primary field of work, in which she wrote a seminal text, is philosophy of action, which has obvious connections to the themes present in any of Pollock's action paintings."

Gottlob Frege/Vincent Van Gogh:

Gottlob Frege & Van Gogh

Bolinger paired the German logician, mathematician and philosopher Gottlob Frege with the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh as a tongue-in-cheek reference to Van Gogh's famous painting The Starry Night and Frege's puzzle concerning identity statements such as "Hesperus is Phosphorus," or "the evening star is identical to the morning star."

Bertrand Russell/Art Deco:

Bertrand Russell & Art Deco

Bolinger painted the British logician and philosopher Bertrand Russell in the Art Deco style. "This pairing is a bit more about the gestalt, and a bit harder to articulate," says Bolinger. "The simplification of form and reduction to angled planes that takes place in the background of this Art Deco piece are meant to cohere with Russell's locial atomism (the reduction of complex logical propositions to their fundamental logical 'atoms')."

Kurt Gödel/Art Nouveau:

Kurt Godel & Art Nouveau

Bolinger paired the Austrian logician Kurt Gödel with Art Nouveau. "The Art Nouveau movement developed around the theme of mechanization and the repetition of forms," says Bolinger, "and centrally involves a delicate balance between organic shapes -- typically a figure that dominates the portrait -- and schematized or abstracted patterns, often derived from organic shapes, but made uniform and repetitive (often seen in the flower motifs that ornament most Art Nouveau portraits). I paired this style with Kurt Gödel because his work was dedicated to defining computability in terms of recursive functions, and using the notion to prove the Completeness and Incompleteness theorems."

To see more of Renée Jorgensen Bolinger's philosopher portraits, click here to visit her site.

Note: This post originally appeared on our site back in 2013.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

Related Content:

A History of Philosophy in 81 Video Lectures: From Ancient Greece to Modern Times

Photography of Ludwig Wittgenstein Released by Archives at Cambridge

180+ Free Philosophy Courses

The Unexpected Ways Eastern Philosophy Can Make Us Wiser, More Compassionate & Better Able to Appreciate Our Lives

I feel compelled to start this post with a disclaimer: do not take the eight-and-a-half-minute video above, "Six Ideas from Eastern Philosophy" from Alain de Botton’s School of Life series, as an authoritative statement on Eastern Philosophy.

Not that you would, or that de Botton makes such a claim, but in an age of uncritical overconsumption, infinite scrolling, and individually-wrapped explainers, it seems worth the reminder. No tradition—and certainly not one as incalculably rich, deep, and ancient as the schools of thought summed up as “Eastern Philosophy”—can be paraphrased in an animated list.




Think of “Six Ideas from Eastern Philosophy” as a teaser. If you’ve resigned yourself to the fact that suffering is ever-present and universal—the first idea on de Botton’s list and the Buddha’s first Noble Truth—you might love… or make a good faith effort to appreciate… The Middle Length Discourses, the Shobogenzo, the poetry and songs of Han Shan and Milarepa, or the thousands of translations, commentaries, adaptations, and etcetera about them.

But the video isn't about famous texts. The logocentric characterization of philosophy as only writing persists, despite its serious limitations. In many Eastern traditions, writing and study are only one part of complex religious practices. The first two ideas on de Botton’s list come from early Indian Buddhism; the third from Chinese Chan Buddhism, the fourth and fifth are Daoist concepts; and the sixth, kintsugi, comes from Japanese Zen.

De Botton’s title is misleading. As he goes on to show, in brief, but with vivid examples and comparisons, these are not “ideas” in the broadly Platonic sense of pure abstractions but formalized ways of being with others and being alone, of being with objects and natural formations that embody ethical ideals of balance, equanimity, contentment, kindness, care, and deep appreciation for art and nature, with all their imperfections and disappointments.

Can we make much sense of the adoration of the bodhisattva Guanyin (whom de Botton compares to the Virgin Mary) if we never visit one of her temples or call for her compassionate aid? Can we study the subtleties of bamboo without bamboo? Can we grasp the Four Noble Truths if we can’t sit still long enough for serious self-reflection? Sometimes the practices, landscapes, and iconographies of Eastern philosophy do not seem separable from ideas about them.

If there’s a bow to tie on de Botton’s summary, maybe it’s this: from these Buddhist and Daoist perspectives, the endless bifurcations of Western thought are illusory. Pain, imperfection, and uncertainly are inevitable and not to be feared but compassionately accepted. And philosophy is something that happens in the body and mind together, an idea certainly not alien to the walking thinkers of the West.

Related Content:  

Eastern Philosophy Explained with Three Animated Videos by Alain de Botton’s School of Life

Alan Watts Introduces America to Meditation & Eastern Philosophy: Watch the 1960 TV Show, Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life

What Is a Zen Koan? An Animated Introduction to Eastern Philosophical Thought Experiments

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him

Bryan Magee (RIP) Presents In-Depth, Uncut TV Conversations With Famous Philosophers

Note: We woke this morning to the news that Bryan Magee, academic and popularizer of philosophy, has passed away. He was 89. Below, we bring you a post from our archive that highlights Magee's many televised interviews with influential philosophers. You can watch them online.

Bryan Magee comes from a tradition that produced some of the twentieth century's most impressive media personalities: that of the scholarship-educated, Oxbridge-refined, intellectually omnivorous, occasionally office-holding, radio- and television-savvy man of letters. Students and professors of philosophy probably know him from his large print oeuvre, which includes volumes on Popper and Schopenhauer as well as several guides to western philosophy and the autobiographical Confessions of a Philosopher. He also wrote another memoir called The Television Interviewer, and philosophically inclined laymen may fondly remember him as just that. When Magee played to both these strengths at once, he came up with two philosophical television shows in the span of a decade: Men of Ideas, which began in 1978, and The Great Philosophers, which ran in 1987. Both series brought BBC viewers in-depth, uncut conversations with many of the day's most famous philosophers.

You can watch select interviews of Men of Ideas and The Great Philosophers on YouTube, including:

At the top of the post, you'll find Magee talking with A.J. Ayer, a well-known specialist in "logical positivism," about the development of, and challenges to, that philosophical sub-field. Two philosophers, relaxed on a couch, sometimes smoking, enthusiastically engaged in a commercial-free back-and-forth about the most important thinkers and thoughts in the field — watch something like that, and you can't possibly think of now as a golden age of television.

Oodles of free philosophy courses, many thought by famous philosophers, can be found in the Philosophy section of our list of 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

Related Content:

Free Online Philosophy Courses

105 Animated Philosophy Videos from Wireless Philosophy: A Project Sponsored by Yale, MIT, Duke & More

44 Essential Movies for the Student of Philosophy

The Principles for Success by Entrepreneur & Investor Ray Dalio: A 30-Minute Animated Primer

Investor and hedge fund manager Ray Dalio has a net worth of $18.4 billion. That alone would persuade a great many of us to listen to any and all advice he has to offer, but unlike many multi-billionaires, he's also put no small amount of thought into just what advice to give and how to give it. One reason is that the pieces of advice he doles out publicly began as pieces of advice for himself, discovered through trial and error and refined into a set of principles. These he lays out in his book Principles: Life and Work, the content of which he has also distilled into the animated video above, "Principles for Success by Ray Dalio."

Dalio breaks down his own journey to success as the continued repetition of a five-step process:

  1. Know your goals and run after them
  2. Encounter the problems that stand in the way of getting to your goals
  3. Diagnose these problems to get at their root causes
  4. Design a plan to eliminate the problems
  5. Execute those designs

This framework already sets Dalio apart from other successful advice-givers, some of whom offer nothing more than broad platitudes about believing in yourself and never giving up hope, and others of whom fall back on cynical cracks about doing unto others before they do unto you. Dalio, for his part, endorses a mindset he calls "hyperrealism," the adoption of which demands putting the truth before all else. And the hyperrealist first examines the truth about himself, assessing as objectively as possible his weaknesses as well as his strengths and regularly drawing upon the perspectives of those who disagree with him.




Underlying Dalio's ideas about hyperrealism and success is a mechanistic conception of humanity, the economy, the world, indeed all reality: "Everything is a machine," as he starkly puts it. By this, he doesn't mean we should think of ourselves as pre-programmed robots, but that we can approach all of our choices as puzzles to be figured out. "Most everything happens over and over again in slightly different ways," he says, but most of us, with our viewpoints biased toward recent history and our "ego and blind spot barriers" that keep us from seeing the full picture, mistakenly regard the situations in which we find ourselves as unique, thus making them into more difficult problems than they are.

