Letter to Hypatia of Alexandria

Dear Hypatia,

I first got to know you in 1977, on page 365 of Bertrand Russell’s 789 page tome, ‘A History of Western Civilization’. You rated one paragraph.

There are very few women in that three thousand years of history, drawn from the annals of men. But there you were, the world’s greatest mind on mathematics, astronomy and philosophy in 400 AD.

The last sentence of Russell’s paragraph is etched in my brain. After you were killed by Christian terrorists, he observed drily that, ‘Alexandria was no longer troubled by philosophers’.

When I read about you in 1977, the campaign to save Tasmania’s Franklin River from a brace of dam-building engineers was getting underway. I was in the thick of it, as the odds in favour of the destruction of the Franklin River wilderness grew.

The Tasmanian Governor joined the Premier in declaring that it was a crime against mankind to allow the Franklin’s waters to run unharnessed to the sea.

By 1982, both the Labor and the Liberal parties were pro-dam, both houses of the Tasmanian parliament were pro-dam, all three Tasmanian newspapers were pro-dam, big business and the Chamber of Commerce were, of course, pro-dam. Australia’s High Court threw out our first challenge. The Prime Minister told us to take our pleas back to Tasmania, as the dam was a state government matter. We were trounced in the state elections and Premier Gray sent the bulldozers rumbling into the pristine Franklin Valley, dismissing the wild river as a ‘brown, leech-ridden ditch’. But through all of this, in my beleaguered mind, your resolution to stand for the truth as you saw it, was aflame.

When the clouds menacing Alexandria’s last days as a great city of learning gathered, you stood firm against hypocrisy and religious mythology – including the concocted myths and inventions about the good, non-magical, man Jesus – and you continued to espouse your philosophy to the crowds of Alexandrians who came to hear your logic.

But over at the cathedral Bishop Cyril, having evicted the Jews from Alexandria, had you firmly in his sights. You were labelled a witch and a heretic. You were dragged through the streets to the temple where Cyril’s men in black robes stripped you and cut up your body with the razored ends of broken tiles and oyster shells.

After your murder the Pope made Cyril a saint.

As a Green philosopher and activist, people have asked me over the years, “how do you put up with the nastiness, the threats and insults?” My answer is always, “I read history.” Whenever the going’s tough – like being menaced in Salamanca Place late at night by a man with an iron bar, like being hunted by a carload of men with dogs, guns and gelignite in the Picton Forests, like reading an editorial about the Greens in ‘The Australian’ – I think of the Suffragettes, or those who fought to abolish slavery or, quite simply, Hypatia, of you.

In reality, I know this letter won’t ever be read by you. It is a paeon to your optimism, intelligence and defiance – characteristics which have been there in all those human beings who have stood firm against the power-brokers in hopeless times in order to make the world a better place.

But letters like this allow for dreams. This letter is my way of thanking you, Hypatia, for encouraging me, in much easier circumstances than yours, fifteen centuries later in a world of greed, needless destruction and short-sightedness, to stand strong for the logic of the Greens philosophy of peace, democracy, social justice and protecting the Earth’s biosphere upon which all life, and all of us, depend.

Thank you for helping me stand strong for the Franklin River, even when its cause seemed utterly hopeless.

The Bob Brown Foundation

The Bob Brown Foundation

It has been said, Hypatia, that I saved the Franklin River. That’s not true. The rescue depended upon the locals who loved the river, the thousands of people risking arrest in the blockade against the bulldozers in those rainforests in 1982 and the even greater number of Australians who voted to elect the Hawke government and save that sacred river in 1983.

Three decades later, in 2012, American experts have declared the Franklin River the world’s best white water rafting adventure, ahead of rivers in Tibet, Peru and Chile.

In so far as I did play a part in saving this global treasure, and if pushed to declare who most inspired me and sustained me through the Franklin River’s darkest days, I’d name you, Hypatia of Alexandria. It may sound a little absurd, but it’s true: because of you, Hypatia, the Franklin runs free to the sea.

Yours in admiration,

Bob Brown

This is a letter written and read by Bob for the Men of Letters event, held in Melbourne on 28th October 2012.  It appeared originally on the Bob Brown Foundation website.


2 thoughts on “Letter to Hypatia of Alexandria

  1. Bob Brown is one of the greatest parliamentary representative the citizens of Australia have ever elected. The efforts to save the Franklin River were truly heroic and will stand for eternity as testament to what can be achieved by working together to achieve something for the greater good. I heard Bob speak live once and I will never forget it. He is an inspiring human being.

  2. As much as I admire Bob Brown, the version of the story of Hypatia he got from Russell is a Nineteenth Century myth, based on false assumptions and leading to a false conclusion. Bob found this quote from Russell significant:

    “Alexandria was no longer troubled by philosophers”.

    That makes for a cute ending to a neat moral fable, but as history it’s garbage. Far from being “untroubled by philosophers” after Hypatia’s murder, Alexandria remained a centre of learning until at least the Muslim conquest. Renowned philosophers who worked in the following centuries included Hierocles, Asclepius of Tralles, Olympiodorus the Younger, Ammonius Hermiae and Hermias. Nor was Hypatia the last pagan philosopher, as several of those last mentioned were pagans. She wasn’t even the last female pagan – Aedisia of Alexandria was, like Hypatia, a woman, a pagan and a renowned and admired (by Christians) neo-Platonist.

    The whole idea that Hypatia was killed because she was a philosopher or because she was a woman are also myths, which I debunk in detail here:

    As I said, I admire Bob Brown and Bertrand Russell is a hero of mine as well. But Russell was a man of his age and his history has some rather dusty biases. As nice as the post-Enlightenment myth of Hypatia as a martyr to learning and intellectual freedom may seem, it’s nonsense. She simply ran afoul of the notorious civic politics of one the Empire’s most volatile cities. Her learning and her gender had nothing to do with it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *