25 10 2010

Missing the universe within

I have to confess that I wanted to like this movie, and to a certain extent, I did. AG thought it lacked a coherent narrative structure, but as far as I was concerned, it was pretty watchable. The sets were fascinating, but not always authentic (people have complained that the way the Roman soldiers were dressed was more appropriate for soldiers a few centuries before). The most staunch criticism is the liberties it took with history: Rachel Weisz, while easy on the eyes, would not have been the same age as Hypatia when she died at the age of 65. There was probably no library at the Serapion when it was levelled to the ground in the fourth century. Some critics have taken issue with this, and for some these inaccuracies seem to be the main thrust of their criticism. That, and the fact that the Christians of the time were portrayed as the swarthy Taliban avant la lettre, running through the streets with clubs shouting, “God is one”.

But I don’t expect to get my history from the movies, and one should be used to such cinematic liberties being taken without any reference to the actual texts. I am reminded a bit of my one and only unpleasant screening of The Passion of the Christ, where I was more appalled by the revisions that Gibson made to the Gospel than with all the blood and gore. (Hearing Romans speaking Latin in the eastern side of the Empire with Italian pronunciation also didn’t help matters). The whole death scene was abbreviated and made up, but I can go into detail on that one another time. The facts of the Hypatia story are that we don’t know if any library existed in Alexandria by that point, and it was not mentioned in the existing historical accounts of the destruction of the Serapion. We also do not know why exactly Hypatia was brutally lynched by a Christian mob. We don’t know what questions Hypatia worked on other than the fact that she was a mathematician just like her father. In other words, there are a lot of things about her tragic story that we simply do not know. While this film may have taken too many liberties with the historical facts, in the modern film maker’s mind, the fact that we know so little means that a lot of things are up for grabs.

In general, the script was faithful to the skeleton of a story that we do have. While the monks were portrayed in an unflattering light, and there was some sort of strange racism going on in the casting, the pagans and the Jews were portrayed as not being much better. Indeed, Alexandrian politics was portrayed as attempts to control mobs in the street, and no mob here was portrayed in an especially flattering light. Indeed, the Christians were even shown as being good to the poor, and in one scene in a church the Beatitudes were being read to an enthralled crowd. Maybe the portrayals were a bit slanted, but all of the facts were there. The Christians did level the Serapion to the ground. They helped expel all the Jews from Alexandria. And a Christian mob did lynch Hypatia and hack her body to pieces. To want to absolve ourselves by saying that it was a dog-eat-dog world back then misses the point. I have learned many things from my complex relationship with the Christian message, but the need for self-justification was not one of them. Being the victors in that instance, we should at least try to be more magnanimous, especially seeing as we are being put in the same situation as the pagans of old.

All that being said, this movie was much more in need of a philosophy adviser than a historical one. The central premise of the film is that Hypatia was a secular scientist before secular science existed. She is obsessed with the problem of how the planets orbit the sun, and by the end of the film is on the verge of discovering that the planet revolve around the sun in an ellipse rather than a circle. She is also portrayed as being a near-atheist. When asked whether she believes in God, she says that she believed in philosophy. For me, these scenes were worse abuses of artistic license than anything else in the film. What we do know is that she was a follower of hometown hero, Plotinus. Plotinus was by no means a devout pagan. When asked once if he wanted to go to the temple to see the gods, he retorted that the gods needed to come to see him instead. Not exactly a pious thing to say by any measure.

Plotinian philosophy is not the same as the rationalist sloganeering of the New Atheists. And Hypatia, if she was indeed a successor to Plotinus, would have run from matter and observation and not towards it. The only way to understand the famous episode of her showing her menstral blood to a suitor is through the prism of Porphyry’s famous line concerning his master: “Plotinus was ashamed to be seen in a body”. If you want a better vision of what Hypatia would have been like in a scholarly sense, it would be best to envision a Hindu sadhu rather than a modern scientist. Mathematics was a philosopher’s discipline because it was considered to be the borderline between vulgar, material knowledge and the realm of the spirit. Unless Hypatia was a dogmatic Aristotelian, she could not have cared less about how the planets circled the sun. There was no knowledge for knowledge’s sake back then for a philosopher. Knowledge only existed to go beyond knowledge. The material world was only a faint icon of the transcendent, spiritual one.

Thus, one could say that Agora is a thoroughly (post) Christian movie. It cannot imagine a world where there is any opposition to Christianity other than secularism, which in itself is a product of post-Enlightenment Christian discourse. Paganism in and of itself is noticeably absent as an actual system of belief. The only apologia of the pagans is that they were defending the faith that they had always had. While I realize that going much further than that may not be possible in a film, there was a strange disconnect between the rationalist Hypatia and those who would defend the old pagan cult. I have no real basis to believe this, but I think Hypatia would have been more covetous of seeking a life of contemplation in virtue than trying to discover Keplerian ellipses. The real tragedy of the film to me had nothing to do with it being an anti-Christian hit piece; it had more to do with being unconscious anti-philosophical propaganda. In my opinion, Hypatia would have been more fascinated by the universe within, rather than the universe outside, which is merely its dim reflection.



7 responses

8 09 2014
tv music

I was curious if you ever considered changing the layout of your
site? Its very well written; I love what youve got to say.
But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better.
Youve got an awful lot of text for only having one or two pictures.

Maybe you could space it out better?

25 10 2010
Abba Poemen the Ubermensch

@Singular Observer: great link. Thank you!

25 10 2010

A very thoughtful review. I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz’ performance as Hypatia, but totally agree that the way Amenabar portrayed her is the major flaw in the film. Yes, he distorted some historical details, but that’s what artists do. It was his portrayal of Hypatia as a secular scientist that was his biggest error. For people who want to know more about the historical Hypatia, I highly recommend a very readable biography Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska (Harvard University Press, 1995). I also have a series of posts on the historical events and characters in the film at my blog – not a movie review, just a “reel vs. real” discussion.

25 10 2010
Henry Karlson

I also notice whoever wrote on the IMDB got Synesius wrong too. It’s been a few years since I read the letters (years ago, when I had a geocities account, I typed up all of Synesius’ letters and put them online, which gave my website a great deal of traffic), but what I remember of them: Hypatia was not ignoring Synesius. They read as if we got one side of the conversation, not that he was writing without response. Just because we do not have her letters in return does not mean she ended contact. From what I can tell, until he died, they didn’t.

25 10 2010
Henry Karlson

I’ve not seen it, but I have heard of it. I have done considerable study/work in the area, doing a study on Theophilus of Alexandria and his relationship to Hellenistic thought. The conclusion I came up with is that Theophilus was concerned mostly with the sensibilities of the laity, and so if Origenist monks hurt it, then he reacted, otherwise he was himself leniant as can be seen in his relationship with Synesius of Cyrene.

And it is in the letters of Synesius, outside of the revisions Hypatia did to her father’s work, which I believe gives us a good indication of who she was. Clearly she was no atheist or anything of the kind. Mathematics would also always contain the Pythagorean element to it, which itself would never lead itself to atheism.

25 10 2010
Sam Urfer

The thing that turns me off is the “Eurabia” thing that seems to be going on the trailer (St. Cyril looking like Bin Laden, etc.).

25 10 2010
The Singular Observer


You might enjoy Michael Flynn’s analysis of the whole thing:

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