Of course, even if we embrace hyperrealism and develop ever more reliable strategies to surmount the obstacles that crop up along our chosen paths, we'll fail as often as we succeed. Dalio tells of his own grand humbling in the early 1980s when he bet everything on a depression that never came, and explains how the fallout taught him that "truth is the essential foundation for producing good outcomes." Even if we have no interest in doing what it takes to make $18.4 billion, we might still bear in mind the two principle-driven equations that Dalio provides — "Dreams + reality + determination = a successful life" and "Pain + reflection = progress" — along with his conviction that success requires not just knowing the truth of world, but the truth of ourselves as well.

Related Content:

Economics 101: Hedge Fund Investor Ray Dalio Explains How the Economy Works in a 30-Minute Animated Video

Steve Jobs Shares a Secret for Success: Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

Harvard Dean Lists the 5 Essential Questions to Ask In Life … Which Will Bring You Happiness & Success

Oprah Winfrey’s Harvard Commencement Speech: Failure is Just Part of Moving Through Life

Alain de Botton Proposes a Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

How to Argue With Kindness and Care: 4 Rules from Philosopher Daniel Dennett

Photo by Mathias Schindler, via Wikimedia Commons

Drawn from Aristotle and his Roman and Medieval interpreters, the “classical trivium”—a division of thought and writing into Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric—assumes at least three things: that it matters how we arrive at our ideas, it matters how we express them, and it matters how we treat the people with whom we interact, even, and especially, those with whom we disagree. The word rhetoric has taken on the connotation of empty, false, or flattering speech. But it originally meant something closer to kindness.

We might note that this pedagogy comes from a logocentric tradition, one that privileges writing over oral communication. But while it ignores physical niceties like gesture, posture, and personal space, we can still incorporate its lessons into spoken conversation—that is, if we’re interested in having constructive dialogue, in being heard, finding agreement, and learning something new. If we want to lob shots into the abyss and hear hundreds of voices echo back, well… this requires no special consideration.




The subject of sound rhetoric—with its subsets of ethical and emotional sensitivity—has been taken up by philosophers over hundreds of years, from medieval theologians to the staunchly atheist philosopher of consciousness Daniel Dennett. In his book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, Dennett summarizes the central rhetorical principle of charity, calling it “Rapoport’s Rules” after an elaboration by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport.

Like their classical predecessors, these rules directly tie careful, generous listening to sound argumentation. We cannot say we have understood an argument unless we’ve actually heard its nuances, can summarize it for others, and can grant its merits and concede it strengths. Only then, writes Dennett, are we equipped to compose a “successful critical commentary” of another’s position. Dennett outlines the process in four steps:

  1. Attempt to re-express your target's position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: "Thanks, I wish I'd thought of putting it that way."
  2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Here we have a strategy that pays dividends, if undertaken in the right spirit. By showing that we understand an opponent’s positions “as well as they do,” writes Dennett, and that we can participate in a shared ethos by finding points of agreement, we have earned the respect of a “receptive audience.” Alienating people will end an argument before it even begins, when they turn their backs and walk away rather than subject themselves to obtuseness and abuse.

Additionally, making every effort to understand an opposing position will only help us better consider and present our own case, if it doesn’t succeed in changing our minds (though that danger is always there). These are remedies for better social cohesion and less shouty polarization, for deploying "the artillery of our righteousness from behind the comfortable shield of the keyboard,” as Maria Popova writes at Brain Pickings, “which is really a menace of reacting rather than responding.”

Yelling, or typing, into the void, rather than engaging in substantive, respectful discussion is also a terrible waste of our time—a distraction from much worthier pursuits. We can and should, argues Dennett, Rapoport, and philosophers over the centuries, seek out positions we disagree with. In seeking out and trying to understand their best possible versions, we stand to gain new knowledge and widen our appreciation.

As Dennett puts it, “when you want to criticize a field, a genre, a discipline, an art form… don’t waste your time and ours hooting at the crap! Go after the good stuff or leave it alone.” In “going after the good stuff,” we might find that it’s better, or at least different, than we thought, and that we're wiser for having taken the time to learn it, even if only to point out why we think it mostly wrong.

via Brain Pickings/Boing Boing

Related Content:

Daniel Dennett Presents Seven Tools For Critical Thinking

Oxford’s Free Course Critical Reasoning For Beginners Will Teach You to Think Like a Philosopher

Monty Python’s “Argument Clinic” Sketch Reenacted by Two Vintage Voice Synthesizers (One Is Stephen Hawking’s Voice)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky Debate Human Nature & Power on Dutch TV (1971)

Two academic stars and heroes of anti-authoritarian leftist political thought sit down to debate human nature—nowadays such events occur more rarely than they did in the 60s and 70s, when the counterculture and anti-war movements made both Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky famous. Now, when two thinkers of such caliber sit down together, their conversation is immediately distilled into tweeted commentary, sometimes illustrated with gifs and video clips. We get the gist and move on to the next link.

In 1971, when Foucault and Chomsky joined host Fons Elders on Dutch TV, those viewers who tuned in would have to follow the conversation for themselves—for the most part—though it aired in a partly abridged version with commentary from a Professor L.W. Nauta. “Chomsky is at the height of his linguistic-scientific mode,” notes New Inquiry, where “Foucault performs a genealogy of scientific truth itself.”




After an introduction in Dutch by Dr. Nauta, Elders welcomes his guests onstage in English as “tonight’s debaters,” two “mountain diggers, working at the opposite sides of the same mountains, with different tools, without knowing even if they are working in each other’s direction.” It’s a characterization that amuses both Chomsky and Foucault, who aren’t discovering each other’s differences so much as enacting them for the studio audience of “early-70s Dutch intelligentsia.”

The two do find some common ground, in Foucault’s critique of the dominant history of science, for example. Where they differ, they seem to be speaking different languages, and they are also literally speaking different languages. Chomsky begins in English, Foucault responds in English with apologies for his lack of fluency, then switches to French. Those of us who aren’t fluent in both languages will have to rely on the translation, as many of us do when reading Foucault as well, a situation that should give us pause before we draw conclusions about what we think he’s saying.

Still, those inclined to reject Foucault as a rejector of science should pay closer attention to him, even in translation (into English, Portuguese, and Japanese subtitles in the video above). He does not reject the notion of scientific fact, but rather, as Wittgenstein had decades earlier, points out that much of what we take as conceptual reality is no more than vague, meaningless abstraction, “peripheral” words and phrases that do “not all have the same degree of elaboration” as more precise scientific terms.

Fuzzy ideas, for example, like "human nature... do not play an ‘organizing’ role within science.” Neither “instruments of analysis” nor “descriptive either,” they “simply serve to point out some problems, or rather to point out certain fields in need of study.” They are signposts for the unknown, a “scientific shopping list,” as Professor Nauta puts it when he breaks in to helpfully explain to viewers at home what he thinks Foucault means. Nauta’s interventions are drier than the main action—apparently no one thought in 1971 to sensationalize the event.

Well, almost no one thought to sensationalize the event. Anarchist host Elders “wanted to jazz things up a bit,” writes Eugene Wolters at Critical Theory. “Aside from offering Foucault hashish for part of his payment, Elder tried repeatedly to get Foucault to wear a bright red wig.” According to the James Miller in The Passion of Michel Foucault, Elders “kept poking Foucault under the table, pointing to the red wig on his lap, and whispering, ‘put it on, put it on.”

Chomsky found the exchange less than amusing, later calling Foucault “totally amoral” and saying that he “wildly exaggerates.” These minor spectacles aside, the Chomsky-Foucault debate is less epic showdown and more two mostly parallel, only occasionally intersecting, discourses on “a wide range of topics, from science, history, and behaviorism to creativity, freedom, and the struggle for justice in the realm of politics.” If some of that discussion seems overly obscure at times, just imagine Foucault in a bright red wig, and later enjoying what he and his friends called “Chomsky hash.”

The text of their debate has been published. Read The Chomsky-Foucault Debate: On Human Nature.

Related Content:

Hear Michel Foucault’s Lecture “The Culture of the Self,” Presented in English at UC Berkeley (1983)

Michel Foucault Offers a Clear, Compelling Introduction to His Philosophical Project (1966)

A Brief Animated Introduction to Noam Chomsky’s Linguistic Theory, Narrated by The X-Files‘ Gillian Anderson

Noam Chomsky Makes His First Power Point Presentation

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

More in this category... »
Quantcast